Off The Buses

A couple of weeks ago the West Leeds Dispatch had an interview with Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s member for transport where he claimed that his changes designed to increase bus use on Bradford Road and Stanningley Road would help to reduce congestion. I’ve been doing some research into this and found that this isn’t necessarily the case. The way the West Yorkshire bus network operates may be taken for granted by the bus operators but as a passenger I find it alarming to say the least. What I have found is that:

  • Leeds decided to spend of the bulk of its money from the West Yorkshire Transport Fund on buses and bus priority measures while its “transport conversation” in 2016 was already in progress
  • Bus usage in Leeds is in long term decline and in certain parts of Stanningley Road it has fallen by 60% between 2000 – 2017
  • The bus companies see private cars as their main opposition and they lobby strongly to put their point across
  • Bus priority measures are deliberately designed to increase congestion for non-bus traffic
  • This is in contrast to the Department for Transport Clean Air Zone implementation guidelines which recommend allowing traffic to flow freely to reduce congestion
  • Leeds has a statutory duty to publish a local transport plan showing how they intend to keep traffic flowing freely. However their plans only go as far as trying to get more people on buses and they don’t have any contingency plans if bus usage continues to fall

These are obviously pretty bold claims so let’s have a look at the evidence behind them.

A Bus Delivery Partnership agreement formed between Leeds City Council, First West Yorkshire and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority on the 5th of December 2016 commits to spending the majority of the funding from the cancelled trolley bus scheme on bus priority measures and to focus on buses in highways planning. The Leeds Transport Conversation ended on the 11th of November 2016 so this must have been decided as it was taking place. The First Group annual report for 2018 actually states that the £173 million from this scheme will be spent on buses and bus priority measures.

Figures from the DfT show that car use in the Leeds district has increased from 1,946,307 thousand vehicle miles in 2000 to 2,275,760 in 2017. Bus use has fallen from 21,700 in 2000 to 16,277 in 2017. On the stretch of road running from the end of Stanningley Bypass to Armley Prison car use fell from 19,555 thousand vehicle miles in 2000 to 15,548 in 2017, a decrease of 21%. Bus use fell from 747 thousand vehicle miles in 2000 to 293 in 2017, a decrease of 60%.

The long term decline in bus usage is backed up by evidence from other sources such as the West Yorkshire Transport Strategy Evidence Base and DfT local bus passenger journey statistics.

Let’s look at the Stanningley Road corridor in more detail. Since Armley Gyratory was built in the early 80s it has become the main route between Leeds and Bradford. Apart from a short stretch around Mike’s Carpets it is dual carriageway all the way to Stanningley Bypass. The extremely wide central reservation used to be used for trams. The 2+ lane was introduced in the late 90s. A study in 2002 for the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds found that it reduced journey times by 4 minutes and encouraged car sharing. A Freedom of Information Act request made in 2011 found that enforcement of the 2+ rule was extremely low and the fine for breaking it was only £30. Enforcement has largely been suspended but even when in operation it does not have a deterrent effect. One option that does not seem to have been considered is simply removing the 2+ lane and turning it back into a dual carriageway. Allowing traffic to flow freely along this route rather than narrowing it further will help to discourage rat running along Green Hill Road and Armley Town Street. The 2+ lane can currently be used by motorbikes. Converting it to a bus lane means that they will be forced into general traffic where they are more likely to have accidents. As a biker who uses this road fairly regularly this does cause me some concern.

The biggest bus companies in West Yorkshire are First Group and Arriva. Yorkshire Tiger Buses is wholly owned by Arriva but you can’t use tickets from one on the other. Stagecoach is the second biggest bus company in the UK but doesn’t operate in West Yorkshire. The First Group annual report for 2018 states that improved economic conditions are a risk to bus use because they could result in increased affordability for other forms of transport. It also states that one of their main competitors is the private car and that increased competition may lead to lost business, reduced revenue and reduced profitability.

Bus operators in West Yorkshire are represented by an organization called the Association of Bus Operators in West Yorkshire (ABOWY). It was formed in 2012 when the old West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority was proposing London-style bus franchising. Information about the ABOWY is difficult to find. Their website is offline and they are not listed as a limited company. Other metropolitan counties have similar organizations. The North East Bus Operators Association was set up in 2008 to oppose proposals by Tyne and Wear transport authority to introduce franchising. Their constitution is available online. The Greater Manchester Bus Operators Association is a limited company whose objects include “promoting, supporting or opposing legislative or other measures affecting the interests of members”, and “promoting, protecting and coordinating the interests of members”. The members are bus companies and none of the objects mention the interests of passengers or customers.

It could be argued that these are private companies who have the right to make a profit. However they receive a lot of public money through subsidies on unprofitable routes and concessionary fares. 24% of First Group’s revenue from buses comes from concessionary fare subsidies paid by cash-strapped local authorities. This equates to £211 million nationally. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority spent £74.8 million on subsidies and concessionary fares to bus companies in the financial year ending March 2018. The proposals for additional bus lanes will mean even more public money being spent on infrastructure that only they can use. With the long term decline in bus use it is a question worth asking whether the lobbying activities of the bus operators’ associations and their opposition to statutory regulation are for the benefit of passengers or an attempt to maintain the profits of their members.

Why doesn’t the WYCA operate its own buses? Unfortunately local authorities are banned from running buses themselves under section 22 of the Bus Services Act 2017.

One of the reasons the Supertram scheme was rejected was that First Leeds introduced a new “ftr” service along one of the proposed routes. These single decker bendy buses were redeployed from York to Leeds, and finally to Swansea where they were scrapped due to their high cost. They were eventually replaced with standard double decker buses. When the Trolley Bus system was proposed First borrowed a spare “Borismaster” bus and suggested they might introduce 200 of them across Leeds. This behaviour goes back to the points in their annual report that they really don’t like competition.

Congestion and air pollution is a major issue for Leeds. So much so that a clean air zone will be introduced in December. The DfT guidelines are pretty clear that the purpose is to improve air quality rather than generating revenue. Any money raised from charging can only be used to administer the scheme. Leeds will have a “Category B” clean air zone which covers taxis, buses and heavy goods vehicles but not light goods vehicles, private cars or motorbikes. Apart from encouraging use of less polluting vehicles there are recommendations to improve traffic flow by improving junctions, optimising traffic signalling to reduce queuing and so forth.

Unfortunately bus priority measures are actually designed to increase congestion of non-bus traffic. In 1997 the DfT published a document called Keeping Buses Moving. It states: “Giving priority to buses can cause other traffic some additional delay which should be assessed and taken into account in the overall appraisal. However, environmental considerations and overall transport policy objectives for the area in question may thus strengthen the case for providing priority for buses, even at the expense of delay to other vehicles. Bus priority measures can themselves be a component in a demand management strategy by reducing the road space available to cars.” In 2018 the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation published another document called Buses In Urban Developments. This makes a number of recommendations to limit non-bus traffic, such as reducing the amount of parking and raising prices, diverting non-bus traffic to less direct routes, reducing speed limits, building bus stop “boarders” out into the road to discourage parking and to slow down other vehicles, and taking road space away. It is also worth pointing out that the latest proposals for Scott Hall Road include keeping it as 2 lanes for general traffic in both directions between Street Lane and Potternewton Lane to allow traffic to flow freely.

Local authorities are required to “secure the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority’s road network” under section 16 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 and to publish a local transport plan explaining how they will do this. This is backed up by other legislation such as the Local Transport Act 2008. This responsibility is shared between Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. The WYCA transport plan covers a range of measures covering roads and railways. The Leeds Transport Strategy is very vague in places and the only real concrete suggestions cover buses and cycle lanes. I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to ask what contingency plans or alternatives there are if bus use continues to fall and got back a couple of paragraphs of waffle which suggests they don’t have any. As mentioned above, bus priority measures are deliberately designed to slow down other forms of traffic. If usage continues to fall there is a danger of underutilized bus infrastructure alongside even more congested roads.

There is a need to sort out transport in Leeds and buses are an important part of the Leeds transport network. However deciding that buses are the answer before thinking about the question is not the right approach. Leeds City Council needs to be more assertive with the bus operators rather than simply rolling over and giving them what is good for their profitability. They have lobbying organizations set up to resist regulated services and are not averse to spoiler tactics to discourage competition. If bus usage continues to fall, Leeds seriously needs to think about alternatives.

Setting Off

There are a lot of transport blogs out there. Some are for enthusiasts. Some are written by frustrated commuters. Some are for the transport industry. My plan for this one is a bit different. Leeds is often stated to be the biggest city that doesn’t have a mass transit system like trams or an underground. Behind the scenes there are lots of ulterior motives, hidden agendas and vested interests all wanting their own thing. There are a lot fewer blogs looking at the transport system from the point of view of someone who just wants to get from A to B.

In the early 80s I wondered why, if the trains were supposed to have been operated by British Rail, the local ones seemed to be operated by Metro Train. Since then I’ve been interested in how the West Yorkshire transport network works and why. There’s a lot more to it than just buses and trains. Buses need roads to run on and trains need infrastructure for the railway lines and for people and freight to get on the network. Other forms of transport have their own requirements. This all needs money and often legal powers. Particularly in these times of public spending cuts there can be conflicting priorities. At times it can get quite nasty. This is often buried deep within official documents and carefully worded press releases. They’re generally not secret but can be very obscure.

What I want to do therefore is cut through some of this and find out what’s really happening. Why do alternatives to buses keep getting blocked? Why is Leeds City Council spending so much on new bus lanes when bus use is in long term decline? Why can’t motorbikes use bus lanes? Why does Leeds City Council have one transport policy and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority have another? This blog will also be something of a repository for stuff I find. Legislation and consultants’ reports might not be the most interesting reading but they are how policy is formed and implemented. What can be interesting is putting them next to official statements and interviews in the local press. I’ve also put in the odd Freedom of Information Act request to ask questions that might not have been asked. This blog will concentrate on the Leeds area but it might occasionally cover other areas. As a biker I’m also interested in how law and politics can affect motorbikes. Whether we leave the EU or not European legislation will still have a big influence on what happens.