BER21: The future of bus travel in the region

National Express Bus

This blog post was produced for inclusion in the Birmingham Economic Review for 2021.

The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.

This post is featured in Chapter 4 of the Birmingham Economic Review for 2021, Connected Places: Foundations for Growth

Click here to read the Review.

One small - but important - good thing that’s come out of the last horrible year and half is that bus drivers are now rightfully respected as key workers. From the first day of lockdown, National Express West Midlands bus drivers have been taking hundreds of thousands of their fellow key workers safely to where they needed to be every week.

Interestingly, bus passenger levels in the West Midlands fell less than the UK average; they returned quicker and - at time of writing - have been the highest in the country since.

Now that restrictions are lifting (again - at time of writing - it’s hard to keep up these days!) National Express is doing everything we can to win back customers who may have not been travelling with us for a while. We’re also going after new customers to persuade them to give bus a go.

On 19 July 2021, National Express made our biggest ever cuts to bus fares. The new ticket prices are the cheapest in England and bring the average commuter a saving of over £130 a year. Of course this only works if you sell lots of tickets. So at the same time, we also launched our biggest ever marketing campaign.

As well as wanting best value travel, we also know our customers are travelling in different ways, so National Express has changed our tickets to be more flexible.

In July, we introduced contactless weekly ticket price capping. This means customers just tap the same contactless bank card (or the banking app on their phone) on the bus ticket machine each time they get on. At the end of seven days, they will be charged no more than the £15 cost of a weekly ticket - however many journeys they made. So the customers’ savings kick in after travelling for just four days in that one week. National Express West Midlands is the first company outside London to offer this way of buying bus travel.

Looking wider, we see many trends that give us cause for optimism about the future of bus services.

To help get our region back to work, National Express is collaborating with JobCentre Plus so their advisors can easily deliver free, seamlessly-delivered transport passes for jobseekers and people going for interviews and retraining. With Transport for West Midlands, we are also expanding our successful Workwise scheme, which provides free then discounted tickets for people starting work so they can get to their new job before their first pay cheque comes in.

National Express West Midlands has been working closely with the Clean Air Zone team at Birmingham City Council to promote modal shift as the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to avoid being charged for driving within the zone. And even if people don’t transition to buses, the fewer people who are driving in the city centre, the faster our buses can do their journeys. And we know that for every 1% you speed up a bus journey, you get 1% more passengers - taking even more cars off the roads and further speeding up buses. Win win!

During the last year, the UK government has started to be completely clear that modal shift is the only way for the country to hit its net zero goals.

May’s National Bus Strategy for England clearly states that:

In congested areas, substantial modal shift away from the car will soon be needed if clean air targets and the Government’s broader climate goals are to be met. The only mode capable of sufficient expansion in the time available is the bus.

And this was backed up in July by the Transport Decarbonisation Strategy:

"We cannot pile ever more cars, delivery vans and taxis on to the same congested urban roads. That would be difficult for the roads, let alone the planet, to tolerate. As we build back better from the pandemic, it will be essential to avoid a car-led recovery."

There is now substantial financial backing for this statement of intent - £3 billion of government investment in England. This will fund zero-emission buses - hydrogen or electric - as well as highways improvements to speed up bus journey times and grow bus use.

Working with Transport for West Midlands, National Express is putting in a strong bid for a chunk of that money. We’ll keep you posted, but as you may have gathered, we’re in a confident mood!