Buses are vital lifelines to our local communities here in Barnsley and across South Yorkshire, where around a quarter of households do not have access to a car. For those families, buses are their primary means of getting to where they need and want to go – for work, education and leisure.
But the numbers of people using buses have fallen significantly over the past decade. Over the last 10 years, bus patronage is down 18% and more and more routes are not being run at full capacity. This inevitably creates problems as bus companies take declining passenger numbers as evidence of the need to cut bus routes or reduce the frequency of services in some areas. This can have a particularly damaging effect in more rural areas, where declining patronage has meant villages having their bus services cut to one per day – or being removed all together. Older people, for whom buses are often their only way of connecting with friends and family, are put at greater risk of loneliness and social isolation by irregular and absent bus routes.
In my manifesto last year I pledged to use the Mayor’s powers to improve our bus networks: looking at franchising and re-regulation to improve the quality and frequency of services and supporting the creation of new co-operative bus services. But I cannot transform our buses without hearing from those on the frontline – the passengers, transport worker and operators – about what needs to change. We need to take evidence from our travelling public on what they think of our bus services to gather an evidence base which can be used to inform future decisions.
That is why I have launched an independent review of our buses in South Yorkshire to make recommendations to me about how we can improve local services and make the wider bus transport sector more sustainable. This will mean more environmentally friendly buses, more routes and more passengers.
Those with long memories will recall that throughout the 1980s, South Yorkshire had one of the best public transport systems in Europe – publicly-owned, fully subsidised and providing fantastic value for money for local people across the county. Our buses were renowned for the fact that young people could travel anywhere in South Yorkshire for 2p! Whilst the days of 2p bus rides may, sadly, be a thing of the past, it is my ambition that South Yorkshire people once again enjoy the best public transport in Europe – including a bus fleet that is reliable, affordable and minimises the impact on our environment.
This is what my Transport Strategy aims to deliver. Not only will this improve our public transport, it will also enable people to travel in a more active way and enjoy healthier lifestyles. Too often, the debate around how we improve our public transport has been dominated by the railways. Whilst rail is undoubtedly important, there is no use pouring money into trains for them to run in isolation. For any Transport Strategy to work effectively, it needs to ensure that all forms of transport – rail, bus and tram, walking and cycling – are seamlessly integrated and working cohesively.
Clearly, this process will take time. But over the next year stakeholders, interest groups and members of the public will have their opportunity to contribute to the independent bus review. I hope that everyone will get involved in this review and feed in their ideas to help shape the future direction of our public transport system here in South Yorkshire.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 8 March 2019.