In the latest in a series of articles examining bus services in West Yorkshire - and growing calls for a major overhaul of the network - Aisha Iqbal speaks to public transport campaigners in Leeds.
A public bus network that really serves the public.
That’s all Mark Harwood and hundreds of bus campaigners across Leeds want. And, with their burgeoning grassroots movement – which has already seen them secure pledges of support from key players – they hope they are already on the route to success.
Mr Harwood is leader of a better buses campaign launched by the Leeds Citizens community organising movement last year.
He is also a minister at Roscoe Methodist Church, which has been a key source of gauging opinion on public transport from a cross-generational cohort of regular bus users.
Speaking in response to growing calls for Leeds and West Yorkshire to take up the option of franchising its bus networks, if and when the Government’s new Buses Bill comes to fruition, he said: “You have all these political arguments and discussions, but people just want to use the bus, have a good reliable service and buses that are clean, tidy, cheap and regular. These are the issues that really matter.”
Mr Harwood and his colleagues have been hard at work lobbying senior figures from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and bus operators.
It has already led to West Yorkshire’s biggest bus firm, First, agreeing to co-sign a four point covenant designed to improve services overall, and - says the camapign group - to carry out a year-long internal audit of the quality of customer service it is offering.
Mr Harwood’s extended research - involving interviewing scores of bus travellers - has shown that for many people, the main bus routes in Leeds are not designed in a way that supports communities.
“They are good for employment and shopping, and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you are in Chapeltown and you want to go to Headingley, it’s only a mile and a half, but you have to go into the city centre and back out. Or you want go to St James’s hospital from Chapeltown and you have to get two buses.
“You have some locations like Richmond Hill which are islands of no buses or just the odd one.
“We spoke to pupils from Abbey Grange and David Young Academy who said they are often late for school because they have to get two buses, even though it’s only a mile and a half away.
“What we are saying is you can’t have perfect services everywhere, but you do have to look at the routes.”
He joked that he gets irritated when he visits his daughter in London, and there is a bus every minute with easy electronic all-in-one ticketing. He believes a city as large and influential as Leeds deserves a similarly seamless service.
Fellow campaigner Tom Chigbo is especially critical of the way the frequency of our bus routes is organised - with huge numbers of services to the city centre, but erratic links across communities.
“Our network is designed around economic life and shopping,” he said.
“It doesn’t take into account relationships, community, and other sides to life like visiting family and friends and connecting communities.
“We have lots of testimonies from people saying their experience at the bus stop is diminished by the fact that you turn up and you can’t get the information you need, or the shelter is a mess, or typically you get a bus stop which has a list of random words like Garforth and Middleton and Harewood or whatever.
“Apparently from that you are supposed to know where your bus goes. and what route it takes. It’s a terrible system.”
He is advocating the use of London-style ‘spider maps’ showing each stop, better digital message boards and a host of features to streamline services.
“From our perspective, the important thing is not the political makeup or structure of how all those things are organised,” he said.
“Because you can have badly run state services, and you can have badly run deregulated services.
“The important things for us are we want strong relationships of accountability with whoever has got power over these things.
“Whether it’s First or the combined authority, whoever runs the bus route, we want the conversation about how we can make that bus route more effective.”
WHAT IS THE LEEDS CITIZENS BUS COVENANT?
The covenant is a pledge between communities, bus companies and West Yorkshire Combined Authority to promote mutual respect and good behaviour on buses from the public and bus drivers.
Key aims include: to provide route maps and information displays at bus stops; to reclassify non-city centre routes as a High Frequency route (eg, 8, 38, 61, 86, 91); to investigate the costs of allowing senior and disabled pass holders to travel free before 9.30am; reducing fares for young people in education; increasing frequency of night services.
Campaigners have already secured a pledge from one major bus operator and had high level talks with key figures from teh region’s transport executive. They are now hoping to get other operators to sign up.
BUS FRANCHISING DEBATE IS ‘JUST SMOKE AND MIRRORS’
Stuart Long is a founder of the Leeds Fairer Fares Campaign, which is fighting for better bus services, cheaper fares and greater regulation of operators. He has previously taken his battle to the House of Commons.
He believes sustained lobbying of the bus operators can be effective - and credits his own group with securing improved quality buses and some cheaper fares, greener vehicles and on board WiFi in Leeds in recent years.
Responding to the growing debate around franchising and the Buses Bill, be said it was too early to talk about a piece of legislation which had not even been drafted yet, claiming much of the current discussion was “smoke and mirrors”.
And he suggested that taking up any future devolution package which offers bus franchising in return for an elected mayor could actually end up costing the Leeds taxpayer millions of pounds every year.
“If they want real change, instead of talking about franchising, we would be better served by a Quality Bus Contract,” he said. “Five years ago we asked for one and they kept saying to us ‘we will put it forward’.
“But it’s sitting in a filing cabinet in Wellington Street gathering dust. We shouldn’t be played by the political string players.”
Mr Long claimed a failure by Newcastle’s transport executive to get its proposed - and less thoroughly prepared - Quality Bus Contract past the transport commissioner had effectively scared off West Yorkshire’s decision-makers.
He added he supports the principle of London-style all-in-one ticketing but West Yorkshire already has the foundations for such a service in the Metro rail and bus card.
However, he said the card was massively under marketed and was “the poor man’s Oyster”.
“There are 42 operators but no-one buys it,” he said.
“The problem is that operators want to protect their patches.”