Thursday 17th March 2022
TfL launched a“long-term plan for buses” last week. The press release headlined it “TfL sets out bold vision for buses in the capital” with the new Bus Action Plan aiming for a “modern bus network to attract more customers and help the capital become net zero by 2030”.
The 94-page Bus Action Plan joins a suite of four other Action Plans within the Mayor’s Transport Strategy armoury. There’s a Walking Action Plan, a Cycling Action Plan, a Vision Zero Action Plan and a Freight and Servicing Action Plan. It all makes for a lot of Action Plan reading if you’re an Action Plan fanatic, which I’m not, but I’ve had a look through this one as I’m interested to see how TfL plans to turnaround the last decade of declining passenger numbers not least with the Mayor’s aim for 80% of trips in London to be by walking, cycling and public transport by 2041 which in stark terms means passenger journeys on London’s buses must increase by 50% – from 6.1 million (pre-pandemic) to 9 million daily journeys. That’s quite an aspiration.
The Actions Plans all come illustrated with copious pages of professionally taken glossy photographs to make the words, which at times can be somewhat tedious and repetitive, seem more engaging. Surprisingly in the Bus Action Plan, save for a shot of a new style on board interior next stop sign, there’s no photographs of the shiny new electric buses recently introduced on bus route 63 between Kings Cross and Honor Oak.
All the more so as TfL’s accompanying press release promoting the Action Plan explains:
“The plan can be seen in action on the route 63 from King’s Cross to Honor Oak, where new higher specification all-electric buses were launched last month. The buses bring together a range of customer-friendly features for the first time, including a more welcoming feel, USB charge points and mobile phone holders, a larger wheelchair and buggy area and better real time travel information on board. A new bus lane on the New Kent Road section of the route is improving journey times and reliability in line with the plan. All vehicles meet TfL’s Bus Safety Standard and feature upgraded CCTV, enhancing security.“
TfL reckon their Bus Action Plan “will create an even more attractive alternative to car use by focusing on five key areas”.
The five “key areas” being ….. an inclusive customer experience …… safety and security ….. faster journeys …… improved connections ….. decarbonisation and climate resilience.
Louise Cheeseman, TFL’s Director of Buses says “ultimately it’s about making the bus the natural choice over the car”. That’s really good to hear but I reckon TfL are going to need to be far bolder than trumpeting the emulation of five year old provincial bus specifications (as per route 63’s seats, flooring and usb sockets/phone holders) if it’s to succeed in that objective. This is going to need serious upscaling of service quality and information provision, both of which in some quarters is quite dire across the Capital at the moment.
The positive messages in the Bus Action Plan are also in stark contrast to TfL’s current Financial Sustainability Plan as part of the hand-to-mouth existence it’s had to endure these last couple of years with only short term Government funding. The Bus Action Plan acknowledges the Financial Sustainability Plan “includes proposals to adjust public transport service levels, including a four per cent reduction in bus mileage” which has been manifesting in regular frequency reductions and route merger proposals.
TfL state confidently “these reductions will not significantly damage our ability to attract people back to our network” before warning “however, at this point further reductions would not be supported by evidence and could put London’s recovery in jeopardy”. Maybe that’s why the regular weekly frequency reductions seem to have dried up of late, although some proposals consulted on are still outstanding (eg Croydon/Sutton and the route 168 and route 271 proposals)
I reckon there are three key areas which TfL need to concentrate on if they are going to stand any chance of making “the bus the natural choice” and get anywhere close to that 50% growth in the next couple of decades. The first, is covered in the Bus Action Plan once you reach page 51 having skipped over all the bumf about delivering visions, the impact of the pandemic, the need for inclusivity, diversity, decarbonisation, zero this, zero that etc ….. and that’s the “urgency” of dealing with journey times.
The Plan calls for “urgent” action “to deliver a transformational improvement to bus journey times in order to provide a bus service that Londoners will choose to use”. It points out bus speeds dropped by 3% in the six years leading up to 2020. The impact of less traffic during lockdowns aside they reached as low as 9 mph pre Covid – and that’s an average.
Some of this is self inflicted with road space having progressively been given over to walking and cycling, longer red phasing of traffic lights, and reductions in road widths at junctions. I can’t see any of these policies being reversed so something more radical is needed. The Plan mentions “a new road user charging system could be key to this approach by incentivising a shift away from the private car use which is responsible for much of the congestion and consequent delay to bus journey times”.
Road user charging is of course the real game changer we all know needs to come, but I can’t see it happening within an “urgent” timescale. And certainly not while the current Government is holding the purse strings. Johnson famously ended the western extension of Livingston’s Congestion Charge when he was Mayor of London.
Regular London bus passengers are also all too familiar with the “this bus is being held to even out the service” syndrome. The consequence of Quality Incentive Contract payments to bus companies is the slackness of bus schedules so buses don’t run late and incur penalties, so when traffic flows better than average, buses are held adding to insufferably slow journeys for passengers already on board. There’s been many a journey I’ve made on a TfL bus where I’ve almost lost the will to live it’s been so tortuously slow as a result of such pauses along the way. It’s certainly become an engrained perception in this bus user.
The Plan talks about providing “new bus priority design guidance to help designers and scheme promoters to cater for bus customers and develop best practice bus priority that delivers against the Healthy Streets indicators”. Which is a wordy way of saying – more effective bus lanes are needed.
In a section of the Bus Action Plan that could be taken word for word from many a provinicial Bus Service Improvement Plan, as well as the Bus Back Better (National Bus Strategy) document there are calls for …. optimising traffic signalling to deliver greater priority for buses, pedestrians and cycles …. deliver ‘quick win’ improvements identified through operational observation …. extending bus lane operating hours ….. reduce kerbside activity in bus lanes ….. reduce the impact of roadworks.
Skipping to the appendices at the back of the Action Plan you find some useful timeline charts explaining what’s to be done when. On the urgency of journey times, it’s good to see “25km of new and improved bus priority” scheduled in for the four years 2022-2025 with a “milestone” next year of “Bus priority best practice guidance published”.
Whether this really will deliver the step change in journey times only time will tell. I have my doubts.
The second priority I would take from the Plan comes on Page 67 where the Plan admits “our bus network provides a generally uniform service across London”. Indeed it does, whereas in many provincial towns and cities the market is seen as much more diverse. TfL seem to be waking up to this by acknowledging “to attract new customers who don’t currently see the bus as an option we need to reconsider whether the existing approach is the right one”.
This is heartening to read not least as it gives an example “we can take a fresh look at how limited stop services fit into the bus offer for longer trips in outer London which are currently mostly made by car”. It gives the examples of limited stop routes X140 and X68 (but interestingly not routes X26 and 607 – I wonder if the Plan’s author forgot about them?) – as well as continuing “to investigate bus transit options” including a few natty little diagrams to illustrate the point, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the infamous London Transport Reshaping Plan from the 1960s!
I’m convinced there are opportunities from reintroducing former ‘Green Line’ style limited stop faster journey time bus routes to TfL’s bus network together with a 2022 style ‘state-of-the-art’ bus fleet – like Transdev Blazefield’s famous route 36 bus specification including 2+1 luxury style seating. And a new striking livery to promote the service and what it does. And at a premium fare rather than the £1.65 flat rate – which, for example makes the current offering on route X26 between Croydon and Heathrow financially unsustainable.
Examples of successful limited stop services which have grown the bus market in the provinces include Brighton & Hove’s route 12X along the coast between Brighton and Eastbourne which has seen phenomenal growth helped by miles of bus lanes of course (an absolutely essential ingredient) as well as Cityzap revolutionising faster journey time travel between Leeds and York.
There must be opportunities like these across Greater London not least where rail journeys aren’t so readily available as for many orbital journeys for example – just look at the success of the Overground around north London as evidence of latent orbital demand.
Reintroducing bendy buses for high volume corridors would also make sense. I was delighted to obtain a fleet of London’s hand-me-downs for Brighton & Hove’s busy route 25 in the early 2010s. They’ve been taking students to and from the university campuses at Falmer and along the Lewes Road for the past twelve years – helped yet again by some radical bus lanes introduced by the City Council.
These buses perform a different job to double deck buses passing along the same corridor on inter-urban routes to Lewes, Ringmer, Uckfield and Tunbridge Wells. Passengers easily understand the differential helped by high profile attractive route branding on the buses and the same successful formula continues to this day.
Adopting a similar strategy in London would mean slaying the sacred cow of simplicity and everything appearing exactly the same, but if new markets are to be attracted, as the Plan acknowledges: “we need to reconsider whether the existing approach is always the right one”.
At one time there were ambitious plans for Cross River Tram for example. That would make for a good start – but using Bus Rapid Transit rather than trams to save money.
TfL’s dalliance with route branding in Barkingside and Hayes a few years ago was frankly embarrassing for its amateurish ineffectiveness but that doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for high profile professionally designed branding of key routes across the Capital. There definitely is snd it’s an opportunity missed in favour of plain, boring red. Simple that might be; effective at selling bus routes it’s not.
The third priority I’m delighted to see included in the Bus Action Plan under the section headed ‘Inclusive customer experience’ (not sure why the word ‘inclusive’ has to be there) is “the provision of better information”. The Plan states “we need to build confidence in the experience of taking the bus by reconsidering what is needed ….. this can be achieved through the provision of better information”.
Not surprisingly the Plan extols the virtues of TfL’s Go branded app as well as the provision of real time information. “Over the past two decades we have pioneered new technologies to provide customers with information at all stages of their journeys, from planning before they set off on their journey to their time on the bus itself” comes under a heading “Focus on Digital information at all stages of the customer journey”.
Which is all good stuff for those who like digital information, but what about those who are a bit old fashioned and like printed material including maps to look at both at home and at bus stops for information and reassurance. For all the platitudes TfL likes to come out with about “inclusivity” there’s not been anything inclusive about its provision of information for many years once the plug was pulled on printing maps and displaying them in bus shelters. They’re not even available online for many areas of London.
The timeline chart for these actions don’t inspire me with confidence giving until the end of 2023 to “trial new on-bus digital information screens on route 63” for example and a plan to “introduce digital bus blinds across more of the fleet” – welcome to the world of destination displays everyone else has lived in for decades. But, as you can see, it’s all very much “digital”.
I often give the example of Wood Green and Turnpike Lane – a major bus interchange together with the Piccadilly Line passing through. Thirteen bus routes terminate and another four pass through this significant commercial centre and travel hub in north London. Yet you can only find out about where these go using TfL information sources by playing around with a Journey Planner. Which is hopeless. Utterly hopeless.
The Plan acknowledges the “bus network is complex” adding “sometimes it can be difficult to know which bus to use”. You’re not kidding. “Providing more and better-quality information can encourage more bus travel” explains the Plan, so I look forward to a return to the publishing of network maps both online and in print as well as localised maps for each area of London and “boldly” displayed at every bus shelter so it’s not “difficult to know which bus to use”. It’s easy.
That really would be a very visible bold vision for buses.
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Next blog: Saturday 19th March 2022: Kent’s summer bus cull.