Everyone’s take on the National Bus Strategy is different, but who better to comment on it than Thomas Ableman.
With a career in bus, rail and now the founder and CEO of Snap Travel Technology – a virtual coach company which has run 25m passenger miles without any coaches or drivers – he sees all sides of the issues, especially on ticketing integration and local politics.
He also runs the The Freewheeling Podcast which aims to be a platform for fresh voices and unconventional thinkers. Over lunch with Leon Daniels OBE he discusses the 21,000 words bus strategy – and importantly what’s not in in – plus, why bus company share prices didn’t move after its publication and why there was not a collective ‘gnashing of teeth’.
Thomas looks at the implications of the marriage of the words ‘discretionary’ and ‘funding’ in the document and explores whether the promised £3bn is vulnerable to future cuts. The strategy sets out the direction of travel – which is great news for those already in partnership – but, says
Thomas, in areas such as Luton that could be very different, and he explains why. “There’s lots of talking to be done by people who haven’t talked for many years,” he adds. Leon and Thomas mull over what could happen in local authority areas where the balance of power drifts between two parties – with just one or two councillors’ seats making the difference – and why a planned bus lane could change the balance of power.
Moving onto the affects for areas where there is no strong political leadership, Thomas adds that the Government has ‘weaponised’ dishonesty as a tool of leadership. He also reckons that there are dangers for the transport industry in thinking it’s “on the side of angels.” They also chew over the big missing item from all the Government’s slew of recent transport announcements: How do we replace the £3.8bn of fuel duty, as we move to net zero? Pondering the likelihood of road pricing and the possible options, Thomas sets out why it needs to be started now and “can’t be a policy in five years’ time.”
Other aspects that touch on buses, but have been ignored by the strategy are debated, including how to deal with the “inter-departmental chasm” that sees major schemes, such as planning for hospitals, schools and business parks, “failing the bus industry.” Thomas explains why a statutory duty to consult about bus services as part of the planning process should be a statutory duty, in the same way as it is already for cycling. “It would be an easy win as a lot of the improvements, especially before making the planning application, are zero cost.”
He concludes by talking about why bus fares pricing should follow coffee shops and fast-food places, leveraging contactless and enabling incremental price changes, so that the bus industry gets to the same place as TfL is, where people don’t complain – or even notice – about the detail of TfL fares.