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Don’t forget the basics if you want us to use the buses

PUBLISHED: 06:39 24 January 2018

Encouraging more people to use buses should start with the simple things, say John Brasier and Paul Burall of The Norwich Society. Picture: Denise Bradley

Encouraging more people to use buses should start with the simple things, say John Brasier and Paul Burall of The Norwich Society. Picture: Denise Bradley

Copyright: Archant 2015

John Brasier and Paul Burall of The Norwich Society say that even simple things could help more people use our buses.

As with so many other areas of life, Norwich is bucking the trend in terms of bus use. While the average number of bus passenger journeys in England fell by almost 3% in the last year for which statistics are available, First Eastern Counties reported a half-a-million increase in passenger journeys in Norfolk during 2015 with three-quarters of the rise being in Norwich. This was attributed partly to the increasing number of bus lanes, making services more reliable.

Buses are crucial to the success of the City: for many people, they provide the only means of transport. And attractive bus travel is essential to persuade more people to leave their cars at home or at the park-and-ride sites to avoid clogging up the central area.

So what can be done to make bus travel more attractive?

There are some small improvements that would cost virtually nothing. For example, allowing passengers in Castle Meadow to board buses before the drivers change over would avoid leaving people out in the wet and cold for several minutes for what seems to be an over-complex and time-consuming operation.

Again, the bus timetables at the City centre bus stops are mounted too high for people of average height to be able to read details at the top: either lowering them or changing to a landscape format would solve the problem.

Crucially, the incompatible fare systems operated by the different companies need sorting out. The inability to use one operator’s return ticket on another operator’s journey on the same route is annoying for passengers who cannot board a bus going to their destination because their ticket is invalid.

Even worse is that passengers needing to change buses to get to their destination have to pay two full fares instead of being able to continue their journey with either no or a small additional fare.

The solution should be a uniform ‘smart’ electronic ticketing system accepted by all operators. Norfolk County Council has struggled to introduce a uniform ticket: its Fusion ticket can only be used for period tickets and not occasional single or return journeys and its oddly-named sQuid Travel Purse ticket is not accepted by the biggest operator.

Smart ticketing would also have the benefit of speeding up boarding, potentially reducing the time buses need to stop in St Stephen’s Street and Castle Meadow and thus decreasing congestion and reducing pollution.

Air pollution in the City centre is a significant health hazard: in 2014, the average nitrogen dioxide level was 65pc above the safe level and was particularly high in St Stephens Street and Castle Meadow. The older, most-polluting buses should be banned from the centre and a deadline to extend this to all diesel buses should be set. Electric buses are being introduced elsewhere in Britain and, while they are currently twice as expensive as diesel vehicles, they are considerably cheaper to run and maintain. Research by the departments of engineering at Cambridge University and the Open University suggests that, over a five-year period, electric buses can match the total cost of diesel buses. And, of course, electric buses are far quieter and offer a more pleasant ride for passengers.

In the meantime, Anglian Bus is running a number of biogas-powered vehicles that are much quieter and cleaner, with pollutant levels less than diesel cars and greenhouse gas emissions almost half that of diesel buses.

Apart from the limited number of subsidised services, routes and timetables are set by the operators and are therefore driven primarily by commercial criteria rather than the needs of passengers (although, of course, these objectives are often compatible). This leads to the operators tending to compete between themselves on the most popular routes and inhibit initiatives to meet some apparent needs. For example, there is little recognition of the possible demand generated by late-night and Sunday shopping as well as the extended shopping hours during the run-up to Christmas.

The 2017 Bus Services Act could eventually provide a solution to some of these problems by giving a local authority body greater powers to ensure that bus services meet the needs of passengers. This requires one or more local authorities to set up a Local Transport Authority. One outcome can then be for the LTA to develop a partnership agreement with the operators with shared aim of improving bus services and define the actions needed to achieve this.

Better still, the Act offers the potential for an LTA to introduce a franchising system that would enable the LTA to define routes, frequencies and fares for the operators to then bid to run them for a set price, enabling the profitable routes to subsidise when necessary those of social value. The LTA could also force the introduction of a comprehensive ticketing system and integrate bus services with rail services.

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