The County Council is withdrawing the Busway Smartcard. It was the only multi-operator bus ticket worth buying, with single trips costing between £2 and £3.30, depending on distance – with a free transfer included. At a time when the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) is spending millions of pounds on getting more people onto buses, this is bizarrely retrograde.
Since the Bus Services Act was passed last year, there has been talk about the mayor using his franchising powers to create a comprehensive, affordable and integrated bus network. It’s almost certainly the right thing to do, but it won’t be easy or cheap. And with so much else piling up on the mayor’s plate, it won’t be quick either.
But one thing the Combined Authority and GCP could be doing right now is reinventing the Busway Smartcard to work county-wide with all bus operators. Technically it’s possible, requiring only a modest investment in the back-end system and vending/top-up machines at key locations (e.g. railway and bus stations and Park & Rides), and agreement from operators to participate.
You’re thinking, they’ll never agree to this? Stagecoach oppose franchising, but call for partnership agreements instead. So let’s test this out with an Enhanced Partnership agreement on a standardised set of ticket prices on all buses across the region, with free transfers.
There is an administrative overhead, which GCP or the Combined Authority could subsidise in the name of getting more people onto buses. (Don’t forget taxpayers are subsidising car drivers to the tune of £1.2m/year to get a few more of them onto P&R buses.)
Not only would this be good for people wanting or needing to use public transport, it would stimulate local competition. A small operator like Whippet cannot compete with Stagecoach because the tickets it sells allow you to travel to relatively few destinations. If that weren’t the case, you would get on whichever bus was most convenient to you, irrespective of operator.
In cities and regions where multi-operator tickets are readily available and reasonably priced, there are more operators and they compete on price and quality. Isn’t that what we want here?
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 14 November 2018.