Civilisation Ends At Zone 6

David Cameron unveils his Big Society today. Apparently one of the ideas is that local communities could take control of local bus services. Now I am all for the the Stout Yeomen of Guildford storming Arriva’s* bus garage with torches and pitchforks and declaring “Comrades. I commandeer this bus in the name of the oppressed commuters of Surrey. Henceforth it shall serve the railway station!” but somehow I doubt that is what Cameron has in mind.

Still it is refreshing to hear him acknowledge that some changes are needed on the buses. While wary of anything that any Tory says, I am prepared to give him a chance to come up with a workable proposal before heaping abuse on him. In the meantime, here is my little rant…

It is easy to get all ideological about transport policy but the real problem is to find a policy that actually works. It can be argued that no recent national government has done a good job of this. Whether you want to blame the Tories most for privatisation and deregulation, or Labour for inventing the insane PPP, is a matter of taste. What is clear is that London does a lot better than the surrounding counties. Partially it is because a lot more money gets spent there but mostly it is because it has an integrated transport policy in a way that the rest of the UK does not.

Or, to put it bluntly, for a non-driver, civilisation ends at Zone 6.

You might think that this is unfair. After all, I live in Guildford and South West Trains provides a fast and reliable train service to London every 15 minutes. It is horribly expensive but at least it is a good service. If so, you miss a point. The point is that I don’t live in Guildford Station. A station is only any use if you can get to it.

Essentially this is going to be a rant about buses. Yes, I know buses are boring, unsexy and deeply, horribly unprofitable. They are also absolutely essential to a functioning economy. I make no apology. I am now going to rant about buses.

Your attitude to this will probably depend on which side of the Zone 6 boundary you live. If you live in London then you will probably feel a small twinge of sympathy swamped by a massive wave of smugness about your decision to live in the right place. If you live in south-east England outside of Zone 6 you are probably already thinking “Why doesn’t this loser stop whining and just get a car like everybody else?”. I will come to that point shortly but first lets take a look at what we are up against, taking Guildford as the pathological case.

Management Issues
London Guildford
Management: Each bus operator is contracted by TfL, who define and monitor the service levels and set ticket prices. Under deregulated bus franchising each bus company can do more or less whatever the hell it likes with almost no management or oversight.
Integration: Tight integration between bus and other transport modes. Single payment system (Oyster) and easy connections from bus to train. Many bus routes are specifically designed as feeders for train services. Bus companies regard the trains as competitors and make little attempt to even serve the station. Very limited early morning and late evening services suitable for the London commuters.
Pricing and interoperability: Simple flat fare. Daily price cap. Bus passes and Travelcards can be purchased on-line. Each bus company has its own complex price structure. They generally do not accept eachother’s return tickets or season tickets.
Technology: Cashless payment (Oyster) to speed up boarding. Reasonably reliable “Countdown” machines in some bus stops. All buses announce their locations. Cash payment delays boarding. “Suretime” machines often display misleading information. Many buses look and sound like they are falling apart.
Transparency: Performance statistics are available from TfL website. Performance is measured against reliability targets. Complaints can be submitted via the web. No statistics even seem to be gathered.
Operational Issues
London Guildford
Bus routes: Many and various. Some direct, some indirect. Some go right across town. A decent network of bus lanes gives buses a significant speed advantage over cars in rush hour traffic. Surprisingly many routes but almost all take winding indirect and even circular routes. None cross the town. All terminate in a single massive bottleneck in the town centre. Few bus lanes, and the insistence of running buses on illogical winding routes, make buses the slowest and least reliable way to travel.
Reliability: Timetabled buses (up to 4 an hour) are rarely cancelled. Non-timetabled buses (more than 5 an hour) often fail to achieve the claimed frequency but waiting times are very rarely more than 10 minutes more than they should be. Buses are very often late or cancelled. Suretime is hardly ever updated to reflect this so you can never know if a bus is cancelled or not. It can be up to an hour until the next bus so a single cancellation can be very disruptive. The bus station often seems to be in chaos with nobody knowing what is going on.
Frequency: Key routes run every 2-3 minutes. Typical routes run every 6-10 minutes. Peripheral routes run every 15-30 minutes. Most routes can be used casually without needing to pre-plan journey times. All buses run to complicated timetables. A very few key routes run every 15-20 minutes. Typical routes run every 30-60 minutes. Services are too infrequent and irregular to use casually.
Night service: Full frequency is maintained until about 7PM and then falls off gradually. Night buses provide a reasonable 24 hour service. Frequency falls from 6PM and is abysmal after 7PM. Commuters returning from London have no chance.
Users: Everybody uses buses, particularly for commuting. Unless you need to transport something heavy it is less hassle than driving. Buses are disproportionately used by pensioners, students and migrant workers. Everybody else drives everywhere. Even the commuters drive to the railway station.
Congestion: By providing a viable alternative to car use, buses take cars off the road and reduces congestion. Almost everybody drives everywhere so the town is permanently congested which delays the buses even more.
Staff: Most bus drivers are fine. A very small number are a bit anti-social. Staff are actively managed.
Most bus drivers do their best however this is clearly not a well managed, organised or supported workforce. There is high staff turnover, low morale and little sense of professionalism.
Financial Issues
London Guildford
Subsidy: Very heavily subsidised in a transparent way. Operators are expected to provide a defined service for their subsidy. Heavily subsidised in an opaque way. Despite the supposed free market, operators seem to require subsidy to run any buses at all.
Efficiency: Occasional buses are seen running “out of service” or loitering in bus stations but most seem to be productive most of the time. The natural state of a Guildford bus is “out of service”. More buses seem to be loitering in the bus station or shuffling back and forth to the garage than are in service.
Value for taxpayers’ money: Operators compete for contracts and TfL can replace severely under-performing operators mid-contract. Taxpayers can be reasonably confident that they are getting a fairly good deal. Operators receive subsidy from councils that have no authority to replace operators and hence no leverage. Unsurprisingly, the councils get minimal service for their subsidy.

Of course, Guildford is not London. It lacks the population and population density to sustain a bus service like London’s. Also we can’t blame the bus companies for the fact that the railway station is in a stupid non-central location with narrow road access. Nearby Woking fares better due to the better location of the station.

Even so, there is clearly a lot that could be learned from London.

  • Some sort of regional body needs to be in charge of coordinating and monitoring the bus services. This body has to have real power over the operators. The operators have to accept external management. In return the operators should not have to bear the commercial consequences of the decisions that are no longer theirs to make. Instead, operators should receive bonuses or penalties depending on how well they provide the mandated service levels.
  • Routes should be rationalised so that there are an appropriate number of frequent routes linking the destinations people need the most in a simple, direct way. Routes should cross towns rather than rely on expensive central bus stations, which can be sold off. Special effort needs to be made to integrate with railway stations, even if this is not always easy.
  • Timetables should be rationalised with simple “clock face” running patterns which continue at full frequency well into the evening and then tail off gradually. Once people are able to rely on a regular bus service they will start using it again. The days of the office worker who knocks off at 5PM and is home in time for Magic Roundabout and the 6PM News are long dead. People need their buses at 8PM.
  • There needs to be a single system of season tickets and a move towards cashless payment to speed up boarding. Ideally a single system of cashless payment should cover all modes of transport for the whole UK.
  • Every bus should be tracked in order to monitor performance and provide accurate information about delays to passengers.

Cameron’s plan to make buses part of “The Big Society” seems to fail on the integration issues. We need efficient service coordination not a bunch of local enthusiasts doing their best. That said, the enthusiasts can’t be worst than the incumbent operators doing the bare minimum they can get away with.

Now, I know I said I would return to the “why doesn’t this loser stop whining and just get a car like everybody else?” issue. Well, I lied! That was just a cynical ruse to make you read all my opinions about buses. You see, it isn’t only car drivers who can put their own interests before others.

Oh. All right. Very quickly then:

I do not drive and I have no intention of driving for a mixture of environmental, financial and practical reasons. Once you have a car it takes over your life like some sort of Roman domestic god requiring your time, attention and never ending quantities of money. I have done pretty well out of being a non-driver. I have a lot of money in the bank and in my pension which is essentially money that I never spent on petrol. I could be a very happy non-driver if the buses worked properly. I resent the idea that I should be expected to pay through the nose because somebody else isn’t doing their job properly. The fact that the single occupant car is a poison choking our cities and choking our planet almost pales into insignificance compared to the fact that I really don’t want to be just another idiot living to service their stupid tin box on wheels.

Well, you did ask…

* – Arriva is Guildford’s main bus operator. Hence the old saying “It is better to travel than to Arriva.”

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July 19, 2010. Politics, Sensible, Travel.

One Comment

  1. Hayden replied:

    1 other point on Congestion is the number of Bus Lanes which help to prioritise Bus (and Taxi) traffic over normal Car use.

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