Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Covid-19: Time to change the message on bus use?

Lancaster Bus Users' Group has endorsed the call by Bus Users UK and five other organisations to the government to change its approach to the use of buses by the public during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The national body representing bus passengers has asked the Secretary of State for Transport to increase the capacity of the bus network to avoid inappropriate use of private vehicles and the associated risks to safety, congestion, air quality and health.

Funding crisis?

The Bus Users' Group supports this approach because of our concern over the very future of our bus service.  Most local buses currently carry only a handful of passengers and the industry has become totally dependant on public money. A total of £615 million additional funding has been provided since March to keep buses running, but the grants are due for review in August and there is no guarantee that the cash will continue to be made available. If the industry is to survive in anything like its present form passengers will have to encouraged to return to the buses sooner rather than later.

Mixed Messages?

Since lockdown began in March the government, backed by the bus industry, has run a very effective campaign persuading  people not to use public transport. But as with so much of this government's approach to tackling the pandemic the messaging has become confusing and much of it has been inappropriate. The introduction of social-distancing guidelines to buses, with a requirement for passengers to keep two metres apart, has reduced passenger capacity by as much as 75%. The stated  aim of the government's message campaign has therefore been to keep the remaining space available for "key workers" and others whose journeys are deemed essential. 

London-centric approach

But what that message fails to appreciate is that outside London and a few major cities the number of people who use buses to get to work is, unfortunately, very small. In 2017, only 7% of journeys to work in the UK were made by bus and that includes London, where the figure would be much higher. In Lancaster it is likely that less than 5% of people travelling to work do so by bus and people outside the major cities are being discouraged from using buses unnecessarily.

No evidence of health risk

The strong messaging has also led many people to believe that travelling by bus is a risk to their health and a Twitter poll by Bus Users UK has found that one bus passenger in three is unhappy at the idea of returning to the buses in future.  But as Bus Users UK points out in its submission to government, there is no evidence to support this view and plenty of evidence to the contrary:

  • airborne transmission is low between people seated side-by-side
  • there is no documented evidence of virus transmission attributed to public transport use
  • many other countries have made no attempt to impose social-distancing on buses
  • increasing car use and the associated pollution is increasing the risk to health

There is now a need for strong messaging that buses are for everyone to use, as long as those who are not tied to fixed journey times choose to travel at off-peak periods.

If shops and pubs, why not buses?

The letter points out that buses have a number of positives compared with shops, hospitality and leisure sites.

  • most passengers sit next to or behind one another and all face the same way
  • the seat spacing gives 0.8m distance between people in sequential seats
  • a typical bus journey in an urban area lasts only about 15 minutes, much less than the time spent in shops, pubs, restaurants or cinemas
  • electronic tickets, concessionary passes and contactless cards used for payment give an automatic record of passengers for "test and trace" purposes should that be necessary

Bus Users UK says, and Lancaster BUG agrees, that the time is now right to ease the restrictions on bus use and change the public message to one that encourages bus travel with just a few simple safeguards

  • no standing passengers to be carried
  • seats immediately behind the driver and those that face other seats be taken out of use
  • face coverings to remain compulsory (with medical exemptions)
  • bus companies to continue to ensure they comply with best practice on cleaning and disinfection
  • passengers to be encouraged to carry and use hand sanitation and such products to be available for use at bus stations and other supervised interchanges
  • contactless card payments to be encouraged

Change the Message

Lastly, and most importantly, appropriate and ENCOURAGING messaging should form part of a campaign to bring passengers back to the buses.  Unless this is done - and done soon - there is a very great danger that the travelling public will not return to the buses, even when the pandamic is over, which will lead to whiolesale reductions in services and a large rise in private car use with all the problems of congestion, pollution and poor air quality that would bring.

Monday, 22 June 2020

More Details on New Sunday Buses

More details have emerged of Lancashire County Council's plans to add Sunday and Public Holiday journeys to a number of Lancaster area services from 19th July.  The BUG now has copies of the proposed timetables that were included in the tender documents and whilst these are not necessarily the final versions they do give passengers a very good idea of what to expect. At the time of writing no official announcement had been made as to which bus company would run which service, but as soon as the BUG is able to tell you this then we will do so.

STOP PRESS: The BUG understands that Stagecoach will be the operator of City Services 7,10,11 and 18 and that Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire will be running the services between Lancaster and Kirkby Lonsdale.

Lancaster City Services
Service 18 gains Sunday buses for the first time in several years.

Sunday buses are being re-introduced to three city services, restoring the facilities lost in the 2016 cutbacks. A fourth service, service 18, gains a Sunday service for the first time to complement the weekday service that was introduced in 2017 following a lengthy campaign by our Group.

Service 7  Lancaster Bus Station - Vale.
An hourly service will be provided with buses leaving Vale (Shakespeare Road) at 0949 and every hour until 1849.  Return buses from the Bus Station will be at 0940 and every hour until 1840
The draft timetable can be seen here:  Service 7  Lancaster-Vale  Sunday & Bank Holidays.

Service 10  Lancaster Bus Station - Ridge
An hourly service will be provided with buses leaving Ridge (Shops) at 1040 and every hour until 1840. Return buses from the Bus Station will be at 1025 and every hour until 1825
The draft timetable can be seen here:  Service 10 Lancaster - Ridge  Sunday & Bank Holidays

Service 11  Lancaster Bus Station - Marsh
An hourly service will be provided with buses leaving Abraham Heights (Coolidge Ave) at 1004 and every hour until 1804.  Return buses from the Bus Station will be at 0955 and every hour until 1755
The draft timetable can be seen here:  Service 11 Lancaster - Marsh  Sunday & Bank Holidays

Service 18  Lancaster East Circular
An hourly service will be provided with buses leaving the Bus Station at 1005 and every hour until 1805 calling at Williamson Park at 15 minutes past each hour and Lancaster Farms Prison at 22 minutes past.
The draft timetable can be seen here:  Service 18 East City Circular  Sunday & Bank Holidays

Lune Valley Services

Service 81 was recently re-routed via Halton. Now there will be Sunday buses again.
Both sides of the Lune Valley, which lost their Sunday buses in 2016, now get them restored and the service will follow the recently-diverted weekday  route to include Halton, which also lost its Sunday service four years ago.

There are two new routes:  Both run from Lancaster to Hornby via Halton, Caton and Brookhouse. Service 81A then operates via Gressingham, Arkholme and Whittington to Kirkby Lonsdale 
Service 81B runs to Kirkby Lonsdale via Wray, Wennington, Melling and Tunstall.

Service 81A leaves Lancaster at 0915 and every two hours until 1715
Sevice 81B leaves Lancaster at 1015 and every two hours until 1615
There is an extra journey, nominally 81B, leaving the city at 1815 which will run as far as Hornby and then continue, by request to the driver, to set down passengers at any point on either service route.

Return journeys leave Kirkby Lonsdale for Lancaster as follows:
Service 81A  1115 and every two hours until 1715
Service 81B  1015 and every two hours until 1815
There is also an earlier journey on service 81A from Hornby at 0939
The draft timetable for service 81A/B can be seen here:

What Does BUG think?
When the county council announced it had extra funding for buses earlier in the year, the BUG put forward a number of priorities for new and improved services for it to consider.
Our top priority was to maintain the weekday service on service 18 East Lancaster Circular, which ever since it was started in response to our campaign has been paid for by developer contributions secured under Planning legislation by Lancaster City Council.
It now appears that as well as adding Sunday journeys the weekday service will be funded directly by the council once the developers cash has been used up.

Our second priority was the re-introduction of evening and Sunday journeys on Lancaster City Services as well as to Halton and the Lune Valley and evening journeys on service 42 to Blackpool.
The county council appears to be maintaining its policy of not supporting evening journeys for the time being but we have been successful in achieving the other parts of this objective. This is especially welcome in the case of the city local routes as these seem to be the only such services that are being given Sunday buses under the county's initiative anywhere in Lancashire.

Sadly, our remaining requests, including restoring the link between Skerton and Morecambe or for new services to the Quay and improvements to other services have not been met, although we must, of course, remember that even £750,000 does not go a long way when having to be spread throughout a large county such as Lancashire.

How safe are these services for the future?
That is a very good question! 
The council says that the funding is expected to finance the new services until "Summer 2021" which will "allow time to properly procure and evaluate some of the service improvements to ensure the allocated funding is used to provide maximum benefit to local residents as well as tie in with the county council's existing budget provision for supported bus services."

Even in normal circumstances, twelve months is the minimum amount of time necessary to establish a new bus service and the times at the moment are anything but "normal".
With long-established services carrying as little as 5% of their pre-Covid passenger loadings and in the face of a sustained government campaign - supported by the bus industry - to persuade people NOT to use public transport this is not perhaps the ideal time to launch an initiative of this nature.

Lancaster District Bus Users' Group: New Timetable for Service 51
Good publicity will be essential
Hopefully, the council's evaluation process will take account of this and as the restrictions on personal movement and activity are eased, along with a reduction in the social-distancing rules from 2 metres to a lower number taking effect, bus passenger numbers will begin to recover.

One major problem the new services will face is publicity and getting themselves known to the public. Lancashire County Council gave up updating its bus stop timetables on 23rd March and is only "working towards" resuming that process as we write. It has promised to issue timetable leaflets for the new services, but with libraries and visitor information centres closed there will be few outlets for them. No doubt "everything will be online", but the county council's website doesn't attempt to give advance information on bus services, so the new journeys will only be publicised there once they have started.  The BUG will do what it can to help publicise the new services via this website and our Facebook page and sincerely hopes that they are successful.