The way forward is public transport


Former transport minister and current adviser to Campaign for Better Transport, Norman Baker (pictured), discusses the charity's latest mission to support public transport and why the government should recognise it is the right way forward.


The challenge

Campaign for Better Transport took a double-decker bus to the House of Lords yesterday to launch its biggest campaign for years, with campaign buses and a coach in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, The way forward is public transport.

The campaign is sorely needed. As we emerge from lockdown, we are seeing a car-led recovery, with traffic almost back to pre-COVID levels while the use of buses and trains lags behind.

If this trend continues, it will lead to extra congestion, more carbon emissions, more air pollution, and more social isolation.

The transport secretary sometimes gives the impression that he thinks electric cars are the answer to everything. They are not, unless you are prepared to see a big increase in congestion on our roads, and unless you are content to write off the quarter of the population that has no access to a car. Less levelling up, more locking out.

The way forward

So what are the campaign asks?

First, to correct the misleading, if unintentional, impression that has been created by the Government’s own messaging that public transport is inherently, perhaps even uniquely unsafe. It isn’t, and they need to say so. Almost everybody on a bus or train feels perfectly safe, according to Transport Focus research.

Second, the Cabinet Office review into social distancing must be published, with a recognition that an indefinite continuation of the two-metre rule is incompatible with a return to pre-COVID passenger numbers and incompatible with any sort of financial self-sufficiency for public transport.

Third, the Government must provide certainty about the continuation of safety net funding for bus and train services, as a bridge to a financially sustainable future. Support should taper off as passenger numbers grow, rather than ending in some sort of cliff edge over which the industry plunges.

Fourth, as lockdown hopefully ends completely in June, the Government should coincide this with financial incentives to people to get back on buses and trains.

Last year, we had an 'eat out to help out' scheme to help cafes and restaurants. A similar scheme providing discounted travel for a period of perhaps a month should be introduced.

No doubt the Treasury, already examining with dismay the cost of subsidising public transport over the last year, will be reluctant to pour yet more money into what they increasingly regard as the bottomless pit that is the Department for Transport.

But price is a huge determinant in whether people return to buses and trains or whether they don’t. Using reduced fares to persuade people back on board is ultimately the best way to limit exchequer funding, as well as helping to meet the Government’s wider decarbonisation targets.

Fifth, and linked to above, we need the early introduction of the welcome pledges in the National Bus Strategy relating to universal contactless payment, and to integrated ticketing.

On rail, we need to see without any further delay the introduction of new ticket types that actually reflect when and how people want to travel, rather than trying to force people to live in a ticket box dated 1954. The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail today promised flexible season tickets, but we will be watching closely as more details emerge - it's vital that the tickets offer a decent discount.

Sixth, the Government needs to set out a vision for the future and show how increased use of public transport is essential if we are to tackle carbon emissions from the transport sector and achieve the ambitious target for a 78% reduction in carbon emission levels by 2035.

Paul Tuohy, Campaign for Better Transport’s chief executive says: 'We are at a fork in the road as the country emerges from Covid. One arm of the fork leads to car dependency, increasing air pollution and carbon, more congestion and more isolation for those without access to a private car. The other offers the opposite: less carbon, cleaner air, lowered congestion and more social inclusion.

'Frankly, it’s a no-brainer. Yet while the Government seems to understand the arguments and seems well intentioned, we are not convinced they will actually follow through their own logic. Our campaign is designed to ensure they do.'

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