OPINION: Buses can be a Levelling Up tool - Alex Hornby, Harrogate Bus Company

Buses on a cliff-edge? To those old enough, I am conscious that this may conjure up memories of the final scene of BBC comedy The Young Ones where Vivian drives a Routemaster off a cliff – right through a Cliff Richard Summer Holiday advert.

By Gemma Jimmison
Thursday, 4th August 2022, 11:09 am
Bus lanes are seen as critical in areas with huge pressure for urban space such as Mexico City.
Bus lanes are seen as critical in areas with huge pressure for urban space such as Mexico City.

Life seemed so straight forward then!

However, the overall picture for buses shows our industry to be at a crossroads, and it is no laughing matter.

Many areas right across the UK will see Covid and recovery funding support for buses cut from October.

North Yorkshire is one of those areas that did not attract Bus Service Improvement Plan funding and some areas of the region will come under real pressure.

However, I think it is misplaced to be negative or overly concerned at what that means for Harrogate.

Here, we have a comparatively thriving bus system and, us, as a bus operator that thinks long-term.

Thanks to years of careful investment, strong promotion and a quality offer, usage in buses in Harrogate recovered well once the lockdown eras subsided.

The government’s commitment to ‘greenify’ buses, along with our own considerable £15m contribution, means our current electric fleet will be complemented with a full conversion to zero-emission.

This will create a world class offer for our town.

The picture will be completed with a renewal of our school bus fleet which is happening this Autumn.

What we don’t enjoy is the poor investment in infrastructure.

Bus shelters are beginning to show their age, and other modes are often prioritised for road space despite the inefficiency of doing so.

If road space was judged on efficiency of movement of people, rather than vehicles, we would gain significantly more bus lanes in Harrogate than the zero inches we currently have.

As we approach the October ‘cliff edge’, we are confident that – in some shape or form – the government will want to show its support to the industry.

However, that prediction is likely based on the current government ideology.

Boris Johnson and his team in Number 10 were one of the first political forces that understood that bus users were also voters – and, given over four billion bus journeys are made every year in the UK - that’s quite a bit of influence on your side if you seek to please them, and so they began to take buses seriously.

We – as an industry – and I believe, right here in Harrogate we are leading by example – are demonstrating that buses can be a Levelling Up tool, a positive enabler to the local economy and a decarbonisation solution.

Politicians and decision makers are now really beginning to understand that.

The proof will be in the pudding.

Whilst I believe Harrogate will continue to enjoy a great bus system – with improvements and enhancements to come – this vision of what the bus is capable of must come with funding to the things us as private operators are not permitted to do.

It is of course deeply ironic that the customer’s number one demand of punctuality is the one left for others to truly enable – and helping buses battle through the traffic, and giving people car-like journey times, is key to ensuring a bus system doesn’t hang on a cliff edge, but is financially sustainable and powerful enough to truly fly.