For all the razzmatazz around the CAM ‘metro’, two of the three concepts published are essentially the same as the Glider bus service that has been running in Belfast since 2018. It may feel glamorous to spend our money and time exploring ‘innovative’ transport engineering and technology, but it overlooks what we have already: ordinary roads that can carry fifty times more people in buses than in cars. We just need bus services to work for many more people.
The new national bus strategy seeks to address this, with clear and sensible ambitions, such as to “make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated”, and “simple, cheap flat fares … with daily and weekly price capping across operators.” Hurrah!
It will be up to the mayoral Combined Authority to make this happen by devising a new system for planning and funding bus services under the umbrella of franchising or Enhanced Partnership agreements.
The new strategy challenges councils to give buses greater priority at traffic lights, reallocate road-space for bus lanes, create bus gates, and manage their roads with bus reliability in mind. It recommends looking carefully at street design and locations of bus stops, parking and loading bays. It encourages “robust enforcement” of illegal parking, with more police powers to be made available to civil enforcement officers (aka traffic wardens).
There is plenty about zero-emission buses, with money available to help operators buy 4,000 new battery- or hydrogen-powered buses. However, there is no date yet for phasing out diesel buses, nor recognition that converting newer diesel buses to Euro VI would quickly improve air quality in city centres without wasting money and resources by scrapping them early.
A more significant flaw in the strategy is the unqualified support for park-and-rides and ‘bus-only roadways.’ Park-and-ride undermines rural bus services; a network of well-connected travel hubs will be more sustainable and equitable. Getting more people walking, cycling, taking the bus and ride-sharing will reduce the number of vehicles on roads, lessening congestion that holds up buses. This will avoid the need for expensive and carbon-intensive new infrastructure.