Research commissioned by Friends of the Earth has estimated that nationally, substantial cuts in car mileage of around 60% are needed by 2030 to stay within the transport sector’s carbon budget and help to limit the more catastrophic consequences of climate change. Even with a more rapid switch to electric vehicles than the government envisages, reduced car use will still be necessary. It is also necessary to tackle harmful levels of air pollution such as those suffered in numerous locations across Birmingham. Naturally, a cut in car use can only happen with a big shift to walking, cycling and public transport. Buses will have a crucial role to play in this.

Unfortunately, in the West Midlands, as in most other parts of the UK outside London, bus use has been declining since the late 1980s. This trend will have to be reversed somehow, in order to achieve the necessary cuts in car use. Fortunately, Councillor Waseem Zaffar, cabinet member for transport and environment, quickly recognised that increased bus use is key to the effective functioning of the Clean Air Zone and in achieving the city’s wider air quality objectives. Earlier this year, Councillor Zaffar launched the Birmingham Bus Survey to investigate the causes of the long-term decline in bus use in Birmingham. The council received thousands of responses from the public. We also responded, raising the following main issues:

  • While many main routes are reliable and frequent with good quality vehicles, others, even some main ones are poor.

  • Poor reliability of buses is often caused by congestion but also occurs outside the peak hours when there is no congestion.

  • There are poor service frequencies in the evening, on sundays.

  • When a bus is cancelled or diverted, there is no warning of this on the real time information. Contrast this with rail passengers who receive an apology and an explanation.

  • Recent revisions of the bus network in Birmingham have left many people confused. Some now have a much poorer service .

  • Fares have increased persistently above the rate of inflation for many years.

  • There is poor integration with rail and tram services and between different bus companies.

  • It is often not clear how to report problems and it’s difficult to hold the bus companies to account.

So what’s the solution? For some problems, the solutions are clear-cut, such as using bus priority measures to make bus services more reliable. However, we believe many of the problems will be difficult or impossible to solve without radical and structural change.

In Birmingham, one private company, National Express West Midlands, operates over 90% of bus services and is effectively a private monopoly. It is free to chop and change its routes, set the fares and draw up timetables. Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) has little say in this except for routes which are not commercially viable and which it pays bus companies to operate. Not surprisingly, private bus companies are focused on maximising their profits and tend to put the needs of their shareholders before passengers and the environment. This system is clearly broken and is not working in the interests of passengers. To fix it, Friends of the Earth is pressing for the following:

  • Some form of re-regulation is urgently needed. Without this, the necessary improvements will not be possible. As a first step, Transport for West Midlands should take overall control of the West Midlands bus network and introduce a system of franchising. This would operate in a similar manner to that in London, where Transport for London specifies the routes and is in charge of ticketing. This gives a properly planned route network, better value fares and integrated ticketing. This explains why bus use in London has not declined, in contrast to most other parts of the UK.

  • An independent watchdog for bus passengers in the West Midlands funded by TfWM.

The Buses Bill of 2017 enables the mayors of combined authorities such as the West Midlands to introduce a franchised bus system. The Greater Manchester Mayor is already seriously considering this option and may do it by the end of the year. We believe the West Midlands Mayor should follow suit.

For more information check out our response to the Birmingham Bus Survey at