Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Following the return to public control of Greater Manchester's bus services, Andy Burnham has announced that fares will be capped at £2 for adults and £1 for children. This is less than half the previous prices. 

Burnham's plan is to invest £1.2 billion to deliver a low-carbon, fully-integrated public transport system called the Bee Network. Here is how the Bee Active website describes the plans:

... the Bee Network has evolved and it now represents a vision for a fully integrated London-style transport system which will join together buses, trams, cycling, walking and rail.

Our plan is to revolutionise travel across the city-region, making active travel the number one choice for travelling to work, to school and to the shops. But we can only do this if trips by foot or by bike are a safe and pleasant experience.

That means we hold ourselves to the highest standards for quality – routes that are fit for a 12-year-old, a double buggy or a wheelchair user. We are delivering fully segregated cycling and walking routes on busy roads, quality signage and crossings on quieter routes and creating areas where people are prioritised to make streets safer and quieter.

Now I don't know about you, but I think this sounds like a clear upgrade on the neoliberal nightmare of our current public transport system. 

It's worth noting bus companies demanded a judicial review into the decision to take buses under public control in the hope of preventing the Bee Network from ever being. Clearly, they never gave the slightest shit about public service and only cared about their own pockets, but thankfully they lost in court, meaning the public wins.

I'm not sure enough people appreciate the burden that bus fares are placing on working class families at present. Once upon a time, travelling by bus was considered the low cost option. Now, if I want to take my family of six out for the day in Tyneside, it can actually work out cheaper to book taxis! And even when it's not cheaper, it's a damn sight more convenient.

Rip-off bus fares are not just hitting people in the pocket, but they're hurting the environment too. If we're serious about de-carbonisation, we need to encourage more people to use public transport. Our current system is deterring the public, especially those who live in areas with poor transport links. I remember staying in a small village where you could only get two buses a day into town on Sundays. If you missed one bus, you were waiting four hours for the next. Needless to say, not many people bothered using those buses.

Personally, I think we should be emulating Luxembourg which has made all public transport free and we should be massively increasing the number of bus routes to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Far from being costly, this approach would stimulate economic activity and be particularly beneficial to our struggling high streets.

Here is some great research on how better public transport links boost the economy from the Campaign for Better Transport. It shows 46% of unemployed people find lack of transport to be the main barrier to getting employment. Poor public transport links also hurt employers by limiting the available talent pool to those who already have cars and this in turn leads to issues with congestion and parking.

Our public transport system, like so much of our infrastructure, was privatised on the Thatcherite promise that privatisation is the most efficient possible system and would lead to better value and service. This is what is known in academic circles as bullshit. It was always about creaming off profits, but at least now, we are being shown a better way after 43 years of Thatcherism. 

Look at it this way: if Burnham can cut bus fares in half, imagine what nationalisation could do to our skyrocketing energy bills. Our current cost of living crisis is not unfortunate, it's ideological.

In a recent statement, Burnham said of his Bee Network plan:

"We will support the creation of better jobs and good employment that has a purpose beyond growing shareholder value, utilising the opportunity to make a positive difference in our communities."

You see that? Prioritising shareholder profits over the needs of staff and customers was the problem all along, and we should actually be motivated by doing the right thing. Marketisation is not a synonym for freedom after all, and state intervention can promote, rather than inhibit our wellbeing.

Now I'm certainly no centrist, but Burnham's recent shift leftwards is making him seem like an increasingly appealing option. Contrasted with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Burnham almost looks like the second coming of Karl Marx. This, he most certainly is not, but he is evidence that when centrists shift left, they grow in popularity.

While Starmer is embarrassingly floundering behind Boris Johnson in approval polls, Burnham remains hugely popular among the public and his popularity is growing. This is because he is showing leadership and providing ideas while his party leader seems terrified to take a position on anything.

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