11 Aug 2016

Bus Spotting – or why buses are important


The proud municipal livery of the former Birmingham City Transport

Train spotting is now officially cool. Who could resist Tim Dunn’s enthusiasm for that magnificent Black Five steaming alongside a Highland loch as seen in the strangely addictive ‘Trainspotting Live’. It is true that many of the anoraks have yet to catch up with Tim’s snappy dress sense and it is difficult to really get excited about a 40 year old IC125 belching out diesel as it judders you down to London. But I was a train spotter when I was about 11 or 12 and you never forget the magic.


The heritage Routemaster, a design classic

Bus spotters however are seriously unfashionable. There are surprisingly large numbers of the species about and whole sections of bookshops are given over to their esoteric picture books. I share the nostalgia for the old municipal liveries like Glasgow’s jazzy olive and orange or Hull's deep blue with futuristic white flashes. They gave specific identities to cities, and companies such as Midland Red or Crosville defined provincial fiefdoms unknown in earlier historical geography. I hate the bland uniformity of the big companies like Stagecoach and First with their shit liveries, the same everywhere in the country, from Aberdeen to Cornwall. But I have never been much interested in the vehicles per se. I am unmoved by a heritage Routemaster even if Nairn loved them although I seeth with anger at the sight of a Heatherwick ‘Roastmaster’, which perfectly captures Boris Johnson’s vainglorious, flash vacuity. What I am interested in is bus systems and their part in urban design and development.


Boris Johnson's hubris and Heatherwick's Roastmaster

Buses lack the dynamic excitement and raw, sexy, power of trains but they are important. For a start they carry many more passengers than trains. But trains are mostly used by the affluent, and particularly men, so naturally get much more political attention and a lot more public subsidy. Buses are predominantly used by women, poorer people and the old. So providing good bus services should be an important element of policies to improve social inclusion and equality. Yes – well there’s the problem – we haven’t got any. Attitudes to buses are a classic example of class prejudice, as captured in Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement that ‘for a man to be seen on a bus after the age of 20 is a sign of failure’.


Glasgow's public transport policy still stuck in the Thatcher era

Of course this is absurd, especially as car use by young men is far less common in cities today than it was 30 years ago. Buses are used by a wide cross section of society in big cities like London, Edinburgh and many other places, especially those like Oxford and Nottingham with good networks and large student populations. Buses can and should provide the basis of high quality public transport, complementing metro and tram systems in larger cities. This is a fundamental of sustainable urban planning.


New housing at Upton, Northampton - all about the car

But unfortunately there is a huge disconnect between town planning and public transport planning and of course between public transport planning and privatized-bus-world. Town planning is essentially about physical development so planners like new trophy infrastructure like trams, new rail stations or possibly guided bus, all of which are good but rarely deliverable. In reality, for nearly all new developments, public transport is going to equal bus. Local plan vision statements always include fine words about the importance of public transport and transport consultants write reams of self serving bollocks in Design and Access statements supporting crap planning applications. The  promised improvements however are usually tokenistic. What is really needed is to design estates with road layouts that allow for simple bus routes at high frequencies and for good pedestrian access to bus stops. Most volume builders’ estate layouts are the obverse of this with winding distributor roads and cul-de-sacs, hopeless for buses to serve effectively. There are hardly any good examples of new developments designed around good public transport, at least outside London. Even urban design exemplars like Upton in Northampton are almost entirely car centric. And good public transport also requires improving bus systems as a whole, not just the bit within the estate. This is partly about bus lanes and bus priorities but essentially about more intangible things like ticketing, marketing and information, attractive frequencies and accessible buses. Planners mostly don’t get this.


Heroic London Transport - East Finchley, image courtesy Owen Hatherley


Arnos Grove, image courtesy Owen Hatherley

Buses used to be important to cities. In the early 1900s nearly all sizeable towns enterprisingly invested in electric trams. From the 1920s to the 1950s municipal buses replaced trams and their networks expanded into the inter- and post-war suburbs. Small rural and inter-urban bus companies were mostly consolidated into big groups and nationalized after the war. There was a period of chaotic competition to municipal trams from ‘cowboy’ bus companies but in 1930 the government regulated bus services. In 1933 a Conservative government set up London Transport which integrated tubes, trams and buses in a single public transport system and this became a model for the world.


Heroic London Transport - Stockwell Garage, courtesy socarra 

However 50 years later a dogmatic Tory government swept away bus regulation. Some ideologues had been to Jakarta and saw there a classic free market competition paradigm in the melée of minibuses, vans, bajajs and motorcycles all vying for passengers on the congested and polluted city streets. The Thatcher government saw this as the ideal way forward for public transport in Britain and particularly a way of slashing public spending on buses. Buses had been profitable in Britain but by the 70s, with increasing car ownership and congestion, patronage was going down and subsidies going up. Of course this was the case in all developed countries including American cities where public transport is heavily subsidized. Britain’s deregulation of bus services was unique and typically ideological and reckless.


London: an integrated, comprehensive and coherent bus service

Of course if the loony theory really held good then the greatest benefits would have accrued to London but Mrs Thatcher was too canny to experiment on the capital where free market chaos would inconvenience our rulers and the establishment. So regulation and integration of services and ticketing was retained for London Transport. That is why the plight and poverty of public transport in provincial cities is just not understood by the metropolitan-dominated political and intellectual elites.


Ubiquitous First (Worst) bus liveries, here in Bradford

The Thatcher government quickly sold off the publically owned National Bus Company subsidiaries, along with those of the Public Transport Authorities, set up in the bigger conurbations after 1968 on London Transport lines. Often sold as management buyouts at knock down prices, bus companies were quickly consolidated into three big groups – Stagecoach, Arriva and First (Private Eye’s Worstbus) that dominate the industry today.


Such a waste: the closed Northampton Corporation Transport Offices

The effects of deregulation have been catastrophic. The number of bus passengers has declined by 50% since 1985 across the big conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, West and South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. Over the same period  bus passengers on London Transport have doubled. The reason is obvious - Transport for London specifies the routes, service levels and fares and the system is fully integrated and adequately funded. The differing performance however does partly reflect the increasing economic dominance of London over the last 30 years and also the car centric policies of many of the big cities with fast motorway access and cheap parking lure drivers away from public transport. An ironic example is the huge open car park opposite Centro’s HQ in central Birmingham where you can park all day for £4.


A bus station with design effort – Southampton University

In the Shires the decline in bus usage began in the 50s with the advent of mass car ownership, so that the networks were already pretty threadbare and the decline in patronage since 1985 has been less dramatic. Some medium sized cities like Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford and Brighton have managed to buck the trend of bus decline through strong planning policies favouring buses. And, importantly, Edinburgh and Nottingham still own their own bus companies.


Stagecoach to Lincoln's Ermine Estate; no local identity, no evening buses either

The huge problem of deregulation, competition and privatization is the loss of integrated planning, comprehensive route networks and ticketing. The split between public transport planning, which is done by transport authorities, and the operations of the commercial bus service providers resembles the internal market in the NHS. Under arcane competition rules bus companies can only operate ‘commercial’ routes which are profitable and they should not cross-subsidize less profitable services, such as to local shops, hospitals, schools or work places off the main bus routes. Transport authorities must fill in these socially necessary routes with tendered services. Since councils are strapped for revenue they usually specify a very infrequent and basic service and tenders are mostly given to low cost, low quality small operators. So the tendered services are excluded from the publicity and ticketing of the main companies, greatly reducing their usefulness.


A sad joke: Weston Favell, Northampton

The fragmentation of services is so chronic that often the privatized companies don’t even run less profitable evening or Sunday journeys on their main routes. Some cities like Bristol pay them to run later buses to get you home whilst Greater Manchester tenders separate evening services, usually from different companies which won’t accept your return ticket. First provides even a big city like Leicester with a pitiful skeleton evening service whilst in Swansea, amazingly, there are no buses at all on Sunday evenings.


Swansea Bus Station is good but you'll have a long wait on a Sunday night

Deregulation and selling off publically owned bus companies resulted in huge changes in the bus industry, but did not usher in the perfect world of competition that the free marketeers had anticipated. New small competitors did enter the market but, rather than establishing new routes and innovative services, they usually attempted to cherry pick the most profitable routes of the big companies. Often using old, polluting vehicles and employing part time drivers on low wages they could undercut the established companies, but the big boys fought back, becoming more ‘efficient’ by cutting out marginal services to focus on the main ones and forcing down drivers’ wages and conditions. Their main weapon was to use their bigger resources and financial muscle to flood routes with buses, far more than patronage could possibly sustain, and hence to drive out the interlopers. Usually after a period of turbulence the big companies reestablished effective local monopolies and the small companies eked out a business by taking over services abandoned by the big boys, together with low quality tendered and school contracts.


World class Manchester University - third world bus service

The big companies have been successful in some places like Cambridge which had very poor bus services before. By investing in new buses and introducing new simplified high frequency networks with good marketing and publicity they have managed to grow the market. And there are some very successful and innovative companies, like Brighton and Hove, which have extremely high patronage and satisfaction rates. But in the big Northern cities, where integrated public transport should be providing the basis for urban planning and sustainable development, bus services have been decimated (in the figurative sense – the numerical decline is much, much worse). Here competition between the big companies as well as with many smaller competitors was fiercer and longer lasting. Dirty, empty buses clogging the streets was especially a problem, most spectacularly in Manchester where the city centre was brought to a standstill by bus wars during a Conservative party conference. The previously integrated Greater Manchester network is now fragmented with First dominant in the north, Stagecoach in the south and 30 or so other smaller operators all vying for passengers. There is a bewildering array of tickets, only one of which is valid on all buses, trains and the trams. You can see why getting a London-style franchise system is high on Manchester’s Northern Powerhouse wish list. Rural areas too have seen a catastrophic decline in their bus services. And since they rely so heavily on Council tendered services, rural communities are particularly at risk from austerity spending cuts.


Tom Eckersley's Poster for the National Bus Company

The deregulation and privatization of buses was of course part of a much broader assault on public control of local services, and of government centralization. The impoverishment of local democracy, the loss of local accountability, initiative and public enterprise was just the norm. The Labour government of 1997 could hardly conceal its lack of interest but pressure from the cities did result in a new Transport Act in 2000. This sought to deal with the worst excesses of deregulation and privatization through ‘Partnership Working’, but without fundamentally changing anything. The problem was that, whereas councils sought real improvements and control over rocketing fares, the bus companies wanted to maintain their near total control and large profits. And the bus companies held all the cards. So, for example, transport authorities now had the power to require joint ticketing between operators, but they could not specify the fare levels. So bus companies simply sabotaged joint ticketing by insisting that joint tickets cost more than their own tickets.

A further Act in 2008 for the first time opened up the possibility of Councils franchising buses London-Transport-style, but this had to be a last resort where ‘partnership’ could be demonstrated to have failed. The process requires all sorts of complicated ‘tests’ to make it difficult to succeed and specifically transport authorities would have to prove that the potential disbenefits to the bus companies were outweighed by benefits to the public. In other words this was writing a blank cheque for the big bus companies to claim for loss of profits if franchising was introduced. It was clearly intended to make re-regulation a dead letter.


Nexus at least trying to make a difference; Gateshead Bus Station

Despite this, Nexus, the combined transport authorities of Tyne and Wear, pursued the case for regulation. This political commitment was heavily influenced by the fact that the big bus companies were making huge profits of 18-20% on what are effectively monopolies. Clearly competition was not working. In the northern conurbations bus fares had gone up 59% since 1995, compared with 36% in regulated London. This effectively represents a regressive tax on the poorest in society who depend on buses. Also bus companies are raking in public subsidies through fuel rebates, public contracts and concessionary fare payments. Nexus argued that a franchised network would be cheaper and fares lower. But the bus companies refused to provide the financial information required for a detailed business case so a government Tribunal turned down the Nexus bid in 2015. Embarrassingly this decision came only a few months after Osborne had signed the DevoManc deal which included his commitment to introducing bus franchising in Greater Manchester. The DfT was told to change the rules, so there is now no longer a requirement to compensate bus companies for lost profits. However the route to effective local control over bus services and fares is still fraught with huge difficulty and endless delay.


Hull's bus station is part of grand Paragon Station

It is no coincidence that probably the most successful city bus networks in Britain are municipally owned. Although Mrs Thatcher sold off the PTA bus operations, non-metropolitan authorities were allowed to retain their buses. Most councils, including big places like Leicester, Hull and Southampton subsequently sold their bus companies and no doubt regret it today. But there are still a dozen municipal bus operators, the largest being in Edinburgh (Lothian Buses), Nottingham, Cardiff and Reading. Counter-intuitively, they have the advantage of not being part of a bureaucratic inter-council ‘Combined Authority’ but rather have a strong political relationship with a unitary city. Hence they are much more able to take a corporate approach to wider transportation, planning and economic development strategies. Their boards still have a public sector ethos and as far as possible try to deliver a comprehensive service for their citizens, not just a profitable one. However they have to be run commercially as ‘arms length’ companies. This is a problem when it comes to plans for integration and joint ticketing since they act in the company interest, seeking primarily to protect market share and profits, rather than the passengers’ interest or the wider public interest.


Lothian Buses, Edinburgh and the magnificent Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, with nearly 750 buses, is by far the biggest municipal. It runs an extremely comprehensive network of routes serving all parts of what is a polycentric city, with big business parks, shopping centres, hospitals and universities on the periphery. Lothian, having successfully beaten off Worstbus in the face of aggressive and protracted ‘bus wars’, has now extended the network into adjacent Midlothian and East Lothian towns. It runs an impressive network of night buses and Edinburgh is the only city in the UK where buses run every day, even on Christmas Day – suck that London. Real time information is provided at most stops and Lothian has a very good phone app. The contrast between the bus service in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, where it is provided by First and a multitude of small operators, is very striking, although Glasgow does of course have a large suburban train network and its famous circular Subway.


New buses and new tram kit on Princes Street

Edinburgh’s public transport strategy has been focused on building a new tram - highly contentious as it was years late and horribly over budget, although now is exceeding its patronage forecasts. The tram is a political football and hated by the Edinburgh bourgeoisie. The general consensus is that it wasn’t needed because Edinburgh’s buses are so good. Well yes – up to a point. But the Edinburgh bus system does have significant weaknesses. Firstly the City Council is unwilling to give buses and pedestrians the priority they deserve. Edinburgh, like London, is a capital city where the establishment and elites are feted and appeased, so cars and taxis are allowed to dominate. Yes there are bus lanes and some bus-only streets, but congestion makes bus journeys slow and unreliable, most especially in the Festival. Lothian’s smartcard system is pretty clunky too and because you can buy your ticket from the driver, who spends a lot of time answering queries as bus stop information is very poor, buses take ages to load. So bus journeys can be very time-consuming and frustrating. There are other frustrations too. For example Edinburgh City Council tenders some socially necessary routes, like the number 13 bus which serves the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but as this is not run by Lothian Buses you cannot use your day ticket or smartcard, which is pretty silly.


Nottingham City Transport: amongst the best public transport services outside of London


The largest fleet of electric buses in Europe


It's all connected: trams, trains, buses and cycle paths

Nottingham is an example of a more holistic transport and development strategy. In addition to running the municipally owned Nottingham City Transport (NCT), Nottingham has developed a tram network (NET), recently extended with two new lines. This is partly funded by a Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), the only one in the country. Despite the opposition of much of the business community and the instinctive hostility of the Tory government, the introduction of the WPL was approved because it had gone through all the steps required by Cameron's short-lived Localism agenda, so ministers were hoist by their own petard. The WPL and other innovative funding mechanisms also pay for the Link bus network which complements the commercial network of NCT, serving local communities, workplaces, hospitals and colleges. And the really impressive thing is that these routes are all operated by electric minibuses – the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe. By January 2017 electric single deckers will take over the P&R services too.


So why is Nottingham City Transport competing with the tram? 

Nottingham undoubtedly has one of the best public transport services outside London but deregulation and competition law still cast dark shadows. They conspire against integrated networks and ticketing and the best, most convenient service for passengers. The most absurd outcome is that the City, having procured and significantly underwritten the NET tram system, finds its own bus company NCT is directly competing with the new tram. The NET tram route does not even appear on the NCT map, which is beyond ridiculous.


The bus wars are still ongoing. This is not Yourbus, it is privately owned

Then there are still, periodically, bus wars. At present ‘Yourbus’ (sic) runs a number of routes that simply duplicate pre-existing bus services, so there are far more buses than passenger demand. The established companies take a defensive and preemptive approach to such competition, often stuffing timetables with unnecessary buses to keep rivals off stops. The upshot is that city centre streets are often choking with too many buses, which is self defeating as it makes services slow, inefficient and expensive and so less attractive to passengers.


At last! An Oyster Card outside London, but could be better

But Nottingham is the only city to have a travel card like London’s Oyster card – one that can be used on all buses and trams and which has a daily cap on fares. Getting the agreement of the operators to the Nottingham Oyster (inevitably called the Robin Hood card) is a triumph. But it is still something of a compromise and undermined by lack of co-operation from the bus companies. Although the main operators NCT and Trent Barton are innovative, run high quality services with new accessible buses, frequently win awards and don’t go in for bus wars, they still compete. NCT runs the great majority of the buses in the City and immediate suburbs, whilst Trent Barton provide services to adjoining towns and commuter villages. So they compete along the main roads into the city where Trent Barton can be the more frequent service. Both companies offer their own tickets and smartcards and aggressively promote these exclusive tickets rather than the integrated Robin Hood card, which they insist must have a more expensive daily cap if more than one bus company is used. So, for example, interchange with the NET tram is penalized. And because, unlike TfL, the City does not control the on-bus ticket systems there are constraints on how effectively the Robin Hood card can operate. You can’t for example top up on-line, although there will soon be a mobile phone top up.


Realtime display ✓ , Timetables & Maps ✓ , Maintained Shelter ✓

Although the City provides comprehensive information about the bus network at stops, including good real time information, this is fighting against the different publicity of the bus companies. Each company has separate web sites, timetable leaflets, maps and mobile phone apps. The separate apps only show real time information for the single operator, so you frequently have to consult two apps to check the next bus from your stop.


All Nottingham City Transport services, but why the different colours?


This bus is green but not Green Line. Confused? I'm not surprised

And strangely a preoccupation with branding makes the bus network even more complicated and difficult to understand. Trent Barton, confusingly, give their routes names rather than numbers, like Mainline or Pronto and each has its own branding and distinctive livery. NCT buses have numbers but are also colour branded by the main roads they serve, so those going to West Bridgford, where I live, are ‘Green Line’ and painted green. But their competitor ‘Mainline’ also has a green livery. The punters are not surprisingly confused to be told they can’t use their tickets on different green buses serving the same stops. You even get the same number bus on similar routes but run by different companies with non- interchangeable tickets, as Owen Hatherley was bemused and angry to find in Leicester.


A unified visual communication system was axiomatic

This focus on the individual route not the network and over-busy branding is of course completely at odds with the philosophy which made London Transport the model for the world. Holden and Beck deliberately used a standardized suite of high quality designs for infrastructure, liveries, typefaces, publicity – all the elements of the public transport system – in order to create the image of a comprehensive, unified whole. Even when London buses were franchised, so actually operated by private companies, they were forced to retain the famous red livery and logo. In Nottingham and elsewhere the cacophony of branding, marketing and different tickets creates the opposite – a fractured system. A regulated, franchised bus system would do away with such nonsense and allow the City to concentrate on developing its public transport strategy more effectively and enable better forward planning to increase public transport use and promote sustainability.


Fun with the system: Abram Games's Poster for London Transport

But at a time when this country appears to have pressed the self destruct button it may seem quaint to suggest that providing high quality, integrated and efficient public transport for cities should be a priority. It is even sadder that we may come to see Osborne’s city devolution prospectus as a brief ray of sunlight through the thick dark clouds of Whitehall indifference and centralization. With a new government that seems to have no economic or transport ideas whatsoever the future looks very bleak indeed. So it turns out that the bus spotters, with their anoraks, Ian Allen lists, cameras and rallies of old buses are far more realistic and down to earth than me. Alas.

7 comments:

Andreas Schulze Bäing said...

Thanks for this comprehensive overview of the messy British bus systems outside of London. Just a few comments loosely related to your blog:
As an exapt living in the UK I found it most astonishing that one has to juggle with a multitude of tickets and companies simply to get from A to B. Another aspect I found surprising was that many buses only provide one entrance and exit, making boarding and leaving the bus a time consuming process. The same, by the way, applies to many railway stations. Finally, the public transport/bus maps provided in most areas are extremely poorly designed. I particularly think of the examples from Liverpool I know. For an example of a good public transport map showing all modes of transport, have a look at the superb maps in the Ruhrgebiet:
http://www.vrr.de/de/fahrten/busundbahn/staedte/index.html

grant butterworth said...

Great article Adrian. A very long time ago I recall the publication of an all operator public transport map in Nottingham as being a major achievement...

DW said...

Edinburgh LRT bus system is certainly great in terms of coverage and also attractively braneded and liveried buses also offering free wifi. However Adrian is correct that the ticketing and smart card system is unbelievably clunky still promoting buying tickets from the driver meaning that if a group of 20 exchange students gets on at each stop in Princes Street it can take 20 mins to get from one end to another and even without this in busy periods the Prince Street North Bridge Lothian Road Shandwick Place stretch can be a massive bottle neck. Given Edin has a minimal suburban railway network it would be GREAT if these issues could be sorted out in this supposed capital city! The electronic bus info signs are also the poorest design I have ever seen and never fitted into bus shelters add to Edin's terrible street clutter problem. Nonetheless we are still very lucky to have LRT buses and be able to experience the joh of sailing up and down The Mound or Dundas Street atop a double decker!

The tram so far is of minor imapct unless you happen to live / work on the route and the single stop on Princes Street and not that near Waverley Station is a total joke. The tram and infrastructure design is also poor

Chris Matthews said...

Thanks Andreas, yes I had a nice trip to Rhine/Rhur area last year and would like to go back. There are certainly similarities to the Midlands & North in terms of industrial history and urban agglomeration. But like you say, from a British point of view, allot to learn from when it comes public transport and design ethos.

CG said...

The number of bus passengers has declined by 50% since 1985 across the big conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, West and South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear.

This doesn't tell the full story at all because you haven't accounted for modal shift to light rail. Since 1985:
West Midlands - Cross City Line electrified, Midland Metro built
Manchester - complete Metrolink system built
Sheffield - complete Supertram system built
West Yorks - admittedly no light rail, but Bradford lines electrified with new rolling stock
Tyne & Wear - Metro built

Jones the planner said...

Interesting point - do you have the figures for modal shift to light rail and suburban rail? I doubt these will really affect the argument about the impact of bus deregulation or the comparison with London. Indeed if you add in tube/rail investment and passenger growth it will only emphasise the difference between London and big cities. Worth noting that in Nottingham bus patronage actually went up after the tram introduced!

Mark Whiteu said...

Surely there must be a website somewhere that details all the liveries and areas of operation for the former municipal bus companies and the National Bus Company companies?

Then use that resource to re-livery existing fleets pending re-regulation?

After all, as the article points out, a London bus is a RED bus no matter who operates it...

And ditto for trains too