Go-Ahead Chief Executive David Brown presents a speech to UK Bus Summit in London

David Brown speech to UK Bus Summit, 6 February 2020

"At last year’s Summit I made a plea for us to reach out beyond our own industry and seek conversations with others where the bus can provide solutions. I’m delighted to see that there’s a session this afternoon with speakers from business and retail.  More of it please.

I also used last year’s slot to continue the call for a National Bus Strategy, and others have joined me in making that case, such as Lillian. Buses are, at last, having a change of profile and The Government has said it will now deliver a National Bus Strategy. 

The top priority for the Strategy has to be recognising the role of buses in tackling congestion.  And the role of local authorities in enabling buses to tackle congestion.

Congestion is what slows journeys down and makes bus travel less attractive.  Will we ever get people to transfer from a car stuck in traffic to a bus stuck in traffic?  And it’s quite stark - a 10% reduction in speeds reduces customer numbers by 10%. 

But its worse than that.  More resources are constantly being required to run buses at the same frequency – five routes at Go North East each cost £100k extra to operate compared with five years ago.  In places like East Anglia we’ve had to reduce frequency or curtail routes and - worst case – we ended up removing the X90 service between Oxford and London after a 50% increase in journey time.

And that’s before we consider the link between congestion and air pollution, with noxious emissions from Euro 6 buses doubling as speeds drop below 5mph – something that Graham will talk about.

In fact, congestion affects all the other issues being covered today.  If we can’t tackle congestion we won’t effectively reduce emissions - the next item on the agenda.  Neither can buses support business and retail if passengers abandon buses because they take too long – the early afternoon session.  And there wouldn’t be any point staying on for the final session as there won’t be a commercial bus market for the Bus Services Act to regulate.

The arguments around congestion aren’t new, David and Claire have done an excellent job in documenting them over the years.  It amazes me that it was back in 2003 that congestion charging was introduced in London and nothing has happened anywhere else since.

The prevailing assumption appears to be that you could never bring the public with you. To attempt it, would be, in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, ‘courageous Minister’.

And sadly in Manchester, for example, where the consultation on franchising has got underway, there is not a single acknowledgement of the need to tackle the horrendous congestion to affect model shift and grow bus passenger volumes.

But its now 2020, and that prevailing assumption, like the prevailing wind, could be changing.

Last year saw public concern about climate change reach new heights, with the rise of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s high profile.  The national debate on how the country achieves net zero by 2050 is affecting all strands of policy, from agriculture to taxation.  

And this will affect everyone.  At a business session with other pan industry leaders this week I heard Ruth Davidson talk about pension funds she sits on not investing in gas and oil and only in renewables.  And the CEO of Unilever said they would stop products if they were not sustainable and Black Rock will not support businesses which do not take ESG seriously. 

Meanwhile at local level we see that ‘courageous’ steps are now being taken.

York plans to ban non-essential car journeys from within the city walls by 2023.  The councillor who proposed the measure himself said in his statement “The public mood is changing, particularly in relation to climate change."

In Birmingham air quality is the driver for change.  With the City in danger of £60m in fines, plans have been put forward to ban private cars from making through trips in the city centre.

And in Oxford, both local councils are planning workplace parking levies, new bus gates and preventing cars from through journeys across the city centre also.

These cities are being joined by Cardiff, Bristol & Brighton and hopefully more.

Air pollution and climate change are forcing change and a shift from outmoded thinking.

But we need to be concerned if this new thinking is all about electric cars. 

According to the International Energy Agency, an electric car with a 250 mile range has a huge carbon deficit when it hits the road, and only starts saving emissions when it nears 40,000 miles.  But they are currently largely used as second cars for short distances.

Recent reports highlighted concerns over whether the national grid can cope with surges in demand from electric cars.  And all that electricity has to be generated.  No wonder the Commons Science and Technology Committee concluded ‘widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation’.

And of course, electric cars and this is my point do nothing to address congestion.

So at the start of 2020 much is hanging in the balance – for the industry yes, but more importantly, the communities that we serve.

We need to make fresh, positive arguments, about how we can help tackle air pollution and climate change.  Not with ‘clean congestion’ – but by creating cities with high quality mass transit enabling people to live and breathe well.

I don’t see the Bus Strategy as being about more legislation, and much of it won’t even be about more money either.  What it needs to do is ‘seize the moment’, the prevailing wind… and put in place a national framework that will drive the right behaviours at local level.  It needs to encourage authorities to use the powers they already have to tackle congestion, as they work with operators to get more people to use the bus

Any strategy that doesn’t include tackling congestion will fail to deliver increases in bus passengers.

But if we’re not careful we will never reach the promised land, and fear of change will lead to more gridlock.  Our cities will decay if we don’t tackle traffic

So things could go either way.  Let’s take this opportunity and have a Bus Strategy focused on tackling congestion – that will lead to better outcomes for customers and communities, in cleaner more liveable towns

I look forward to standing here again next year – and talking about exciting things happening around the country – as speeded up buses become the agents of change in revitalising our towns and cities."

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