One of the Combined Authority’s most important projects is to reform bus services in the region, although COVID-19 has interrupted the work. One of the main reasons is that any reform giving the local authority more control over bus services also exposes it to more risk of financial losses in just the sort of situation the bus industry finds itself in now. Until central government provides an insurance policy to local authorities, they cannot take on that risk.
Encouragingly, Mayor James Palmer has continued to progress other ways to improve bus services.
As the transport authority, the Combined Authority wants to have a more active role in spatial planning policy. One idea is to require new developments to leave space for future bus routes to run through to adjacent, but as-yet unplanned, developments. This will also benefit people walking and cycling. Retrofitting this kind of permeability into a typical cul-de-sac housing estate is one of the big transport challenges we face today.
Another initiative is the trial of a demand-responsive bus service, in West Huntingdonshire. This modernised Dial-a-Ride, available to anyone, is the “missing link” for areas with too sparse a population to support scheduled bus services. It will be interesting to see how popular it proves and how much subsidy it requires. Good marketing – not a strong point for local authorities – is crucial.
A third innovation is to rent state-of-the-art ticket machines to small bus operators. These will pave the way for more integrated ticketing, and enable bus stop displays to show real-time departure times for all local bus services, not just Stagecoach and Whippet’s. Data collected on passenger numbers and ticket types will help the transport authority to design new services.
Finally, there is to be a new orbital bus route in Peterborough. Hopefully it will be designed to succeed, unlike the ill-fated 115 service in Cambridge which ran between Newmarket P&R and Addenbrooke’s.
Initiatives like these are important. Life will return to normal. We still need to de-carbonise transport. And everybody needs to be able to get about, whether or not they have access to a car.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 11 November 2020.