David Brown: Nose-to-tail traffic needs tackling to address air quality

Enough is enough. Air quality has surged up the political agenda, and rightly so.

For the sake of public health, the transport industry needs to do its bit to clean up the toxic, gritty environment that affects so many of our towns and cities.

A poll last year found that nearly one in five Brits worry about pollution on a daily basis, with particular anxiety about the impact on children. Asthma, aggravated coughs and colds and even long-term lung disease will be the price the next generation pays unless we tackle the problem.

The imperative to act is clear: transport accounts for more than half of all nitrogen oxide emissions, with a third coming directly from the exhausts of motor vehicles according to the European Environment Agency.

City leaders are responding – London has introduced a clean air zone which imposes a charge on drivers of polluting vehicles, with Leeds and Birmingham set to follow shortly. Public transport – and, in particular – cleaner buses and trains – must be a top priority if we’re to tackle this issue.

Other sources of pollution – coal-fired power stations, heavy industry – are reducing their output, or facing heavy regulation. Transport has made incremental improvements – but why has a big leap forward proven so elusive?

One key factor is something we all, unfortunately, experience far too often: urban congestion. Delays on A roads have risen by more than 10% since 2014, according to Department for Transport statistics.

In central London, despite the congestion charge, the average traffic speed is just 8 miles per hour – slower than a horse and carriage. Traffic sitting nose-to-tail, by its very nature, has more time to belch out noxious fumes, and makes pollution hotspots even worse.

As a bus operator by profession – my first job was running a London Transport bus garage – I know only too well what jams mean for our vehicles. Passengers get impatient if buses can’t stick reliably to a timetable, creating a risk that some shift towards cars or private hire vehicles – which, in turn, makes congestion even worse.

Polling we commissioned last year found that commuters are already building in a 13-minute buffer on every morning journey to account for time stuck in traffic. Four out of ten said they had still been late for work at least once over a six-month period because of jams.

So what should we do? A good first step would be a more strategic approach to transport planning. A double-decker bus can take as many as 75 cars off the road. Yet while there are strategies for rail, aviation, cycling and walking, there is no national strategy to encourage bus use. Provision is inconsistent across the country, with no overarching targets or incentives for local authorities to get people on board.

Buses themselves need to be cleaner. Go-Ahead is the biggest operator of electric buses in the country and we operate the only all-electric bus garage – in Waterloo, London. Electric power isn’t always possible or practical (for example, there isn’t yet a battery capable of reliably powering a double-decker, and hilly or lengthy routes are a challenge). So a good alternative is Euro VI diesel, providing much lower emissions than conventional vehicles.

A Euro VI bus emits less nitrogen oxide than a Euro VI diesel car – and at least ten times less on a per-passenger basis so the benefits to public health are clearly huge.

We’re ambitious to go even further. In Southampton, Go-Ahead is trialling an air filtering bus – a clean diesel bus with a particulate filter mounted on it which actually cleans the air as it drives around city streets, so that the air behind the bus is cleaner than the air in front of it.

There are plenty of other ideas in the pipeline. In Brighton, we’re testing geofencing on hybrid buses so that they switch to electric power in areas we need to protect – for example, around schools or pollution hotspots – but use conventional fuel elsewhere to maintain an adequate range.  In Oxford we will shortly be launching electric sight-seeing buses that are powered from solar panels in the depot. .  Oxford is also where we operate a  demand-responsive bus service, PickMeUp, which allows passengers to summon a bus to the nearest street corner, providing ease of use for customers in an area of stubbornly high private car usage.

These innovations are not a straightforward business proposition: electric buses are expensive, and the infrastructure even more so.

In many communities, buses are the only way for people without cars to get to schools, places of work, healthcare or shops. Buses are heavily used by less affluent people – those in the lowest 20% of households by income typically travel 459 miles by bus each year, while those in the top quintile go just 216 miles. So we need to balance investment in green technology with the necessity of keeping fares affordable for all.

Much Treasury attention has been devoted to subsidising motorists to scrap their diesel cars. But a  more cost effective approach to reducing harmful emissions in the short to medium term is to help bus operators with the cost of retrofitting vehicles to clean diesel. This presently costs around £17,000 per vehicle.

If we truly want electric buses to be adopted nationally as a long term solution, it is vital to bring the unit costs down substantially – and this will involve working with the Government. There will be a need for far better infrastructure because we cannot risk buses running out of charge mid-route. That means sustained Government investment. The private sector cannot do it all alone.

Shifting to cleaner power won’t solve everything: we need policymakers to put measures in place to tackle traffic congestion, and to give public transport the priority it needs in terms of road space to be attractive to serve customers. The popularity of Uber style transport, together with home deliveries of everything from wine to weekly laundry, could well make jams even worse in future.

It’s time to stop treating buses as an afterthought in national transport policy. The question to ask is – how do we truly want people to travel in a decade’s time? How can we make sure that everybody, irrespective of location or income, can easily access local services.  Connectivity has never been more important in a country where nine million people say they’re lonely and lacking in social connections (a condition which research shows is more damaging for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day).

Go-Ahead and our industry partners are ready to step up and deliver a transformation. Cleaner vehicles mean cleaner air and a healthier environment for the next generation. That, in turn, means improved productivity and fewer days lost to sickness.

If we work together, we can get people to where they want to be not only swiftly, comfortably and efficiently  – but in a way that enhances public health, too.

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