Free bus passes for under 25s?
I work with lots of bus data. I run events to improve bus services. I write a lot about buses.
I’ve written about the UK laws that stop cities from innovating with buses, causing passenger numbers to crash. I’ve written about how those same laws mean cities lack the data they need to improve public transport and support economic growth. I’ve described my scepticism about new laws that will require bus fares to be released as open data so that people know how much their bus will cost. I’ve written about how the UK’s public transport systems are too complex. On request, I once wrote a transport manifesto for a Yorkshire Parliament that doesn’t even exist.
There is only one city in the UK that is exempt from the laws that I’ve written about. It collects and uses data to improve bus services that it controls. It has a bus system so simple to users that its open data on fares is a single price — £1.50.
Over three decades, this has been the result.
Confronting decline. Ending the central government ban on regulation.
The UK’s three decade long experiment with bus deregulation has delivered a conclusive result: it doesn’t work. Leaving any company who wants to run buses free to run whatever buses they like, accept payment however they like, and charge whatever they like, has meant people don’t use buses. It has made our cities poorer through congestion and pollution driving away talent.
Both Conservatives and Labour are now, finally, taking steps to end the national ban on cities controlling their public transport. They are finally moving in the direction of reducing national control over local government, and letting local democracy take decisions.
My preferred end point for transport in cities like Leeds and Birmingham looks like Malmö, Lyon, Utrecht, or London. In these cities a local transport authority sets prices and routes and develops standard ticketing systems, but it generally doesn’t run buses and trams itself. Instead the transport authority puts bus routes out to tender and buys the service from a company.
There’s another model that works well too. In cities like Gothenburg, Barcelona, Munich, and Rotterdam, buses, trams, and metro trains are run by public companies — often owned by some combination of regional and local governments.
Both models, franchised and municipal, work. What really matters to users is that public transport fares and rules are simple, and that payment is easy. People don’t want multiple bus companies, offering competing tickets. People want regulation, and for their local government to control public transport.
More free bus passes?
Labour’s announcement of support for franchised or municipally owned bus operations is a good sign. We must make this happen in our largest cities or we will continue to underachieve.
But I can see no reason to attach this policy to a promise of free bus passes for under 25s.
The suggestion is that these free passes will be paid for from vehicle excise duty, collected nationally, and then redistributed to local authorities only if they franchise or municipalise buses.
This incentive is unnecessary. Most local authorities desperately want to franchise their buses, but are restricted by national laws which ban them from doing so. Labour doesn’t need to incentivise franchising, it just needs to allow it.
There is no need to lump these two policies together.
Free bus passes for young people is possible without national intervention. London provides free passes to under 16s. Other cities could do so if they wanted today. What stops them is local democracy deciding to prioritise other spending.
I have written before about Sheffield prioritising pothole repair over trees. In Birmingham I would prioritise tackling homelessness over giving free bus passes to even more people. In Leeds I would prioritise investment in bus lanes and a tram. In some parts of the country, free bus passes may be what people want to spend local money on.
Every part of our country has its own priorities, Labour should promise to give local government extra money, and let it raise money locally through taxes if it is elected to do so. But it let should local people decide if they wanted to give out free passes for local buses, or spend that money on other things. It's a way that we could let people take back control without damaging our country, and it works everywhere else in Europe.