In 1985 the Conservative government passed a bus deregulation act – transferring public transport into private hands. In the Tories’ eyes, car ownership was a key plank of 1980s aspiration – whether a real quote or not, their attitude to transport is summarised by Thatcher’s quip that a man beyond the age of 26 on a bus “can count himself as a failure”.
The car lobby and decades of transport planning that prioritised private vehicles above all else did the rest of the work, and the result today is clear to see – ridership is at historic lows, with passenger numbers outside of London having dropped by half since the 1980s.
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Why does this matter? First off, getting more people out of their cars and onto public transport is key to tackling climate change. Across Europe, cars make up about over 60 per of the total carbon emissions from road transport.
Secondly, doing this is also crucial to cleaning up our toxic air which is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year in Bristol.
And finally, better transport can improve our quality of life too – because buses carry far more people for the space they occupy on the street, fewer cars and more buses on the roads mean faster journey times for everyone. As the saying goes, when you sit in a traffic jam, you’re not stuck in traffic – you are the traffic.
The privatisation and deregulation of buses, alongside the takeover of our cities by private cars, has left us with public transport that’s too often expensive, slow and unreliable.
As someone who has no car and relies on a combination of buses and my bike, I’ve noticed prices often increase with little improvement in service or journey times. Bus travel has become 65 per cent more expensive over the past decade.
The supposed benefits of privatisation have failed to materialise. Bus companies have little incentive to improve the service as they often operate quasi-monopolies with no competition for passengers.
As a councillor, I hear complaints all the time – bus companies dropping services which are unprofitable, or reducing buses on key routes. So what can be done?
Firstly, we need public control over our buses – as a service they should be accountable to the public, not to shareholders.
The Green Party are firmly in favour of restoring local government control over buses to improve provision and give them preferential road space. Greens would make buses free for everyone, tackling isolation, inequality and the climate crisis at the same time.
At present local authorities are forced to subsidise private companies to keep buses going on unprofitable routes – with public ownership improving buses will be relatively simple.
However, in 2017 the Conservatives passed a law to prevent councils setting up publicly owned bus companies, so, until we can change the law, what can we do?
In Bristol buses are mostly run by First Group. The council has no direct control over them. The mayor recently announced his ‘bus deal’ but it is only really a package of small tweaks, still relying on a private company to do the right thing.
Bristol community union, ACORN, of which I’m a member, has proposed two possible solutions in their campaign for better buses.
Bristol and nearby councils could buy a stake in First Group as part of a worker-led buyout, in order to give the councils partial public ownership over their buses, and a greater say in how they’re run.
To kick this off, all the mayor would need to do would be to start talks with the leaders of other local councils, First Group, and relevant unions.
The benefit of this approach is the council would have greater ability to guarantee decent pay and conditions for the drivers themselves.
Alternatively, we could look into bus franchising, starting with a public consultation – this would need to be done through the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), currently run by Conservative Tim Bowles.
Bowles has been resistant to improving public transport so far, even though this is one of WECA’s key policy areas.
However if the public lobby him, and the other Council leaders that make up WECA, he will have to listen, just as he did on declaring a Climate Emergency earlier this year. So I’d call on everyone to sign and share ACORN’s petition for better buses.
Yet neither of these options are a magic bullet. As I mentioned earlier, after private bus companies, the other half of the problem is the dominance of private cars on our roads.
James Freeman, the man in charge of Bristol First Bus, has said traffic congestion is “the single biggest obstacle to running a reliable bus service”.
Changing the ownership model doesn’t do much if we can’t get the cars out of their way as well. So how do we do this?
As you might expect, Greens have a few ideas. For a start, we can look at what works for other cities. Nottingham have introduced a Workplace Parking Levy, essentially a fee levied on employers that provide free corporate parking in the city centre.
Since launching in 2012, this policy has raised more than £50m to reinvest in the city’s transport system. Partly as a result, ‘car miles’ in Nottingham fell by more than 40m over the last 15 years while in Bristol they increased by almost 27m.
The money raised has been leveraged by the council to bid for external funding totalling over £650m.
Greens in Bristol also support a congestion charge that could raise at least £6 million per year to invest in better, cleaner buses.
It would only be charged on vehicles coming from outside the city, which we think is fair as those living within the city boundary already pay for transport infrastructure via their council tax, while those driving in from outside don’t.
So this carrot and stick approach would take more cars off the roads while supporting people to take public transport, making streets safer for cyclists, reducing air pollution and improving journey times for everyone.
We would also be taking real action to tackle the climate emergency, which I proposed in Bristol last November, making us the first authority in Europe to do so. Isn’t it time we follow that up with some real action?
Carla Denyer is currently the Green Party councillor for Clifton Down and is standing as the Green Party MP candidate for Bristol West