Bus Service Quality in the UK: Public ?private Sector Partnerships to Increase Patronage

Bus Service Quality in the UK: Public ?private Sector Partnerships to Increase Patronage


A Hull, School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, UK


Partnership working between national, regional and local organisations is a feature of the bus service delivery chain in the UK. This paper uses documentary analysis and interviews to analyse strategies to enhance service quality and patronage.


Partnership working, both at the strategy and the operational level, has been encouraged by successive UK governments to increase the service quality and efficiency of public service delivery. Partnerships between the public and private sector became paramount after the deregulation of the bus industry in the UK, outside London, in 1986. "On road" competition between the privatized service operators was seen as the most effective way of enhancing service delivery and responding to consumer demand. Just over 80% of services are provided in this way with service operators deciding the routes, frequencies and fares.

The Government was forced to intervene in this competitive market to ensure a balanced provision of bus service for new developments. This was triggered also by substantial bus fare increases, service reductions outside peak hour travel, and the growing market share of the five largest bus companies. More recently, there has been increased recognition of the interrelationships between transport and other elements of public policy such as the economy, the environment, land use, and social inclusion. Local transport authorities (LTAs) have found their role strengthened since the 1985 Transport Act. The 2000 Transport Act places a duty on LTAs to secure the provision of local bus services to meet public needs where those services are not provided commercially. Around 20% of services are tendered by LTAs, using their own resources, through an ?open competitive tender?.

Partnership between the various levels of government, businesses and public transport interest groups is now the key strategy in growing bus patronage, rejuvenating urban areas and improving environmental, social and community outcomes. Partnership working can also be interpreted as a governance tool to reconcile the contradictory tendencies of the neo-liberal governance reform agenda. Working with partners is now almost universally accepted as being an important means of achieving improvements to bus services, but many LTAs concede that there is still relatively little increase in working with commercial operators citing the difficulties of engaging with the operators in an environment where they are legally required to compete. Many also complain that the Government has sent out contradictory messages about their flexibilities and freedoms.

The Government has used regulatory, information, legal and financial tools to boost public transport use and negotiated targets with LTAs to achieve greater reliability, greater service quality, and greater patronage of bus services. Underperformance has been addressed through centrally driven external targets, funding and inspection regimes, which are not conducive to the development of self-sustaining, local collaborative partnerships. Although the new Local Transport Plans provide an integrative tool for setting clear objectives and targets to meet accessibility and mobility needs, the delivery chain for bus service delivery requires the involvement of several national, regional and local organisations. Prime amongst these partners are the private service operators, but also the Office of Fair Trading, the DfT, independent Traffic Commissioners, and neighbouring local authorities.

The paper will present original and documented research to explore the complexity of these relationships and the variability of the formal and informal contacts between and across levels. The paper will firstly identify the contextual mechanisms which promote and obstruct effective partnership working practices. The paper, secondly evaluates the cultures of change and innovation within two case studies of local authority bus strategy implementation, which have been funded through the EPSRC Sustainable Urban Environment Managed Programme (DISTILLATE). Finally, the paper will assess the effect of the draft public transport bill on the ability of local transport planners to procure more sustainable patterns of mobility and accessibility in their urban areas.


Association for European Transport