The Need for Flexibility and the Dangers of Demand: The Future of London’s Buses (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this series we looked at the recent history and circumstance that have left London with the bus network it has today. Now we can properly begin to look at how it is argued it might need to change.

The London Assembly Transport Committee decided to investigate the state of London’s bus services as part of their 2013 work programme. Their scoping report sets out the nature of the investigation. The key themes were identifying the most overcrowded routes in London; how TfL plan the bus network to cope with growing demand and how the planning process can be improved; and how forecast demand growth will be catered for given there are no plans for a commensurate expansion in service levels.

The Transport Committee used its June and July meetings to collect the views from stakeholders and the public and then to hear TfL’s response and further comment from other experts.
Session 1 – Stakeholders and the public share their views

The invited guests at this meeting, held on 6 June 2013, include Councillor Derek Levy from the London Borough of Enfield, Stephen Locke and Vincent Stops from London Travelwatch, Faryal Velmi, Director, Transport for All and Peter White, Professor of Public Transport Systems, University of Westminster. There, in an observational capacity from TfL, were Leon Daniels, Managing Director, Surface Transport and John Barry, Head of Service Planning, Surface Transport.

There were also two important submissions to the investigation from London Councils and London Travelwatch.

The meeting started by asking the invited guests for their priority concerns about TfL’s bus services. A wide range of issues were raised in the discussion covering items such as the need for increased bus priority, how the desire to get more disabled people into work may result in the need for more wheelchair spaces on buses at peak times and concerns about the planning process. A perceived lack of transparency in the TfL decision making process was also raised as an issue.

There was a general recognition from the invited guests that London’s bus network is good and of far higher quality than exists elsewhere in the UK. There was also an acceptance that there has been substantial improvement over a number of years. The bus network clearly supports high levels of economic activity in London and facilitates social mobility for all age groups.

London Travelwatch expressed particular concern though at the loss of the Bus Priority unit within TfL and the apparent lack of importance now afforded to bus lanes and other techniques to keep buses moving. They felt that bus priority was something that local councils could provide to help improve the efficiency of the bus network. This would help make the service more attractive to passengers by making it more reliable and speeding up journeys, both factors well recognised as driving increased patronage and revenue. London Travelwatch also felt that bus priority could help lower costs by improving journey times, allowing routes to be run with less resource but with the same service level. This would then free up money for other service improvements.

There was discussion about the busiest parts of the bus network and what factors were driving bus demand. There was a view that the central area was the busiest part of the network but there was also recognition that many suburban centres had significant trip generators (shops, colleges, stations and health facilities). It would thus be wrong to treat the bus network as something solely focused on serving Central London, although that is a significant generator of employment and leisure related trips.

The difficulty of making changes

The discussion then moved on to how demand was changing and several examples were cited of new housing, university expansion and new schools where bus based public transport was not keeping pace with these changes. TfL was deemed to be unresponsive to such changes, with bus services remaining unmodified for many years, if at all, leaving people without the transport services they need. There was also concern expressed about a lack of understanding and transparency as to how TfL evaluate service change proposals and determine the costs and benefits. Several contributors remarked on seeing responses from TfL such as “the proposed change to route “x” will cost £400,000 per annum and is not justified” with little indication as to how that figure had been determined (Indeed Caroline Pidgeon pointedly remarked that every change seems to cost £400,000). There was a view that TfL have a planning “black box” and no-one outside of TfL understands what the inputs are, how the calculation is performed and how the conclusion is determined. It was for this reason that greater transparency about the service planning and cost / benefit assessment processes for bus services was considered a key priority.

The tendering system for bus route contracts was cited as being a contributing factor to both the difficulty of making route changes and the issue of transparency. The very strong perception was that changes are not feasible outside of the fixed 5 or 7 year tendering cycle. TfL undertakes a review process for routes before they come up for retendering and there is consultation with stakeholders (not passengers) at this point about proposals for changes that TfL may wish to make or stakeholders request. For those who may not be aware TfL bus service quality incentive contracts (QIC) are for a standard 5 year term but can be extended to 7 years if there has been good performance during the contract term. The extension is subject to negotiation and TfL may well be able to secure improvements at this point from the operator in return for the longer contract term at an affordable cost. Some services (e.g. school routes) are not contracted on a QIC basis.

Whilst this was cited as an issue, it is in fact worth remembering that despite the claims of inflexibility it is actually the case that route changes, vehicle type changes or revised timetables can and do happen at any point during a contract term for a variety of reasons. This can be seen quite clearly at present with the introduction of the New Bus for London, where its introduction has not yet coincided with a renewal or award of a route contract. The need to cater for road works also results in amended timetables being implemented as a variation to the route contract. Just how well this ability to leverage change is being used though, is clearly open to question.

A Unite union representative also presented an interesting perspective on the tendering process, highlighting that the views of drivers were never sought in the consultation or planning process for new contracts or services despite their local knowledge of both services and traffic conditions. He also expressed concern that switching contracts between operators could lead to problems for employees who may face moving employers every 5-7 years. The pressure on TfL’s budget for bus contracts was also, in turn, leading to pressure on contract prices and therefore the wages / terms and conditions for bus drivers. Unite believed there was now a “drive to the bottom” with wages being pushed down and driving hours extended to the maximum allowable.

Enfield investigates

One of the more interesting interventions came from the Enfield Council rep, Cllr Levy. This is because Enfield Council has been conducting a bottom up review of bus travel requirements in the Borough of Enfield. The Council has started with a “clean sheet of paper” and sought to create an alternative bus network that more effectively meets the travel needs of people in the Borough. It has also looked to create one which recognises the impact of new housing, new schools and amended health service facilities. The work has been shared with TfL and the total number of buses required does not exceed those currently in service on routes in the area.

This revised approach to bus services caused rather a lot of excitement from the politicians in the room as there is something of a clamour for more involvement or, if you were to be unkind, meddling in the local bus network for their boroughs or constituencies. There were repeated statements about TfL being inflexible and uncooperative and buses not being sufficiently focused on local borough needs rather than running on radial routes to the centre. The Enfield Council diagnosis for buses had a distinctly continental flavour, with buses feeding rail services rather than paralleling them and transfer tickets between bus routes. It also included a nice dose of deregulation flavour “flexibility” to change routes repeatedly. The analysis also included a concern that TfL is too restrictive in setting out routes and service levels and then maintaining them rather than constantly reviewing demand in an area and adjusting routes, timetables and frequencies on a regular basis. There was also the by now standard refrain of there being few “orbital” bus routes in Enfield – a somewhat surprising observation given the preponderance of orbital and purely suburban services in the Borough.

Some of the reports suggestions were perhaps a bit more outlandish, including a suggestion of dividing areas into colour coded zones where buses would operate “flexibly” (i.e. not on fixed routes). Thankfully London Travelwatch intervened and said it was best that buses ran along fixed routes and to published timetables.

The issues facing wheelchair users

The changes to social security payments for the disabled were cited by Transport for All, as likely to cause an increase in wheelchair passengers travelling at peak times. This is because benefits such as Motability or Blue Badges are being scaled back while disabled people are being encouraged back into work. The only viable public transport for many will be to use the bus network as it is fully accessible. The problem, of course, is that bus design is predicated on providing for one wheelchair user only. There is also the long standing conflict between wheelchair users and parents with buggies wishing to occupy the same space. Transport for All believes buses must be redesigned to provide more space for wheelchair users and parents with buggies. Outside of London this is usually possible. Buses only have one door and operators live with the longer stop dwell times because higher volumes of cash transactions mean buses can be at stops for long periods anyway. In London however this is likely to prove problematic, as services feature high numbers of passengers but low stop dwell times, as buses have two doors and there are negligible numbers of cash transactions.

There has been much controversy over use of the dedicated space on buses and whether wheelchair users have priority. Outside of London there have been two court cases involving Arriva and First Group where wheelchair users have been unable to board buses due to the wheelchair space being occupied by others who would not move and the driver was unable to compel them to move. The most recent judgement against First Group established the principle that the wheelchair user has priority access to the wheelchair space and that drivers must enforce that priority even if it means forcing other passengers off the bus. However that case is subject to possible appeal by First Group. There are obvious ramifications for bus operators, bus manufacturers and all bus users if the principle of a wheelchair user always having priority and drivers being required to enforce such priority is established in law. This article is making no comment about the merits or otherwise of the argument – it is simply stating that it exists and may become something TfL has to consider very seriously.

Passengers share their views on TfL bus services

A lot of the passenger feedback in the meeting was from representatives of various Pensioner groups from across Greater London coupled with disabled bus users plus other interested individuals (some with direct public transport experience).

Much of the feedback from older bus users related to the difficulty of accessing health services and, in particular, hospitals. There was a very strong and understandable preference for direct services to hospitals to avoid the need to change buses. The impact of NHS reorganisation was not yet fully understood but older passengers were already experiencing difficult, time consuming journeys. The perennial problem of school children crowding out buses at peak times was also mentioned as a difficulty for older people who may need to travel in the AM peak to reach early morning appointments at hospitals. Other issues raised were criticism of TfL’s reliance on mobile technology for Countdown information and not providing more signs at stops. This was cited as an affordability issue for older people.

TfL was repeatedly cited as being unhelpful, inflexible and unresponsive. What was striking was the unstated assumption that buses are a public service that should respond to public demands – we ask for a new bus to the hospital, TfL must provide it. There was no clear recognition of the budgetary constraints facing TfL or the need to prioritise expenditure to deliver most benefit or any understanding that nearly all changes to provide more service creates a bigger demand for subsidy. There is perhaps a need here for some education as to the “realities of life” but such an approach is hardly likely to prove politically palatable.

National Health Service reorganisation impacts

It is clear that the Government’s reorganisation of the National Health Service is causing a number of issues for London’s bus network. One of the starkest impacts is the closure of hospitals and clinics and a move to create “centres of excellence” resulting in vastly changed travel demands for people across London who need to reach these facilities.

The most interesting commentary on this subject was from London Travelwatch who shared their long experience of trying to influence the provision of bus services to NHS facilities. They highlighted that there was a clear failure in NHS planning , with facilities moved or consolidated under a default assumption that the transport authority will adjust services to cope with the aftermath of the change. Travelwatch indicated that there is negligible evidence of any proper planning process which assesses the likely impact on hospital users when NHS facilities change. TfL are not provided with adequate data in sufficient time to allow transport services to be provided while the public simply expect to have bus services to the new facilities. London Travelwatch stated that TfL are aware of the issues and are trying to improve communication with NHS managers. Unfortunately NHS reorganisation is creating pressures of its own and transport co-ordination is not a high priority and there is a lack of suitably qualified staff in the NHS to deal with these issues. This looks like it will be a difficult, long term issue to solve given TfL’s financial pressures and the growing number of public campaigns against the closure of hospitals and centralisation of particular services such as A&E and maternity.

The dangers of tinkering

The meeting concluded by looking at the adequacy of the planning and consultation process. The politicians were aware of TfL’s consultation process as they are formally consulted through all stages of the process. However there was a general lack of faith in the process with a suspicion that TfL has often already concluded what it wishes to do and it is extremely difficult to sway from that belief.

Whilst there may well be grounds for this suspicion, the discussion also highlighted some of the reasons why it is sometimes dangerous to allow too much opportunity for change. This included some rather odd remarks from the political quarter about “flexibility” and throwing away long established services and moving to a network of short routes supported by a system of transfer tickets. Some of this thinking is linked to the oft repeated demands to restructure bus services in the West End to allow the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. The other demand was to move buses from “underused” services to support overcrowded services but this was also coupled with a demand to move buses from “overbussed” corridors to allow other routes to be developed.

There was no apparent recognition that we have bus services that are 80 – 100 years old because they follow long established and very popular corridors of demand that have survived decades of change and development in the areas served. There was also a failure to recognise that bus passengers have a strong dislike of change, especially if it becomes overly frequent. The importance of a feeling of infrastructure permanence is something that contributes greatly to people’s decisions as to where they live and work (and most importantly what mode of transport they use to get there), and is traditionally something that bus networks have always struggled to achieve – particularly in comparison to rail. Over 25 years of deregulated tinkering with services and the loss of patronage outside of London highlights just how much of an issue this can be for buses, and must always be part of the political debate – something some of London politicians should be encouraged to remember.

There was also apparent failure to recognise that not every route is going to be full of passengers all day long, but that does not mean it is not beneficial to those who do use it or in giving access to parts of London that were traditionally “too far” from the network. Conversely there may be well be some areas which appear to be “overbussed” but that this is by virtue of those areas being significant traffic generators. Even if a bus is lightly loaded at one point may well be full elsewhere, but people still value access to the area where buses sometimes seem “empty”.

Ultimately, although the debate highlighted some important issues, it also equally highlighted the danger of “solutions by anecdote.” Whilst opinions are important, objective, reasoned assessment with an understanding of the trade-offs has been – and will continue to be – important in achieving an appropriate set of bus services for London.

In Part 3 of this series, we will thus jump forward in time and look at how TfL and the bus operators responded.

Written by The Walthamstow Writer