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The Regional Democracy Think Tank for West Yorkshire

West Yorkshire needs Free, Electric and Community Controlled buses now

By Paul Chatterton, Fran Postlethwaite and Jeff Turner

Local buses are a vital public service, but for the last 35 years everyone living outside London has been subject to an experiment, in which profit-making, commercial bus companies have been allowed to do largely what they want. That experiment continues to fail us.

Even the National Bus Strategy, released by the UK Government’s Department of Transport in March 2021, clearly acknowledges this. This Bus Strategy paints a bleak picture of the drastic decline in the number of people using buses over the last three decades. Between 1998 and 2018 the number of journeys by bus across West Yorkshire declined by one third. In London, which has, in contrast to the rest of the UK, kept public control over the bus system, the number of bus journeys has increased by two-thirds over the same period. The Bus Strategy also describes the spiralling costs facing bus passengers, with fare increases exceeding inflation and the cost of car travel. The result is a lack of mobility for work, leisure and recreation that puts a serious brake on regional economies, as well as accelerating pollution, carbon emissions and social inequality.

In particular, the Climate Emergency, declared by local authorities both in West Yorkshire and around the world, means cities and regions have to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, such as Carbon Dioxide, that transport and travel contributes. Over 40% of West Yorkshire’s emissions come from road travel, so this is a huge and urgent task.

To address the Climate Emergency in a just and inclusive way, we need a transformed future bus service across West Yorkshire that will get people out of their cars in large numbers and make living without a car easy regardless of age, income, ability or location.So our request to the newly-elected West Yorkshire Mayor is simple – commit to a bus service that is electric, free and community controlled.

Making West Yorkshire’s buses free to use is the most sure fire way to get people out of their cars in large numbers. A free bus service provides an instant, workable alternative for everyone. It will also ensure that everyone is entitled to get to services and opportunities based on their needs and not on their ability to pay. It is the only instant mass transit system that presents itself in the emergency timescales needed. Free services are novel, but not untested. Tallin, Luxembourg and Dunkirk have all introduced free services.

Making all buses electric, using an increasingly greener national grid, will immediately provide West Yorkshire with a zero-emission way to travel for everyday life. It will also create skilled, green jobs in the region, as West Yorkshire and other parts of Northern England already have world leading manufacturers making electric buses.

Making West Yorkshire buses controlled and directed by the communities they serve, using the legal powers available to the new West Yorkshire Mayor to introduce a system of bus franchising to give West Yorkshire Combined Authority powers to control bus routes, frequencies and fares, provides the third aspect of this radical change. The voice of communities and users, through the incorporation of co-operative and mutual models of community participation in determining routes, quality standards and frequencies, will also reconnect West Yorkshire with the idea that buses are a public service that we all have a voice in and that choosing to leave your car at home is an easy choice to make.

Delivering a free, electric and community controlled bus system for West Yorkshire will require extra funding. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half the cost of running ‘profit-making’ buses in West Yorkshire and elsewhere in England is already paid for by Central and local government, and it would cost an additional £90 million per year for all buses across West Yorkshire to continue to operate for free to bus passengers. Throughout the pandemic, central government have met all the cost faced by the commercial operators of maintaining this vital service. Buses having effectively been running as if for free to users throughout the crisis. It can be done.

Research shows that free bus travel will bring substantial economic, climate, air quality and social benefits for society at large. These include reduced carbon emissions, better air quality, reduced congestion; improvements in productivity; easier access to jobs; safer roads; more volunteering and improved health. Reducing these burdens would result in net savings to society through the health system that would pay for themselves. Moreover, evidence from providing free bus travel for some groups, such as people over 60, suggests that for every one pound spent on the cost of making bus travel free, society receives two pounds from the benefits that come from it in return.

The extra resources for a free, electric and community-controlled bus service could come from a national Carbon Reduction Fund from which West Yorkshire would receive an allocation,or a regional Carbon Offset Fund. If authorities across England were allocated funds from this, £1.6 billion a year would ensure free travel for all across England. This is half of the subsidy that the Department of Transport already pays to rail operators who serve considerably less passengers and fewer communities, mostly in South East England.

The newly-elected Mayor doesn’t, however, need to rely on Central Government finance - sufficient resources could be raised from a doubling of the West Yorkshire transport levy which people already pay through their council tax. This is equivalent to an extra £4 per week in council tax on an average house. That’s one return bus fare! A price worth paying.

West Yorkshire needs to address the triple climate, social and nature emergencies in a just and inclusive way. We need a free, electric and community-controlled and directed bus service for the region, now!

The authors would like to thank Suzanne Lau, Alex Lawrie and Cath Muller for their advice about co-operative structures and community travel.

Paul Chatterton
Paul Chatterton is a writer, researcher and campaigner. He is Professor of Urban Futures in the School of Geography and Director of the University’s Sustainable Cities Group. Paul is co-founder and resident of the award winning low impact housing co-operative Lilac. His recent books include Low Impact Living (Routledge) and Unlocking Sustainable Cities with Pluto Press. (www.unlockingsustainablecities.org).

Fran Postlethwaite
Fran Postlethwaite is Assistant Secretary of the Yorkshire and Humber Pensioners Convention. She led a transport committee which created a manifesto, “Better Buses: good for People, good for the planet” which argues for the public control of buses. She is now convenor of the Better Buses for South Yorkshire campaign group.

Jeff Turner
Jeff Turner has substantial experience as independent transport consultant, specialising in transport and equality. He is a member of the TUC-led Better Buses for Yorkshire campaign and has assisted the development of the Transport Manifesto of the Yorkshire & Humber Pensioners Convention.

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