A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Why British buses don’t have tap-to-pay

There are a lot of simplifications here. I know. Writing about public transport attracts a lot of people who really care about details. If I’ve made a huge mistake, shout at me. But think twice before you do; more details means less readers.

The Transport Act

The 1985 Transport Act deregulated buses in Great Britain. Local transport authorities stopped running buses and they were banned from telling bus companies what fares to charge and what types of tickets to accept.

Private companies are now free to compete on whichever routes they please, charge whatever fares they choose, and accept whatever tickets they like. Bus use in cities outside of London has halved in three decades.

Public transport in London was exempted from this rule; probably because MPs and the civil service used public transport there. Bus use in London has since doubled. This is largely thanks to huge innovations and encouragements to travel like a single low fare on buses, universal payment by Oyster card & Tap-to-Pay, automatic daily & weekly fare capping, and free passes for under 18s.

The wrong type of competition leads to the wrong type of innovation.

Why haven’t we seen these innovations in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham or Glagow?

Well actually, First buses in Leeds accept First’s proprietary app for payment. But no other buses do. Some TransDev buses in Leeds accept tap-to-pay for payment. But no other buses do. Yorkshire Tiger have cheap return fares, some Arriva buses have WiFi, and some buses even have comfy seats, real-time information, and USB chargers. And some buses don't.

The variety of buses in Britain’s large cities means that there’s only about one thing that’s common across all the bus choices; a ticket with one company won’t work anywhere else. Private companies don’t promote their competitors, or make it easy to switch service, or invest in infrastructure that other private companies can use for free. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Accepting failure

Deregulation was worth trying but we’ve known that it's a failure for 20 years.

Finally, next year, there’s a chance that the Buses Bill will go some way to letting local governments fix things. The Buses Bill will probably allow local authorities to regulate their buses again, meaning that they can force all the bus companies in their area to accept a unified fare, accept a single form of payment, and do clever things like daily capping and weekly capping. It might even let local authorities run buses themselves again, though I hope that they won't — London's franchising system works well.

The reason that local governments have not done this before isn't because they're useless, it's because they are banned from doing so by the UK government.

These changes will change the purpose of buses in our cities. They'll return to being about getting to work, getting to school, getting to the shops, or getting home from a night out. They'll stop being about finding the right change for an overpriced and inflexible ticket on a service that too few people use to run frequently.

Of course the Buses Bill may end up being crap. It may end up only empowering devolved cities that have accepted Metro Mayors. It may not include the legal support needed for lawyers in big cities to beat big companies like First and Stagecoach with profitable monopolies to protect. This happened recently in Newcastle and cost the local government dearly.

But for the first time in my life there’s a chance for Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow to compete with London. I'm excited. About buses.

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