LowCVP Project Manager Daniel Hayes examines how the hard stop of COVID-19 could be used for a positive ‘green recovery’ in public transport – but government support and incentives are critical

Many questions are being raised by policy makers around how the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis can be turned into an opportunity for positive change.

Can we use this ‘hard stop’ to our routines, the economy, and many aspects of cultural activities to positively reshape the future of coach and bus? Better yet, can we use it as an opportunity to reshape mobility as a whole?

Yes, undoubtedly, is my answer. But it will be very challenging. We can’t ignore this as an opportunity to reset the embedded mindsets and alter the procurement strategies of incumbents who haven’t been looking at the future net-zero world.

It will be a big challenge, though. Recent coronavirus COVID-19 messaging urging avoidance of public transport clearly hasn’t aligned with the foreword to the government’s ‘creating the transport decarbonisation plan’ document that ‘public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities’ in the future (to say the least).

As pointed out by an operator at the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership’s (LowCVP’s) Bus Working Group meeting in May, our leaders must highlight how operators can and are making travel by public transport safe and practical – not that it should be avoided. These sorts of statements will take years to shake off and are another blow to a sector that was already facing decline in passenger demand in many cities.

One way of helping the industry shake off these statements is to initiate a green recovery package, covering vehicle development and production, infrastructure support, in-service operation and the further roll-out of bus priority measures. This package should involve local authorities and operators alike.

We have already seen the government commit to supporting the bus industry with what now looks like £3bn to help with the purchase of 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025, plus priority measures.

The continued commitment to the ‘all electric bus town’ is welcome too, as there will be lots of learning to come out of the programme that will help other operators and local authorities save time and money.

Both of these are welcome steps in supporting the shift to net zero carbon emissions, but there will be a requirement for more help over the coming decade. LowCVP estimates there will need to be £9-16bn of additional investment to shift 40,000 UK buses to zero-emission operation and away from diesel.

This is where the English BSOG tree needs to be shaken.

At the moment, an efficient diesel bus in England receives more funding under BSOG than does a battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell-electric bus. This is an obvious disincentive for operators to adopt such zero-emission technologies. Simply by increasing support for zero-emission buses while leaving the main BSOG diesel support alone would allow operators to begin the shift to zero-emissions without affecting existing business models.

Scotland updated its low carbon BSOG in 2019 so that operators would receive 30p/km in support for a zero-emission bus. England needs to do the same if it wants to see more all-electric bus towns spring up across the regions.

It’s also worth pointing out that there is no support for minibuses or coaches in terms of the £3bn or under BSOG. We don’t yet have a definition for a low- or ultra low-emission coach or minibus.

There’s already growing demand in these sectors, with the likes of National Express committing to 100% zero-emissions by 2035.

Developing these definitions and supporting manufacturers and operators now will leave us in good stead for the coming decades. If we fail to do so, we will lag behind our international colleagues and competitors and will have less to shout about when COP26 finally comes around.