“Cinderella” bus services stuck in traffic jam “Catch-22”

 (Title Image: Daily Post)

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
Taming the traffic: The effect of congestion on bus services (pdf)
Published: 28th July 2017

Chair’s Statement – Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery):

“Our conclusion is simple – at heart, this is an issue (congestion) that requires stronger political will. Broadly speaking, the powers, levers, and legislation are in place. What we need now is a Welsh Government action plan which pulls together what works, and encourages local authorities to adopt….good practice.”

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should set out an action plan to address the impact of road congestion on bus services.
  • The Economy Department should undertake further work to understand the root causes of the issue and how it will work with local authorities to introduce bus priority measures.
  • Bus operators should be more transparent about their revenues before receiving Welsh Government funding.
  • The launch of a national public awareness campaign to encourage people to choose buses over cars.

Despite bus services often being a “vital lifeline” for many people, bus services and the number of bus passengers have declined by as much as 19% between 2008-2015. In addition, average bus speeds have fallen by 13% between 1995-2015 with road congestion blamed.

Congestion has a knock on impact: slower journeys and longer journey times mean buses are less attractive to passengers; fewer passengers mean fares fall and road traffic increases causing more congestion and lowering demand which makes even more bus routes economically unviable.

Bus operators told the Committee that a 10% increase in journey times reduces passenger numbers by the same amount.

In response, Economy & Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), has committed £33million to tackle “pinch points” on roads on top of the existing dedicated £15million budget. This may not be enough in itself, as slower journey times in urban areas (which lead to falling revenues etc.) will mean bus operators requiring more public subsidy.

The Committee called for more reliable financial data from bus operators so themselves and the Welsh Government can properly judge what level of subsidy would be appropriate.

Some practical measures proposed to tackle congestion include:

  • The widespread introduction of bus priority measures along whole bus routes which may further restrict car travel and, it was said, requires strong political will to see it through due to likely objections from the public.
  • Congestion charging – which has been proposed in cities outside London (including Cardiff) but often strongly opposed.
  • Parking space levies, reduced parking space availability and higher parking charges.
  • There was opposition to free car parking in town centres which was described as, “one of the most anti-public transport measures….ever seen”.

The Committee believes the Welsh Government has all the powers it needs to address the issues, and there was a consensus amongst witnesses that local authorities, in particular, weren’t making use of the powers at their disposal – such as ensuring new developments are planned around making public transport more attractive than the car.

That latter challenge (encouraging people to swap cars for buses) was described as a “Catch-22” in that the benefits need to be sold to the public, but they’re unlikely to take it up whilst buses remain unattractive transport options due to congestion problems.