How to build a better bus network

272 million trips were made on trams and light rail in England in 2018/19 and more than 1.76 billion on trains in the same year. But the trusty bus accounted for almost 70% of all public transport journeys – a massive 4.31 billion.

Yet bus services are treated as the poor relative, as an afterthought. The result is fewer people using buses each year and fewer services being run. Rural bus routes have been especially badly hit, with subsidies drastically cut back through years of austerity.

We broadly agree on what we want from our buses. We want them to be fast, frequent, reliable, run early in the morning and late at night, be clean, safe and comfortable. These days we want USB charging points and free Wi-Fi (though with 4G and 5G becoming ubiquitous, Wi-Fi usage on buses is already falling). We want electric buses that pollute less: they cost about twice as much to buy, but fuel savings mean the lifetime cost of ownership is no more than a diesel bus.

Designing your bus network

Jeff Speck argues in Walkable City Rules that there are four key decisions to be made when planning a bus network. You can’t offer everything to everyone – choices need to be made.

1. Passenger numbers vs geographic coverage

Bus networks need to achieve a balance between passenger numbers and geographic coverage. These are competing goals. You can have packed buses that only serve dense urban areas, but this ignores the needs of many people in more sparsely populated and rural locations. It is important to decide how much resource to allocate to each goal – and to make sure you can afford it. Your busy routes will be subsidising the quiet ones, so you risk a financial black hole if you get the sums wrong.

2. Frequent vs less frequent

The core network should run frequent services (every few minutes) and extended hours to make it as useful as possible. On these routes, no-one should have to worry that they might miss the last bus or be stood at the bus stop for an hour. It is unlikely that you will have the money to implement this across your whole network, so you need to decide which services will be frequent and which will not.

3. Connections vs complexity

Most of us would prefer to get on one bus and be taken directly to our destination. We don’t like having to get on and off and wait for connecting services. Unfortunately, we also don’t want to snake around endless housing estates to get to everyone else’s destinations. Providing that end-to-end single service for everyone would make the bus network complex and staggeringly expensive. Better to reduce the complexity, have simple bus routes and more connections. Providing the buses are frequent enough, that will work fine.

4. Bus network shape

Most public transport networks move people in and out of the centre in a hub-spoke model: to town and city centres. As I noted in my article on the 15-minute city, this is a network designed by and for wealthier men who tend to make fewer, more direct, trips than women and poorer people. As our society recovers from Covid, we need to consider whether this model is still appropriate (if it ever was). It tends to make orbital journeys around the edge of an area long and slow. A network designed more like a spider’s web or grid may be better and fairer.

Faster bus journeys

Another transport expert, David Levinson, offers some practical advice for speeding up bus journeys. In The 30-Minute City, Levinson argues that we should be looking to make lots of small changes to improve bus services: they all add up.

Levinson suggests:

  • Payment before boarding, cashless only, saving between 1.5 and 6 seconds per passenger. (That may not seem like a lot, but multiply by the number of passengers who get on a busy bus along its route and it quickly becomes significant)
  • All-door boarding (where buses have multiple doors)
  • Larger gaps between stops – ideally one stop every 800m
  • All stops in-lane, not pulling over and then having to wait for traffic to allow the bus out. If passengers are boarding more quickly, this won’t cause significant delays
  • Signal priority at junctions, allowing buses to hold green lights longer and turn red lights to green.

Interestingly, Levinson argues against allowing bikes on buses, at least when they’re carried on a rack on the front. He supports more cycling, but believes it just takes too long to get bikes on and off racks.

I would argue that for frequent services the bus timetable should show intervals (“one bus every 6 minutes”) rather than times (“Buses at 5, 11, 17…minutes past the hour”). The real-time display will show the expected arrival times.

Buses need to be clean and comfortable, but we should look at the whole experience: every bus journey begins before boarding. Passengers should have shelter and benches as they wait for a bus, and real-time information displayed at the stop so they know how long they’ll be waiting. As much data as possible should be freely accessible so anyone can use it to innovate with new apps and websites.

Bus lanes are beneficial, and we need more of them. There are two reasons for this. First, they speed up journeys – not just for bus passengers but for car drivers too. That sounds a little counter-intuitive, so I’ll explain. Imagine you’re considering whether to drive your car into the city centre or take a bus. The car will get stuck in traffic and there’s the cost of parking, so as long as the bus is fast and reliable, you’ll use it. That’s the benefit of bus lanes. But what happens if the bus lane gets taken out and given over to general traffic? Now the bus is stuck in traffic too. It’s no longer fast or reliable, so you, and many others like you, stop taking the bus and you get in your car instead. Those cars take up a lot of road-space, so the extra lane is soon filled by all the extra vehicles and everyone is worse off.

Second, bus lanes are fairer. If we believe in fairness, 80 people on a bus deserve as much space as 80 people in cars. Buses are far more efficient – they can carry those 80 people in a fraction of the road-space – so the bus lane will look emptier than the car lane, even if it carries more people.

As we bring our whistle-stop tour of buses to a close, let’s have a quick look at franchising, also called regulation or even re-regulation. While London has long had a franchised bus network, buses across the rest of the country were de-regulated in 1986. Local authorities now have the power to take control of their bus networks once again and Greater Manchester is first in line to reintroduce franchising, with strong support from residents.

Greater Manchester’s bus franchising aims to get more people on buses by introducing standard ticketing and better integrating bus, tram and train: both very worthy goals. Franchising is not essential for these to happen, but there’s a good case that the changes will make it easier to achieve.

It gets more complicated when we start considering the network coverage. Most people want more and better buses. Many residents will have a particular service they would like to see created and believe franchising will allow that to happen. They believe regulated buses will be run for the benefit of residents rather than bus company shareholders and all those services people have been asking for will be created.

Sadly, this is unlikely to happen. London’s buses are propped up with an annual subsidy of more than £700 million. Greater Manchester will need a subsidy of £250 million to achieve the same standard, which is precisely £250 million more than it’s going to get.

Without more money, Greater Manchester risks going through a lot of pain to do little more than reorganise the deckchairs and add a new layer of bureaucracy.

What can you do?

In each of these articles I include some practical action that you can take.

If you are an elected councillor or a campaigner for better bus services, speak to the bus operators as well as council officers. If something isn’t happening, understand why not. Is it a lack of money, or a lack of will? Buses can be improved, and private operators may be willing to trial services.

Where there is a planning application for a significant new development, ensure it has a bus service from the start. Planning officers will often require the developer to fund a bus for a couple of years. The problem occurs if the service is only introduced when the development is built out. By then, everyone has got used to using their cars and it’s too late. The solution is to start the bus service from when the first property is occupied. The bus becomes a part of everyday life for residents as they move in, giving it a much better chance of being financially viable when the developer funding ends.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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  • Peter Martin 18th Jan '21 - 11:08am

    It would be useful if Bus and Railway services could be better combined and co-ordinated. It should be possible to buy an on-line ticket, complete with times and changes, for travel between two locations which included both bus and rail sections of the journey. Changing between a bus and train would be just like changing platforms on the railway.

    It would also be good if bus and train stations were closely located or buses stopped close to the station.

    There are no longer the same number of railway branch lines as there once were, so there is an obvious need for a more joined up approach to the provision of public transport.

  • John Marriott 18th Jan '21 - 12:03pm

    Ironic, isn’t it? Public transport is being promoted by some just at a time when the last place many people want to be is on a bus or a train. Now a plane, that’s different, although beware the quarantine either end.

    At the moment the safest way to get from A to B, to my way of thinking, is either on foot, by bike (motorised or not) or in a motor car! How long this will continue to be the case is anyone’s guess.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Jan '21 - 3:31pm

    Several months ago, I contributed on Bus Spaces for wheelchairs. Now we have them. Good spaces for buggies and prams, but there is still room for improvement.
    Firstly, on some buses the design falls short on accessible use. The bus I used today, narrows at a difficult point making it more difficult.
    I also add, the driver’s cabs and seat could be better, very tight inside the cab area. It is important to have good working conditions.
    The ramps have to deployed manually, that takes time. The electric ramps, can be a pain, and have broken before they were removed.
    I’ve received information from the EU on Public Transport and bus services. I’m putting the subject of ramps to them on the next chance.
    I would like to add, how grateful I am, as a Power Wheelchair user to First Bus locally here in Bath/Bristol.

  • A thougtful and helpful article, thanks Iain.
    I have serious doubts about buses taking more of the transport load and think we may be seeing the last generation. At the moment buses are the transport of last resort used by those without a better option – and it shows. The seats are too cramped for the majority of adults to be comfortable. The ride quality is so harsh that it deters the frail and anyone with chronic pain problems. Commercial operators predictably build down to the minimum they can get away with and I see no pressure on them to improve comfort.
    The pandemic will be here for a year at least, and there will be more. There seems to be little research into the spread of viral diseases by buses. Their ventilation is poor and some have heaters that just recycle the same air, so it seems certain that they will add to the spread of colds and flu. What is the personal and economic cost of using crowded buses? Even if their overcrowding and ventilation deficiencies were addressed, I wonder whether passengers can ever be made safe from catching diseases.
    Given our sprawl of low-density housing I don’t see buses ever being convenient and cost-effective for many of us.
    The answer may be already quietly amongst us in the form of electric cars. Exhaust emissions and brake dust are already solved, and the manufacturers are working on reducing tyre dust. Employers are in a position to maintain the reduced amount of travel covid forced on them and many have found benefits, so congestion may ease. Although still a few years away, self-driving electric taxis will be here before the current buses reach the end of their life. With low running costs and automation, these taxis might well give us all a much better transport alternative wherever we live and put our buses into museums.

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '21 - 9:47pm

    The German Government found there was very little evidence of people getting COVID on trains and I have seen no evidence of them getting it on buses. The place where they are most likely to catch it is in their own homes, unless they live alone, and by extension their cars, unless only one person ever uses the car, as they rarely open the windows. I can vouch for the fact that operators try to make buses comfortable within the constraints of limited revenue and the high standards required by present legislation. Buses are rarely overcrowded except at peak times, when no doubt your germ free car will also have extra passengers spreading germs.

    I know quite a lot of people who like travelling by bus for social reasons and I cannot say I find them uncomfortable, in fact, because of disability, I find them easier to get in and out of than your standard car, although the London black cab is a bit easier but rather expensive. I think buses will be around for a few more years. The main article was mostly very sound.

  • nvelope2003 21st Jan '21 - 4:37pm

    Not much interest in things like buses among the Liberal Democrats. Along with their enthusiasm for sending other people’s children to comprehensive schools while their own go to fee paying “public” schools maybe that explains the lack of interest by the voters.

  • @ envelope2003 You’re getting a bit over confident in your rather grumpy assumptions, my good Sir.

    On principle (theirs as well as ours) my five went to a local comp (a selective Grammar was available), all got good university honours degrees, and the girls went to their weddings in a 1946 Leyland Tiger.

    Better luck next time. Ding, ding.

  • David Raw: It is the exception that proves the rule. I did not say I disapproved of comprehensive schools but I do disapprove of denying ordinary people the choice whilst the better off can choose to use private schools, although not all do so. Your children would probably have got good degrees whatever schools they went to but chose to go to a comprehensive school. Not many have that choice, certainly not here where you only have comprehensive schools, imposed by a Conservative Council to protect the private schools, or independent schools. Some able children would benefit from a selective school. I do talk to people and they tell me they suffered bullying and harassment at the comprehensive school when they tried to make an effort and study. Many were very able and hardworking, to be honest the best as they did not have the arrogance that some others have.

    People do not like this and I fear that the well meaning centre left do not understand, hence the rise of the Brexiteers and Trumpism, and the decline of centre left parties and failure of Greens to grow, except in Germany where they still have Grammar Schools and prosperity. Biden won this time but that might have been because of the unpleasant personality of Donald Trump. We will have Johnson and Gove etc for 4 more years. There is much work to do but the wrong people are not getting us anywhere that we want to go.
    Ding Ding

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