It was 15 years ago today that John Prescott signalled “the end of the road for two-car families”, as the Telegraph then put it. It was New Labour’s early consultation document on transport and, in reality, it asked more questions than it answered (but that was the intention). Prescott was also at pains to point out that neither he nor his government were anti-car but pro-public transport.
We had to wait 334 days before the answers to the 21st August 1997 questions emerged. As a precursor to what would be the ten year transport plan, we got the daughter policy document entitled “From Workhorse to Thoroughbred” (FWTT), one that foresaw buses taking a central role in defeating congestion.
The backdrop was plummeting bus journeys. Transit reported that between 1983/4 and 1993/4 the number of bus passenger journeys in the deregulated metropolitan city regions fell by 34 per cent. This was highest during the hiatus of 1986/7, when 12 per cent fewer journeys were made. Some stability followed, though the annual loss was always at least double the pre-deregulation rate and often more. Outside the Mets, patronage slid by 22 per cent over the same 10 year period. In regulated London, there was a three per cent growth.
FWTT looked at how buses could contribute towards easing congestion. Buses emerged strongly in the white paper and this prompted Arriva’s chief executive to say that these were “the most tangible opportunity…for… several years” and “I am confident we can get people out of their cars and on to public transport” (Guardian, 21/7/1998). Pressa’s measures included:
- Statutory quality partnerships to include junction priorities, bus lanes and so on. Given a firm footing under the Transport Act 2000, they have nevertheless been slow to take off but have renewed impetuous under the current government.
- Quality contracts. Some viewed this as measures where partnerships failed; others an immediate remedy for the decline in passengers. Pioneering work on these by the P.T.E.G. and by PTEs such as Merseytravel proved these were by no means as straightforward as they first seemed. Even now, expect considerable opposition and challenge. Merseytravel PTE has veered away from them and, recently, SYPTE, too, leaving Nexus and Metro PTEs at the vanguard.
- A maximum £5 bus pass for pensioners to gain a minimum half-fare. Largely forgotten in an age of free travel, we shouldn’t minimise the £5/half-fare contribution. Not all local authorities offered half-fare. Some offered next to nothing in the form of a handful of tokens only.
- Higher penalties for using bus lanes illegally, including buses equipped with enforcement cameras.
“I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not...far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it”,when it came to it, there was nothing other than bus lane enforcement to restrain car use. While many (all?) local transport authorities signed up to the principle of congestion reduction, passing significant roadspace over to buses was challenging for them.
And, even now, motorists hate the thought that they might get themselves filmed using a bus lane. This has resulted in some enforcement cameras being switched off or even bus lanes reverting to space for all roadusers.
The legacy of the announcements made 15 years ago today? Significant funding improvement for rural & urban services, Kickstart funding plus cash for infrastructure. These persuaded a number of operators to invest in their own, commercial services. Later, ridership increases that followed the introduction of free travel. And, with the introduction of Better Bus Funding Areas, who knows what’s possible in the future.