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National Bus Strategy

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the National Bus Strategy for England to address the impact of traffic congestion on the operation of buses.

My Lords, the Government are committed to publishing a national bus strategy next year, and we are working closely with local authorities and bus operators to ensure that buses play a significant role in connecting people, helping the economy to meet our net-zero ambitions and improving air quality. We will also implement the moving traffic enforcement powers under Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Much serious delay is caused to buses by roadworks. Are these being properly managed by local highway authorities, and are the penalties for non-compliance with agreed arrangements appropriate?

My Lords, roadworks have been quite a focus for the Department for Transport over recent months. It is the case that nearly all local authorities operate a permit scheme for undertakers to have access to the road when they want to dig it up, and they have powers to co-ordinate those works and to charge the undertakers when the works are not done in time. Not only that, the department has set up the Street Manager system, which is a digital service that puts all the information about roadworks in one place. It is open data that is available to bus companies, so they can see where roadworks are taking place.

My Lords, the first traffic lights in this country were installed outside the Palace of Westminster in 1868, since when the technology has improved; they can now detect an oncoming bus and go green. What more can my noble friend do to promote this capability so that more buses arrive on time and we improve the reliability of this important form of transport?

My noble friend is quite right that we have come on in leaps and bounds since 1868. In the first instance, many buses have transponders fitted to them, which will communicate with the traffic light controller and can cause the light to change. However, newer technology uses GPS tracking rather than transponders; again, that can communicate with traffic lights, but it can also provide real-time bus information, which can be made available at bus stops.

Will the Minister ensure that the national bus strategy takes a more constructive and comprehensive approach than just focusing on cutting down on private cars? Buses are held up by delivery and service vans, necessitated by the growth in London population, unwanted cycle lanes and empty Uber cabs circulating, unco-ordinated roadworks and wider pavements. The Boris buses in London and elsewhere are unhealthily sealed shut, with no ventilation and no doors open to allow getting on and off, and this, too, must change.

As the noble Baroness will be aware, transport in London is the responsibility of the mayor, so I shall not go into great detail on that. However, she has raised a really important point, which is that road-space reallocation is going to be one of the key features as we try to decarbonise our transport landscape and balance the needs of car users, delivery drivers, bus users and, of course, cyclists.

Is the Minister aware that the National Express route 11 in Birmingham is reputed, at 26 miles, to be the longest urban bus route in Europe? In 1979, the journey would timetable at two hours and 10 minutes; by 2020, that had increased, due to congestion, to three hours and four minutes. Would the Minister consider the enjoyment of joining me for a three-hour journey around Birmingham’s ring road on the number 11? Alternatively, can I persuade her to visit the recently opened Regional Transport Coordination Centre to see for herself what we are doing to tackle congestion in the West Midlands?

I may have to decline the trip on the route 11 on this occasion—perhaps maybe next time if the noble Lord asks again. But I would like to see the Regional Transport Coordination Centre in Birmingham, not least because it was actually delivered on the back of £19.5 million-worth of funding from the transforming cities fund. I remind the noble Lord that it was opened by the Transport Secretary on 17 January—so perhaps I can do an anniversary visit at some point next year.

My Lords, we need to get passengers back on to the buses to relieve congestion, which is now back at pre-Covid levels. Bus operators have worked hard to make buses clean and safe, so long as passengers observe social distancing. When will the Government evaluate the research evidence on the safety of buses and tell the public that they can return to using them?

My Lords, the Government take this issue incredibly seriously. The Government advise people to use public transport if it is safe to do so, which includes being able to wear face coverings, use hand sanitiser and maintain two-metre social distancing.

Bus services are particularly important for people in rural areas who do not have access to other forms of public transport but, in cities, overreliance on buses and underinvestment in other areas can create traffic congestion. In some UK cities, there are currently no alternatives. Leeds, for example, is now the largest city in Europe without a rail-based public transport system, such as trams or a metro. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have any plans for new, rail-based public transport systems in cities such as Leeds?

As the noble Lord will be aware, Leeds and many other cities of its size and nature do have access to a significant amount of funding, first through the transforming cities fund and, secondly, through the £4.2 billion of intra-city funding which will be making its way to the metro combined authorities shortly. It will be for them to consider how to invest that money, but I agree with the noble Lord that it would be good to see Leeds have a greater variety of local transport.

My Lords, the position in London differs from that outside it. Will the Minister consider amending the freedom passes in appropriate cases, particularly for carers and others who need to travel early to arrive in time to provide very necessary help to those in need? Presently, pass-holders are not allowed to use their passes to travel free until after 9 am. Many will be forced back into using their cars, which will create, or add to, congestion.

I thank my noble friend for her question. Passengers in London—the over 60s et cetera—do get more benefits than those in the rest of the country. The freedom passes that are provided in London are designed to encourage people, who are perhaps retired, not to use the peak. If my noble friend has people who are being paid to act as carers who need to use buses early in the morning, then I believe they should pay for their journeys. Having said that, bus fares in London are also low, compared to other places in the country.

My Lords, I was delighted to hear the Minister mention road space allocation, which is part of reducing congestion. However, we know that it is private cars that create the most congestion, even on rural roads. Have the Government got any other ideas to reduce private car traffic and encourage more people on to buses?

The Government absolutely want to encourage more people on to buses and that will be a key part of the national bus strategy, which will be published next year. This is about two things: getting people who used to travel by buses back on to them, but also trying to entice those people who have not been on a bus for a while to try it. Buses are significantly different from what they used to be. In many circumstances, they are an extremely comfortable way to travel.

My Lords, there is much evidence that many statutory undertakers abuse the system of emergency roadworks and leave holes in the road which block bus lanes and other traffic for many weeks. Could the Minister confirm that local authorities do have the power to enforce the urgent closure of roads while statutory undertakers may be looking for parts for them? Will the local authorities receive the money? Will the Minister encourage the Government to increase the fines for this?

Local authorities can already fine statutory undertakes up to £10,000 if they overrun. We have no evidence that emergency works are causing undue delay. In any event, a local authority can define how long such works should have to take. In certain circumstances, the works can be plated or there can be a temporary repair and they can return to make the permanent repair in due course.