David Brown: We need to get back on buses for a green post-Covid future

The last four months have been unlike any other for the country.

As the Government begins to ease the lockdown, I’m proud of the efforts my colleagues have made in keeping essential bus services running, connecting communities and taking fellow key workers to hospitals and supermarkets.

But as Britain gets moving again, the bus industry is at a crossroads. Public messaging to avoid public transport has meant confidence in using buses has fallen despite the vital role our services play.

We kept services at 50 per cent, with welcome government support, during the height of the pandemic, but only one in ten passengers typically travelled.

So we know the challenge we face to encourage people back onto the bus. That’s why we have increased the ‘deep cleaning’ of our vehicles, given clear advice on hygiene and encouraged customers to pay by app or contactless. We’re supporting the Government’s requirement for everyone to use a facemask on public transport. 

But I firmly believe the battle to restore faith in public transport should be one for the country as a whole. Coronavirus is triggering generational change across industries, but the bus remains something that you would introduce if it didn’t already exist.

The environmental benefits of taking the bus were already staring us in the face before the world changed – taking cars off the road, reducing congestion, and improving the air quality in our towns and cities. Tens of billions of economic activity are dependent on bus usage, and there are physical benefits too, bus users typically doing at least 20- 28 minutes of exercise every day.

All this hasn’t changed. And I truly believe that now, more than ever, the Government must put public transport at the heart of the nation’s plan for a post-Covid future.

The lockdown has changed lives dramatically, but the improvements in the environment around us have been notable. The International Energy Agency forecast carbon emissions will fall by 8 per cent this year.

After a period where families reclaimed roads as their own, increasing cycling, walking, even skateboarding, do we really want to return to a world of traffic jams? That is what could happen – and the signs are already there.

Official figures show that car usage is already back to over two-thirds of pre-lockdown level. Academics claim restrictions on buses and train travel could put an extra million cars on the road during rush hour. It’s why we’d like the social distancing guideline to be cut from 2 metres – a move that could enable at least half the seats on a bus to be used.

But beyond this we need a three-point plan backed by every level of Government. And we need it now.

Firstly, we would ask No.10 to move away from the ‘avoid public transport’ message and emphasise how using the bus supports the campaign to restart the economy. The bus can help make towns and cities hubs of economic activity again – and in a cleaner way than the car.

Secondly, the Government must press ahead with a National Bus Strategy that lays the foundation for a revolution in public transport and actively promotes the benefits of bus journeys.

Every Whitehall department should consider public transport in their policy making, not only in the green agenda but also when building new housing developments or considering the fight against obesity, loneliness or inequality – issues that we know buses can have a significant positive impact on. Tackling congestion – through priority bus lanes - was a critical issue before the pandemic and it will be again.

Lastly, some of the £3 billion promised for the bus industry earlier this year by the Government should be used to speed up the deployment of hydrogen and electric buses as part of an integrated Government plan. And why not offer to buy them direct from British manufacturers – to help revive our economy?

Air pollution, remember, is estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths a year. If we don’t act, we risk coming out of Coronavirus and heading straight into another health crisis of our own making.

Let’s give our towns and cities a chance to breathe. And back the bus.

- David Brown was Chief Executive of The Go-Ahead Group from 2011 to 2021