We still want better buses - here's how we get them

If we are serious about building back better after covid there is no better place to start than our buses.

Greater Manchester have gone to consultation again about the reform of our bus services – this is the second time around – over Christmas – that we must unite and fight for a regulated bus system. Last year’s consultation saw over 80% of respondents supporting regulation (when answering a lengthy survey) which means we as residents who use buses would have a proper say over our bus services, instead of being dictated to by monopoly run private bus companies whose only consideration is their bottom line.

In the world of the soundbite, we must take each slogan and see what it really means. To build back better insists we understand what was wrong with before. Any recovery policy should be embedded in eradicating inequality and making the way for an economy and society works fairer. The quickest way to get this done is to sort out our buses.

An affordable and reliable bus service opens up job and training opportunities for those who have unfortunately lost their jobs due to the pandemic – and those who had already been left behind before the pandemic. An integrated transport system moving from one mode to another with little waiting reduces commuting time helping a much needed increase in productivity and in our economy. But it also helps us get to the shops – maybe save the high street, it helps us get to health appointments on time – saving NHS money, it helps kids get to school to catch up on missed time and it helps us visit our loved ones, once we allowed to once more.

There is no one other policy which helps those worse off in society than giving people freedom to travel.

But proper regulated buses will not just benefit those who already rely on our overpriced and dirty buses. It helps us all. If we get a transport system that is fit for the 21st century many car users will find buses a pleasant and efficient way to travel. We could see public transport becoming the norm – as in London. What better way to build back better than reduce congestion, clean up our air and reduce carbon emissions?

If the reaction to Covid-19 has taught us anything it is this - we must be bold in addressing the problems before us. Tinkering with an already failed system of the bus market will not deliver the impact we need. Bus reform could be through a partnership rather than complete regulation and would be quicker, less costly in the short term.  A partnership option with the bus companies is not the right option.

We would find ourselves in constant negotiations with bus companies trying to get concessions to keep routes running, with no power to keep us routes going. We should spend this time and energy talking to the people of Greater Manchester instead, getting the bus routes right and increasing passenger footfall. Partnership deals sound friendly and more collaborative. But in actual fact it embeds the monopoly nature of our bus service when one big company can monopolise the profitable routes driving smaller companies off the road, therefore fixing fares above market value and holding Transport for Greater Manchester to ransom on the smaller routes for subsidy, which the public purse will continue to pay for. If we get a publicly controlled network, profits from busy routes can pay for less profitable but no less necessary routes.  A truly collaborative approach is to plan the network’s routes as an integrated network of joined up buses, trams and trains. We can get a smart ticket that caps spending across all types of transport, use public money for more buses on our streets and hold companies accountable and to higher standards, so our buses have to arrive on time and protect workers.  All of this is possible with public control, but with partnerships we would continue to have bus companies making all the decisions, based on their profits.

But we have already won this argument. 83% of people agreed with me in last year’s consultation. Reaction to corona virus has seen a large drop in bus use and a bigger handout to bus companies of £33.6 million. Despite this, routes are still being cut and frequency of service reduced. If it costs this much to keep our buses going on top of the £86.2 million they receive every year then I think we should demand better. This money should be spent on attracting more passengers not managing decline in our public transport. We want a clean fleet. We want buses that run on time. We want buses that are affordable and we want buses that get us to where we want to go. We still want better, publicly controlled buses.

If you do too, please do fill out the consultation, in as little as 3 minutes, here.

Councillor Lucy Smith is Cabinet Member for Transport and Infrastructure at Bury Council and is a campaigner for Better Buses for Greater Manchester

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