Free public transport could do wonders for Norwich

Castle Meadow, Norwich

Buses travelling along Castle Meadow in Norwich - Credit: Archant

Paul Burall from the Norwich Society asks whether a transport revolution is needed in Norwich

Reduced traffic during the Covid lockdown has had some benefits, not least cutting the air pollution that plagues parts of Norwich, including Magdalen Street, St Augustine’s Street, Castle Meadow and St Stephen’s Street (although the last two have benefited from First Bus now switching off engines when stopped for any length of time). 

Parts of the city centre are also currently safer and more pleasant for cyclists and pedestrians. So can we do anything to retain these advantages when life gets back to something like normal?

Normal may in fact be worse than before for the environment, as research carried out by YouGov as found that 23% of people expect to use their cars more after the pandemic as they have come to believe that bus travel can expose them to infections.

This, of course, ignores the not inconsiderable harm caused to people’s health by vehicle emissions, with one informed estimate suggesting that around 36,000 people die in the UK every year as a result of illnesses caused by or severely aggravated by air pollution. In a notable first, a London coroner recently attributed the death of a nine-year-old girl to the levels of air pollution around the area of the South Circular Road where she lived.

So what can be done about this? First, persuading more people to use public transport rather than bringing their cars into the city centre would certainly help, with the comparative popularity of the Norwich park-and-ride facilities demonstrating that this would not necessarily be unpopular if it could be made convenient for more people.

Second, switching to electric buses would both reduce pollution and attract more customers, as other places both in the UK and abroad have discovered.

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Old diesel buses tend to be despised by many potential users, who perceive them as being primarily for people who cannot afford the comfort of a car. Electric buses (like modern trams), on the other hand, are seen as modern and comfortable.

The City Council has set an admirable but challenging target to become carbon neutral by 2030: replacing diesel buses with electric ones is probably a necessary step to achieve this. 

Paul Burall for byline image

Paul Burall from The Norwich Society who is advocating free public transport in Norwich - Credit: Archant

So perhaps the City Council could use some of its reserves to help First Bus install the expensive electric vehicle charging points it will require if it is to switch to clean vehicles. 

This could possibly be on a commercial basis as, while the capital cost of buying electric buses is considerably more than for their diesel equivalents, the savings in terms of maintenance and fuel costs far outweigh this over the lifetime of the vehicles. 

So the company could afford to pay back the Council with interest over time.

Electric buses have also been shown to boost passenger numbers, again improving the viability of services. For example, a spokesman for the bus operator in Gothenburg in Sweden commented that passengers were choosing to travel on routes operated by electric vehicles because of their lower environmental impact.

Passengers were particularly impressed by the comfort and quietness of the electric buses as well as the elimination of local air pollution (which can be more local than many people imagine, as the highest levels of pollution caused by petrol and diesel cars is actually inside the cabin of the car itself). Nearer home, York has also seen rising bus use after the introduction of electric vehicles.

Of course, not everyone can easily switch to public transport. Disabled people in particular may have difficulties and continue to use their cars, as will people who have to travel at unsociable hours when bus services are either minimal or non-existent. Cost is also a factor: once a car has been paid for, the marginal cost of using it is considerably less than the cost of the bus fare.

One solution which will undoubtedly raise eyebrows is to make public transport free. This is not just a pipe dream: cities ranging from Tallin in Estonia and the whole of Luxembourg no longer charge for public transport. And even the United States is beginning to see free bus services emerging: Kansas City already has free buses and places as far apart as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver and Boston are considering following suit.

So who does pay? It is usually a combination of the business community – who perceive the benefits of getting more people into city centres to use their services – and politicians seeking both to clean up their cities polluted air and, just as important, enabling people from their poorer communities, who often live too far from the centre for walking and who find it difficult to pay ever-increasing bus fares, to benefit from the facilities and often-cheaper prices in their city centres.

Controversial? Yes. Worth considering for Norwich: I think so.