Begg – Edinburgh must future-proof its buses

This article first appeared in ‘Passenger Transport’ issue 315, and is reproduced here with the editor’s agreement.

Out now: Issue 315 of Passenger Transport

Professor David Begg has warned his home city to respond to an increase in bus journey times by extending bus lane hours and vociferous campaigning

David Begg (right) with Edinburgh Bus Users Group chair Harald Tobermann and his dog Buster

It’s a warning that could be applied to cities across the United Kingdom, but on this occasion Professor David Begg was talking about his home city of Edinburgh: future-proof your bus network against further increases in journey times or risk decline.

Begg, former chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport, spoke at a meeting of the Edinburgh Bus Users Group in the Scottish capital last week.

While hailing Edinburgh’s transport system as “one of the best in the UK”, the former Edinburgh councillor urged the group to mobilise bus users and hold politicians to account on bus speeds. He also called on the city’s council-owned bus operator, Lothian Buses, to be more forceful in speaking up for bus users.

Begg lamented that statistics on bus journey times are not readily accessible. However, he cited City of Edinburgh Council’s strategic business case for funding from the Scottish Government’s “paused” £500m Bus Partnership Fund, which revealed that “bus journey times in Edinburgh continue to increase as a result of congestion – by nearly 20% in the last 10 years on certain corridors”.

Begg pointed out that this decline is despite the roll-out of ‘TapTapCap’ contactless ticketing and capping by Lothian. He said that contactless ticketing had reduced boarding times to just 1.5 seconds per passenger, compared to six seconds per passenger required to process ‘exact fare’ cash payments.

In June 2016, Begg produced a report for Greener Journeys – The impact of congestion on bus users – which found that bus journey times had been rising by almost 1% per annum on average across the UK’s most congested conurbations. His conclusion was that this trend was largely responsible for the decline in bus use – with the evidence suggesting that “a 10% decrease in speeds reduces patronage by at least 10%”.

At that time, Edinburgh had been one of the few UK cities to buck the trend of falling bus speeds, at least for a decade. Between 1986 and 1996, scheduled bus speeds increased by 5% as a result of better conventional bus priority, culminating in the radical ‘Greenways’ bus priority scheme – which was implemented in 1997 when Begg was chair of the council’s transport committee.

However, this legacy had already begun to dissipate through weaker enforcement of bus lanes and the removal of bus priority during off-peak periods in 2015.

When the Greenways were introduced they operated six days a week between 7am and 7pm. And, thanks to a good working relationship with the police, bus lane offenders were 15 times more likely to be penalised than today.

He asked: “Why have bus journey times deteriorated by 20% in Edinburgh over the last decade? Has it got anything to do with the fact that bus priority has been diluted? … You’d better believe it is.”

Begg said that the network could be future-proofed against further decline in bus speeds if the Scottish Government resumes the Bus Partnership Fund and supports Edinburgh’s “fantastic” bid for bus priority improvements on eight key transport corridors, which seeks to reduce journey times by 10% and journey time variability by 25%. “You get a cost to benefit ratio of 13 to 1,” he said. “Nothing compares with this. I don’t see any other project that compares with this.”

In the meantime, however, Begg believes that bus campaigners should focus on getting back to having bus lanes operate between 7am and 7pm – seven days a week.

He acknowledged that supporting bus priority measures is not always the politically expedient option (opponents of bus lanes used to call him “Bottleneck Begg”). Urging bus users to become more vocal, he recalled: “I never got anyone coming into my surgery when I was a councillor asking for more bus priority. I got plenty of people coming in complaining about bus priority.”

He said: “Politicians now, whoever makes the weather, they will adapt to it … Try and make that weather and get the politicians to do the right thing.”

Begg would also like to see Lothian Buses apply more pressure. He remarked: “Municipal bus companies are a great thing. Does it help in terms of the local authority giving more bus priority? Probably – but there is a downside. Even though Lothian, I think, is the best bus company in the UK, the downside is they don’t always challenge their shareholder. So when the shareholder, the council, diluted bus priority, they maybe could have been much more upfront.”

Having generated some press interest in buses during his visit to Scotland, Begg was disappointed by Lothian’s response. “It wasn’t as strong as I’d like it to be,” he said. “I’d like a statement from Lothian Buses saying ‘Yes, we need much better bus priority and this is crucial for our bus passengers’.”