Buses matter in Norwich more than ever before - It’s time to go electric

Probably the most famous passengers to take a bus in Norwich this year - but what can we do to impro

Probably the most famous passengers to take a bus in Norwich this year - but what can we do to improve the bus experience in the city? - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

Buses matter. They matter not only to people who rely on them but also to everyone else who uses the roads: without buses there would be even more cars trying to get into Norwich, adding to congestion and parking problems.

So it is good news that bus use in Norwich is increasing - in contrast to the rest of Norfolk, which is seeing a drop in passenger numbers. And winning several million pounds from the government's Transforming Cities fund is expected to help speed up services and thus attract still more passengers. One proposal is use some of the government money to widen pavements and lay-bys in Castle Meadow, St Stephens Street and Red Lion Street to stop buses from having to queue.

But it is worth looking at what more can be done to persuade people to use the buses and to make bus transport more environmentally friendly.

There are small improvements that could be made very quickly. For example, it would help if the timetables at bus stops could include all the services and not just those from the major operator, First (although some stops don't even include all the First services: the one near Lidl in Aylsham Road does not list times for the 39 service).

Again, the timetables in Castle Meadow are displayed upright rather than landscape, making it almost impossible for people of below average height to read the times near the top.

With winter approaching, it would also benefit passengers if they were allowed onto the bus before drivers change over at Castle Meadow, rather than having to wait in the cold and wet for the new driver to settle in.

And while many bus stops in busy roads are protected from parked cars with appropriate road markings, for some strange reason this is not uniform. An example is one in Aylsham Road, which makes it difficult for drivers coming out of Eade Road when the bus is forced to stop adjacent to the junction due to parked cars blocking the stop.

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More importantly, Norwich needs modern buses, not the castoffs from Leeds where First is switching to electric buses that, according to the company's local managing director "will improve air quality and attract more passengers because they are "clean, quiet, smooth and odourless".

A similar switch to electric buses in Copenhagen has demonstrated how they attract more passengers, not least because people who are unwilling to use what they see as an old-fashioned mode of transport are happy to switch to fashionable electric buses. Why should Leeds have these benefits at the expense of Norwich?

Cost should not be an obstacle. Research studies have shown that electric buses are no more expensive than diesels: although they cost more to purchase, this is more than offset by low maintenance and fuel costs. In Nottingham, for example, 45 electric buses saved £300,000 fuel costs in their first year, incidentally making a significant contribution to reducing the city's global warming emissions.

Another annoyance for passengers is the lack of coordination between the four operators who run buses in and into Norwich: as a return ticket can only be used with the same operator as the incoming journey, this means that passengers sometimes have to watch a bus go past despite it going to their destination. The county council has tried to overcome this with its Fusion ticket, but this is designed as an all-day ticket and is too expensive for a simple return journey.

What the greater Norwich area really needs is a passenger transport authority (PTA) with the power to franchise bus services. The PTA would define routes, timetables and fares and the bus operators would then bid to run these, providing services designed to meet passenger needs rather than those of the operators, although it has to be recognised that in the current financial climate it is unlikely that the PTA would be able to provide much in the way of subsidy for services that the operators find uneconomic.

Another potential advantage is that a PTA might be able to come to an arrangement with the local authorities to enable people who have to survive on benefits to use the buses in the same way as senior citizens. This could play a valuable role in tackling the social isolation of less well-off families and provide them with access to a wider range of shops and to the thriving stalls on Norwich market, helping them improve quality of life.

Finally, a PTA might be able to undertake a proper evaluation of the potential for a light rail link running from the rail station through the city centre to the hospital and UEA. This is a well-used route with potential for growth that could make it suitable for light rail. It is worth noting that modern light rail systems can run on rubber tyres and thus need only a single guidance rail and, being battery-powered, do not require overhead gantries. The light rail system running in the Venice area is an example of a successful system running through narrow twisty streets.

- Paul Burall is chairman of The Norwich Society.