THERE IS ONE thing in particular that Mancunians love to moan about: their buses. The number 43, which trundles down what is thought to be Europe’s busiest route, is far from loved. Onboard, one student riding from the university to the railway station complains that it takes three times as long in rush hour. “They are always changing the route—never for the better,” says a nurse working at a nearby hospital. At least it is easier to find a seat these days, they say—as riders are switching to faster modes of transport.
Andy Burnham, the mayor, is keen to find a way to reverse this gradual decline in passenger numbers in his city (see chart). On January 25th the ten councils that make up his Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) approved an increase in council tax to fund a detailed study into the options for bus reform. One strategy Mr Burnham is considering is to “re-regulate” bus services, taking the routes back under public control. If he does so, the city will be the first to use a new law that gives mayors the power to franchise bus services.
In the past decade bus travel has gone into steep decline outside the capital. Since 2009 the number of bus journeys in Manchester has fallen by 14%. Austerity has played a role. Councils in England and Wales have slashed bus subsidies by 45% since 2010, resulting in 3,347 routes being cut back or closed.
Re-regulation could help reverse some of that decline, argues Pascale Robinson of Better Buses for Greater Manchester, a campaign group. Passenger numbers have fallen by 40% in Manchester since bus routes there were handed to private operators in 1986. Meanwhile in London, where franchising continued, patronage has doubled. Letting GMCA manage the system could lure riders back by co-ordinating bus schedules and offering through-ticketing for routes operated by different firms.
That argument is popular among passengers. But re-regulation is no magic bullet, argues David Brown, chief executive of Go-Ahead, a bus firm. Passenger numbers are now falling at a faster rate in central London than in the regions. Belfast, where the bus market was never deregulated, has seen falls in usage much like Manchester’s. Nor would re-regulation deal with changes in demand for bus travel, Mr Brown argues. Although the number of journeys by bus to work has remained remarkably stable, those for activities such as shopping and socialising have fallen. The decline of the high street and the rise of home delivery have made many journeys unnecessary.
The key to luring people away from travelling by car or taxi is to speed up buses, says David Begg of Plymouth University. Growing traffic jams, caused in part by a proliferation of delivery vans and Ubers, are slowing them down. The average delay caused by congestion in Britain’s cities has increased by 14% in the past three decades, according to TomTom, a maker of satnavs. Manchester is badly affected: the 43 bus now takes nearly 80% longer to cover its route in rush hour than it did 30 years ago. The average speed of Stagecoach’s buses fell by 4.9% in 2014-16; one route which took just nine minutes seven years ago now takes 27, according to the company.
Giving buses their own lane, or priority over other traffic, could help, says Giles Fearnley of First Bus, a big operator in Manchester. Vantage, a bus-priority scheme linking Leigh, Mr Burnham’s former parliamentary seat, to Manchester, has seen weekly passenger numbers rise by nearly 140% since it opened in 2016. Other policies to make car use less attractive, such as pricier parking or congestion charges, could also nudge folk onto buses. But since a local referendum in 2008 rejected a congestion charge, Manchester’s politicians have shown little interest in the idea. With 70% of Mancunians getting to work by car each day, it is easy to see why.