It's time to privatise London's buses

London is home to some of Europe’s most congested roads. While the London Underground does a good job of speeding passengers across the city beneath the gridlocked streets, London’s buses provide what has to be one of the slowest and least convenient public transport systems anywhere in Europe.

However London’s bus network is often held up as one of the country’s finest. A walk down any major London street will usually involve passing several dozen red double deckers in the space of a few minutes. The TfL bus network covers every imaginable corner of the Greater London urban area with over 500 routes, theoretically making any destination in the city reachable for a travelcard or Oyster user.

It is often a revealing exercise, however, to look at how many passengers these routes are carrying. There have been proposals by Sadiq Khan recently to remove the several hundred buses an hour that use Oxford Street to make it a more pedestrian-friendly environment, but there’s a huge question around where these displaced routes will go. However, the question is never asked whether all these routes need to exist at all. Any amount of time spent watching the buses on Oxford Street will reveal that many of them are running close to empty.

Supporters of central planning and public ownership will often point to comprehensive network coverage as one of the advantages of having public transport managed by one authority. London is a textbook example of this; although the routes are run by private operators, they are specified and tendered by Transport for London, in stark contrast to the completely private commercial operation found virtually everywhere else in Britain.

Elsewhere in Britain, operators are commercially forced to respond to passengers’ needs. Intense services appear where demand is highest, while services disappear where demand is lowest. One consequence of this is that smaller communities lose their services, while another is that the routes that emerge are far more attractive to potential users switching from other modes of travel.

This isn’t the case in London. While the TfL network does succeed in providing a service to every community in the city, it fails in providing a service that responds in any way to demand. London’s bus routes are indirect, circuitous and painfully slow. The lack of speed is partly down to the traffic situation, but stops every few hundred yards and routes that rarely head towards their final destination are the main thing that makes a bus ride in London so frustrating. It also doesn’t help that the numerous buses themselves are a major contributor to the congestion problem.

It hasn’t always been this way. A limited amount of private competition was introduced in London in the 1990s, with operators like Grey Green bringing a splash of colour to the red monotony that otherwise prevails. Latterly, however, TfL has tightened its grip, creating a situation where private operators with ideas for new routes are prevented from starting commercial services within the city, even where demand for different routes is demonstrably present. The omnipotent authority has even clamped down on branding variations by its own tender operators, as though Metroline’s blue stripe or Arriva’s cream swish were somehow damaging the quality of service being offered.

Imagine for a moment what London buses would be like under completely private operation. Gone would be the slow red double decker carting fresh air around every backstreet it could find, taking the best part of an hour to cross a distance the tube can cover in five minutes.  In its place would emerge direct point-to-point services, picking up major destinations and responding directly to the needs of passengers. Competition on key corridors would drive up standards, while operators would bring in quality service brands like Stagecoach Gold and Arriva’s “Sapphire” that have proved so successful at bringing people out of their cars across the country.

Certainly, some less densely populated areas would lose out. High-income areas where bus usership is lower would see service cuts. That’s how supply and demand works. There are far better ways of providing connectivity to remote communities than a frequent empty bus service, wasting money and fuel on a vehicle that could be better deployed where that capacity is really needed. It isn’t realistic to expect every community to have frequent bus services, any more than it is to expect every community to have motorway-grade road connections.

But other communities could stand to benefit hugely. Take the likes of Camberwell, a gigantic hole in the rail and tube networks where buses are the backbone of public transport. Here, direct demand-responsive services could act as street-level extensions of the underground network, bringing huge improvements to one of London’s most poorly served districts.

The current state of London’s bus network is a sad reflection on the conflicted political ideologies that have shaped it since the 1950s. It’s sobering to realise that this is what remains of what was once one of Europe’s most impressive tram and trolleybus systems, destroyed as it was by a political drive to free up road space for the car. Now, again, the passenger is being left behind in the same spirit of political idealism.

Let’s move to a system that operates for the passenger, not the politician.