UK Plans Green Modernization of Buses

Government commits to funding 4,000 electric and/or hydrogen buses outside of London as part of its Bus Back Better strategy.

Bus driver charging electric bus at charging station
Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

While electric cars are certainly preferable to gas-powered ones, they have one fairly major drawback: They’re still cars.

That means they are a relatively heavy, inefficient, safe, and expensive way to move most individuals around – especially in urban areas where alternatives exist. Electric buses, on the other hand, are awesome, and they are slowly taking over. While not every city has a 100% electric bus fleet yet, there is good reason to believe that they will eventually become the norm.

So it’s exciting to see the U.K. government commit to funding 4,000 electric and/or hydrogen buses as part of Bus Back Better, its everywhere-outside-of-London strategy for improving England’s bus services. By investing in new, clean, comfortable, and quiet buses, the government will send a signal that buses – and the people who ride on them – are a priority that’s worth investing in. (The strategy also proposes reforming government grant funding, so that it is no longer paid based on the amount of fuel used, for fairly obvious reasons.)

Crucially, however, the strategy doesn’t just focus on introducing zero-emission buses. Instead, it seeks to rethink how bus services operate as the nation emerges from the pandemic. Here’s how the report makes the case for buses as a critical (and nimble) way to get communities moving: :

“Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport. Building a new railway or road takes years, if not decades. Better bus services can be delivered in months. Experience shows that relatively small sums of money, by the standards of transport spending, can deliver significant benefits.”

As the quote above suggests, the stated goal of the strategy is to take crucial lessons from London’s relatively successful investments in bus infrastructure, and adapt them to towns and cities and rural areas outside of the dense capital city area. This is an exciting prospect. If my own experiences of commuting in my twenties from Bristol, England to a small town just 15 miles away are anything to go by, regional bus services can be expensive, unpleasant, and profoundly unreliable. And consequently, buses have too often been seen as an inferior transport option only for those who can’t use or afford a car.

Areas of Opportunity Highlighted Bus Back Better include:

  • Better coordination among operators: Meaning single, city-wide maps and better communication between different bus companies.
  • Simpler, cheaper ticketing: Having regularly had to change bus services during my U.K. commutes, I can attest that ticketing was confusing. The Bus Back Better strategy suggests simple-to-understand, low, flat fares in cities that can be used on multiple routes, and cheaper point-to-point fares in rural areas too.
  • Consistent routes, branding, and times: Meaning more frequent services, and more consistency between daytime and evening routes. The report also suggests branding bus services by community, not the company that operates them.
  • Accessible, attractive infrastructure: The strategy also paints a picture of bus stops and stations that are attractive, integrated with other modes of transport, and that are 100% accessible to people with disabilities. Whether it’s real-time route information, or priority lanes and accessible Bus Rapid Transit-style “platforms” to make the experience smooth, there’s certainly much to be learned from thinking about buses as more than just very large cars.

Of course, as with any government strategy, the proof will be in the execution. It is encouraging, however, to see resources and real thought being invested in buses – especially outside of London where bus use is far less ubiquitous. Given how polarizing mass transit has become over in the United States with Republicans getting furious about some transit-related COVID relief – it’s also encouraging to see the report get an enthusiastically pro-bus foreword/introduction from Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

As of yet, there’s no specific date stated for 100% zero-emission bus services – at least not beyond the government’s already stated goal of achieving net-zero as a nation by 2050. And given that only 2% of England’s fleet is zero-emission today, there is a long way to go. However, the report does state that many operators are already committed to zero-emission or ultra-low emission purchases from 2025 onwards. Given the maintenance and operations benefits of electric, I would not be shocked to see a relatively rapid transition once we reach certain tipping points.