Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Oxfordshire County Council (Bus 46)



  1.  Oxfordshire County Council has long recognised the crucial role of public transport in the lives of the County's residents and businesses and has pursued policies which support and encourage its use. This has given us an insight into the issues that effect delivery of bus services, strategies and projects. The Council's Local Transport Plan has set out very challenging targets of achieving 5 per cent passenger growth each year in urban areas and 2 per cent in rural areas.

  2.  In Oxfordshire around 34 million passenger journeys are made each year on local buses, representing 55 trips per person, averaged over the County's population of 626,000. About 94 per cent of these are made on commercial services.

  3.  The Government's 10-Year Plan provides a valuable framework on which authorities like Oxfordshire can build. The capital allocations available for transport through the Local Transport Plan settlement should enable us to raise the quality of bus travel. There is a risk however, that success could be constrained by the way in which authorities interface with the bus industry and the barriers that currently exist. Many of these issues are referred to in this submission. If local and national objectives and targets for passenger growth are to be met, we need to raise the quality of the total bus journey experience, year on year. Without a fundamental change in the fiscal policies that determine the relationship between the relative costs to the users of bus travel and the private car, continuously raising the quality of bus travel will remain the key way to resist transfer of trips from bus to the private car.

  4.  Oxfordshire, in keeping with other authorities, is having difficulty in funding feasibility work on the development of public transport quality projects, since the capital allocations cannot be used for this purpose.

  5.  For many years now, Oxfordshire has bucked the national trend, and achieved significant increases in bus patronage. In 2000, most parts of the County probably had the highest level of bus services there has ever been and a very large proportion are operated by modern low-floor, low emission vehicles.

  6.  While it is difficult to disaggregate all the different factors which have been at work, it is possible to offer some reasons why Oxfordshire's bus services have flourished in this way. These include:

    —  Consistent application, over a long period of time, of transport, traffic management and planning policies, that have created an environment which has improved the operational performance of buses and encouraged bus operators to invest. (The background to this is dealt with more fully in the section headed "Bus Priority Measures, Enforcement and Restraint").

    —  Political determination and commitment.

    —  Resisting "cherry picking". The restraint "sticks" have been applied alongside the investment "carrots".

    —  Pragmatic, but largely informal working relationships with bus operators

    —  Aspects of the deregulated environment have proved effective where there is potential for significant passenger growth. These specifically include a greater responsiveness to the market and the opportunities this can offer, and also the tendency to focus on a relatively simple network, avoiding circuitous routing.

    —  Higher service frequencies that have been achieved would appear to be a major factor in encouraging greater patronage.

    —  The physical geography of Oxford, which has made it easier for sections of the public to accept the need for some degree of restraint on use of the private car.

  7.  Oxfordshire County Council welcomes the powers contained in the Transport Act 2000 to improve information and has responded by establishing a small team to focus on this. An information strategy is now in place following consultations with operators and others and implementation of this will follow over the coming months. The Council hopes that operators themselves will take the lead in delivering improved information, but is ready to step in when necessary to ensure the standards are met. The Traveline system is also an excellent initiative and will deliver major benefits once the issues around the quality of information and standards of delivery are addressed.

  8.  The Council also welcomes the powers to require operators to enter into Joint Ticketing schemes. The application of this in Oxfordshire is yet to be fully explored, but could bring major benefits to passengers. While we would prefer that operators themselves took the initiative in delivering such schemes, the Competition Act is currently seen as a barrier to this.

  9.  Welcome links have been developed between rail and bus operators, some of which have been facilitated by the County Council. This has however largely been the result of individual bus and rail operators coming to arrangements about specific services. There is no consistency in how this operates across the County and there is a lack of co-ordinated information available to the public.


  10.  The County Council's experience to date of the Challenge Bid process has been less than satisfactory. To develop a proposal and submit a sound worthwhile bid, which will engender community support, necessitates a considerable commitment of staff time. All too often, such efforts prove fruitless and the time could have been spent more usefully on delivery of other projects.

  11.  Bids are often invited for funds involving capital expenditure, whether related to the Bus Challenge or on other transport related projects. Given the issue mentioned in paragraph four above, there is a case for the DTLR considering a different approach. It could instead identify which authorities are best addressing the particular objectives under consideration, whether this relates to Bus Challenge Funding or other initiatives. Authorities that can demonstrate they are addressing the issues and achieving results could then be awarded higher levels of discretionary capital allocation.

  12.  There is also concern about the viability of Challenge funded schemes beyond their initially defined life. While some schemes can hopefully become viable within this period, others are likely to prove unsuccessful and be withdrawn. Of more concern are those schemes in between, which might show encouraging trends, but will need further revenue support beyond the Challenge fund period. Given the time and effort likely to have been put into their development, it would be unfortunate were promising initiatives to be withdrawn at this stage, but this could well be the result given the pressure on authorities' revenue budgets.

  13.  Rural Transport Partnerships are increasingly working to develop community-led services especially in those areas where conventional bus services are unlikely to be viable or offer good value for money. This is another worthwhile initiative, but as with Bus Challenge funding it is constrained by the need for a clear "exit strategy" at the end of the funding period. In reality there are few potential schemes which will only need initial funding. Most will continue to require some subsidy.


  14.  The costs of operating bus services has been running ahead of inflation over an extended period so, in real terms, the same sum of money buys less bus service each year. In recent times in Oxfordshire, costs for non-commercially provided services (as evidenced mainly through the tendering process) have been subject to equivalent annual inflation rates of around 10 per cent.

  15.  There are a number of factors that affect this, but in recent times the shortage of bus drivers has had a significant impact. Operators are surrendering contracts that they are finding it difficult to operate, while the County Council is finding the number of tenders returned falling still further, such that for many services there is no effective competition and this is also likely to be reflected in the tender price. Many companies have been awarding large pay increases to retain existing staff and help fill vacancies. There are encouraging signs that this is achieving the objective of restoring staffing levels, but is inevitably feeding through into higher fares and higher tender prices.

  16.  Oxfordshire currently has a robust and successful commercial bus network, but in keeping with most parts of the country, there are more dispersed areas, which are never likely to support a totally commercial bus service. There are also many other areas of the County where commercial services are not available at weekends or in the evenings. The Rural Bus Service Grant and the additional flexibility it now contains has helped the Council broadly retain existing levels of service. This has only been possible however, because the Council has, over the same period, been increasing its budget for bus revenue support well ahead of standard price inflation. It has risen from £1,054 million in 1999/2000 to £2.049 million in 2002/03, an 85 per cent increase in real terms. This has enabled the Council to broadly retain service levels, and cope not only with inflation in tendered services, but also replace commercial withdrawals and tendered services surrendered early. Given the overall pressures on the Council's revenue budgets however, this approach cannot be sustained indefinitely.


  17.  Currently, there is only one agreement with bus operators in Oxfordshire, dating back to 1999 and covering Oxford City. While we have achieved a lot with local operators through informal partnership working, we do envisage the need to enter into more formal agreements in the next few years as we commit ourselves to significant capital investment on bus priorities, highway infrastructure and information systems.

  18.  While the make up of any Quality Partnership agreement will vary, the current provisions in the Transport Act do not allow frequencies to be specified. Apart from the need to prescribe a minimum service level, it is also important that we have the powers to even out headways. It is the Council's intention to develop a system of quality bus corridors (Premium Routes). In many cases, these corridors are currently already—or are likely in the future—to have two or more operators running over much of the length. If most of the buses run a few minutes apart from each other, followed by a large time interval without any, the full benefits to the passenger of a quality high frequency service will be dissipated.

  19.  In many locations there are variations in the routes taken by bus operators, and these are subject to change. If the Country Council is to have the confidence to invest large capital sums as currently planned, in bus priority measures and major upgrades to bus stop and interchange infrastructure, we need the confidence that operators will continue to provide services to an appropriate frequency along the route being upgraded.

  20.  The Transport Act 2000, envisages Quality Contracts very much as a measure of last resort. While we do not envisage wanting to use these powers in the foreseeable future in Oxfordshire, there does appear to be a case for making the procedures for their introduction more flexible, so that they could be developed much quicker where the justification was demonstrated. If the Quality Partnership powers cannot be strengthened to secure effective control of frequencies and headways, it may well be that authorities like ourselves will fee compelled to proceed down the Quality Contract route, if it is seen as the only appropriate way to protect our investment.


  21.  It is now 30 years since Oxford City Council introduced its Balanced Transport Policy. It resolved not to proceed with construction of new roads and car parks which were on the City Development Plan, but instead focus on making more efficient use of the existing road space and taking steps to encourage the use of all non-car modes, while providing for essential and priority services.

  22.  The key components of this have been:

    —  Extensive bus priority measures including bus lanes, bus gates and provision of priority at traffic signals.

    —  A network of cycle lanes and tracks, complemented by generous provision of cycle parking spaces.

    —  Improved facilities for pedestrians, with numerous new crossings and pedestrian phases introduced within traffic signal controlled junctions.

    —  Development of arguably the country's best used bus based park and ride operation, currently with nearly 4,000 parking spaces, to be expanded later in the year to over 5,000 spaces including provision of a fifth site.

    —  Effective control over public parking. In central Oxford there are less than 2,000 public off-street parking places, with a typical charge of £1.50 an hour rising to £15 a day. There are also around 500 on-street parking spaces, with a charge of £1.50 an hour and a two-hour maximum stay. There are also extensive areas covered by residents parking zones, to address the problem of displaced commuter parking. Oxford is a designated Special Parking Area with decriminalised enforcement undertaken under contract to the County Council.

    —  Land Use Planning policies which have limited the traffic impact of new development. Growth in retail and office floor space has continued in central Oxford over this time, but only essential operational parking has been permitted at each site. Any notional shortfalls in parking have generally been converted via planning agreements, into expansions and improvement of the park and ride facilities.

  23.  In 1991, following increasing concerns about environmental conditions in central Oxford, the County Council commissioned a new study. Working jointly with the City Council and after extensive consultation, the Oxford Transport Strategy (OTS) was adopted by both Councils in 1993 and developed jointly. While much of the strategy involved a continuation of the policies that had already been pursued for 20 years, it involved a crucial change to the use of roadspace in the centre of Oxford.

  24.  The study had shown that up to 25 per cent of traffic in Oxford's High Street had no origin and destination within the central area. By displacing this, in June 1999, it has been possible to create both a larger area of traffic free streets, and a Priority Route for buses around the core pedestrianised area. General traffic has been pushed further out, although servicing traffic is allowed onto the bus priority route. Vehicles are prevented from driving directly through the centre by a series of restriction points through which only cycles, buses, taxis, private hire and emergency service vehicles are permitted to pass. Oxford High Street is closed to through traffic between 07.30 and 18.30.

  25.  Many buses now have a longer route around the city centre, but there are largely freed from congestion and have a more predictable journey time. Accessibility to the city centre by bus has been greatly enhanced relative to the car, particularly from the East.

  26.  Between 1991 and 2001, local bus journeys into Oxford increased by 50 per cent. More recently growth has been curtailed, probably to a large degree as a result of the unreliability and service cutbacks that stemmed from the severe driver shortages. Park and Ride has had a crucial role in enhancing accessibility into the centre of Oxford. Without it there would be 9 per cent more vehicle trips a day into the centre, and in particular 27 per cent more during the morning peak period.

  27.  the major changes to the central area road network in 1999 as part of OTS have had the following initial effects:

    —  Bus patronage increased by 9 per cent in the first year (2,000 passengers a day).

    —  Use of public car parks fell by 14 per cent (700 cars a day).

    —  Overall more people are entering the city centre.

    —  Traffic levels in central Oxford—largely unchanged between 1972 and 1999—fell by 20 per cent.

  28.  The proportion of people travelling by bus into Oxford has increased dramatically since 1991 as the following pie charts show. More people now access the city by bus than by car.

  29.  Long-term confidence in Oxford as a retailing centre is high, with a number of new developments already in place and the submission of a planning application to double the size of its largest shopping centre—with no additional parking spaces in the city centre—has gained the support of the City and County Councils.

  30.  There are many new initiatives under development to enhance the quality of bus services in the County, including:

    —  The introduction of the Premium Route Network, where significant capital expenditure on bus priorities, infrastructure and information systems will be focused on those corridors which will be capable by 2011 of sustaining commercially a minimum service level of four buses an hour.

    —  The Guided Transit Express (GTE) project which involves creation of a busway alongside the existing north-south railway line, and will enable buses from all over the County to enjoy a segregated express route from the outskirts of the City directly into the City centre.

    —  Further enhancements to Oxford's park and ride facilities, including the possible development of remote sites eg at the A40 near Witney, linked to Oxford by bus lanes and/or a segregated guided busway.

    —  Development of Integrated Transport Strategies for all the main County towns, largely enshrining the same principles and objectives as the Oxford Transport Strategy.

  31.  Crucial to the success of these strategies is an appropriate level of enforcement. Making measures as self-enforcing as possible would help and DTLR should do more to develop guidance and encourage best practice, for instance establishing standard colouring for bus lanes that would make them immediately recognisable to motorists. Effective enforcement is still required and DTLR should be introducing the long promised new regulations for camera enforcement of bus lanes and the introduction of mandatory 24-hour Bus Stop Clearways, without further delay. We also need to move beyond these to use camera technology to tackle illegal parking and loading outside of bus lanes. There are a number of locations in Oxford for example, where buses are regularly delayed throughout the day by stationary vehicles. Motorists are often popping into a shop for a few minutes or making withdrawals from cash machines. Each individual act only lasts a few minutes, making conventional enforcement extremely difficult, but as one car moves away another takes its place and the cumulative effect on traffic flow is substantial.


  32.  Despite the growth in bus patronage in Oxfordshire over the last decade, there remain many areas where changes to regulations would benefit the travelling public, and in particular encourage more modal transfer from car to bus.

  33.  Oxfordshire County Council is pleased that the minimum registration period has risen from 42 to 56 days and that the ability of operators to vary their timetables by up to five minutes has been curtailed. However, when faced with a service withdrawal, 56 days is still inadequate to consult the local community and invite tenders for replacement services. A minimum of 84 days is needed in these circumstances

  34.  Continuous changes to services make it impossible to provide comprehensive timetable information to the community. By the time documents are printed and distributed they are already likely to be incorrect. It also seriously reduces people's confidence in timetables, even for individual services. The lack of a clear end date means they risk turning up at any time and finding the service has changed. Just one such experience is likely to cause those with an alternative to give up on the bus. Also people who are relying on the bus to get them to work or school at a particular time, need the confidence that their service is not going to be withdrawn or changed at little notice. For these reasons, we would advocate that operators should only have the ability to change registrations with effect from two or three fixed dates each year. Any timetable printed could then be clearly marked with its expiry date and would function much like the National Rail timetable. Obviously there would need to be special powers to vary services in emergencies, perhaps where the appropriate local authority agrees, and where a strategy exists to ensure as far as practicable that the public are made aware of the changes.

  35.  Authorities should have the power to enter into longer contract periods than five years, where this can ensure that quality can be raised eg investment in new vehicles.

  36.   De minimus levels should be raised, both for individual contracts—to say £20,000—and to any individual operator—to say £100,000. This flexibility is particularly important in the situation when an authority is seeking a frequency enhancement. If an existing operator is providing say a bus every 90 minutes, it is not possible to invite tenders from other operators for an hourly service. This can only be achieved in practice by negotiating with the existing operator.

  37.  There is a need to raise the standards of driving and driver training, both in terms of customer care and specifically, disability awareness training. It should be a prerequisite for issue of a PCV licence, that a driver must have received training and achieved an appropriate level of competence.

  38.  A classification system needs to be developed for buses, with regard to exhaust emissions, such that participation in Quality Partnerships can be linked to provision of vehicles achieving a designated classification.

  39.  Finally, we must address the dwell time of buses at stops. The current operation of most services results in lengthy waits at bus stops, while passengers pay their fare or seek information from the driver. This results in lengthened journey times, waste of valuable vehicle and driver time and frustration for other passengers. It also necessitates provision of extensive kerbside space for bus stops, which is often difficult to provide in urban centres and places like Oxford where roads are narrow and congestion at stops delays other buses. Moves towards greater volumes of off-bus ticket sales are essential, but there is a case for exploring the kind of open boarding regime that is commonplace across Europe. This would enable the number of bus stops to be reduced and for those that are needed to be laid out more like tram stops, where one vehicle follows another onto the stop. In this way we would be able to consistently provide raised platforms and achieve the full benefits of low-floor vehicles. Oxfordshire would welcome the opportunity to participate in development of a pilot scheme to trial this.

Noel Newson

Group Manager, Sustainable Transport, Department of Environmental Services,

Oxfordshire County Council

26 April 2002

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