I’m struck by a comment in Greener Journey’s press release launching Catch the Bus Week that “urges passengers, bus operators and local authorities to work together to encourage the switch from car to bus.”
Yet it was Buses Minister Nusrat Ghani who launched the week-long event, when it seems the government has no role in encouraging the switch from car to bus, at least according to this statement in the press release. It’s apparently all down to passengers, operators and local authorities.
Which must be wrong. Because we are told by a study by Arup that up to 23% of car users would consider switching to buses if they were quicker and more reliable.
It’s true that local authorities can play a big part in making buses quicker and more reliable by better highway management. But the government can have a major role to play too by introducing road pricing. If people are to be persuaded to get out of their cars, the cost of motoring has to go up.
It’s true that the introduction of road pricing in towns and cities is a matter for local authorities, not central government. It’s also true that local referenda in Edinburgh and Greater Manchester rejected the idea.
But that was some years ago, since when congestion has got worse, as has pollution.
Attitudes towards road pricing might be changing. Moreover, if motorists saw that income from road pricing was ploughed back into road and public transport investment, they may be much more willing to pay.
We are making a tentative first step with this in 2020 when the Road Fund will be established, into which all income from vehicle excise duty will be paid and hypothecated for investment back into the strategic road network.
But we need to go much, much further.
The government really must take the lead on road pricing. After all, if the government isn’t prepared to introduce road pricing on its strategic road network, why should local authorities stick their necks out and do so on their networks?
I would be much happier seeing ministers seeking publicity through photo-shoots – such as that launching Catch the Bus Week – if they were prepared to take more of a lead in addressing the single biggest issue that deters bus use – congestion.
Road-pricing needs cross-party consensus. Otherwise there is a high risk that it becomes a party-political issue at local and national elections, and that would only encourage parties to seek electoral popularity by opposing its introduction.
But before cross-party consensus is possible, we probably also need a much more informed debate about the benefits of road pricing and how it could actually be a highly progressive form of taxation, if properly applied.