Bus Users Group response to the Environment Department’s proposal to raise bus fares on 1 August 2010

July 12th, 2010 by Fergus

Response to call for comments by Environment Department

1 Background:

On 25th June, the Guernsey Environment Department announced a proposal to increase bus fares by 67% with effect from 1st August. The two week public consultation period closes today.

The Bus Users Group (“BUG”) is an independent Guernsey charity, formed in November 2009, with the short-term objective of doubling the number of passengers on Guernsey buses.

This paper is BUG’s response to the Environment Department’s bus fare proposals.

2 Summary:

BUG accepts the general principle that all Government spending must be scrutinised to cut the structural fiscal deficit. We also accept that an increase in bus fares is justifiable this August if mitigated by other factors. However, we do not accept the fare increase in isolation. We reject the spurious cost/benefit analysis which led Tribal Consultants to label the bus subsidy wasteful.

The public too is sceptical about the bus fare increase, as our survey results (below) show. There is widespread agreement that bus-users have been sacrificed for the failings of others, who should instead look for real public spending cuts in their own departments.

The Environment Department has an opportunity to counter this public perception by adding pro-bus measures alongside the increase in fares. These measures should confirm existing pro-bus elements in the Road Transport Policy, and introduce new pro-bus initiatives.

Pro-bus mitigating factors could include (in order of their popularity in our survey):

• paid parking in Town,

• a revised bus timetable to suit office workers,

• real-time bus information freely available on the internet and 3G mobile phones,

• smaller buses,

• bus shelters,

• better bus numbering (sides and back, not just on the front).

BUG accepts that some of these measures have political or financial costs. Politicians are not able to spend political capital on every subject about which they feel strongly. Likewise, in a time of belt-tightening, costly measures, such as smaller buses and better bus numbering, will remain medium-term objectives.

However, this fare hike cries out for at least some pro-bus measures, to balance the message. BUG’s immediate objective is to double the number of people on the bus. Implementing at least three of the mitigating measures above, would keep this goal in sight.

3: Internet survey results

Our survey was run on the BUG website from Wednesday 30rd June to Monday 5th July. 77 responses were received from members of the public in the 6 days that it was open. No BUG official took part.

Our survey sample exceeds the minimum of 60 required for statistical significance. It is admittedly still small, and necessarily selective, given the short consultation period, attracting responses primarily from bus users. Nevertheless, opinions were sufficiently diverse to make the results helpful in understanding where Islanders’ views lie.

.Our key results are as follows:

• 60% of respondents saw no need for the bus fares to go up, all things considered.

• However, 65% of respondents thought the Environment Department should in some way try to mitigate the worst effect – that higher fares will discourage people from using buses and encourage them back into their cars.

• 69% of respondents could see at least one pro-bus action which would make the price-rise acceptable.

A commonly held belief is that bus users are being victimised. 69% of respondents agreed that “The bus subsidy is just a soft target for politicians who can’t control their own department’s’ spending – there are no real savings to be made here”.

30% of respondents felt that non-bus users receive few or no hidden benefits from the bus service. This is a measure of the challenge which faces Environment and BUG in the next year. The full list of 10 questions, and the overall response, is given in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Overview of results from BUG Fare Increase survey (respondents who responded “not bothered” or left the individual question unanswered make up the balance of 100%)

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4 Marketing considerations:

A 67% price rise is not helpful to marketing the buses. BUG’s first public survey back in January 2010, gave “Affordable prices,” as the most attractive feature of Guernsey buses (Figure 1). While it is true that bus fares in Jersey and London are significantly higher than proposed in Guernsey, passengers enjoy the benefits of a more frequent and extended service. This could endanger a trend, steadily rising bus use in Guernsey, which many have worked hard to achieve, not least in the Environment department itself.

Fig.1. Attractive features of Guernsey buses – BUG survey closed 20.1.2010 (44 responses)

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While value-for-money has certainly been hit, sold the right way, users’ could be brought round to the idea of an increase. All of the other positive aspects of the Guernsey bus service remain. And the Ormer Card keeps its 50% discount for frequent travellers. In marketing terms, the opportunity to sell this increase to the Island is there for the taking, if only it is not announced in isolation.

5 Political considerations:

BUG acknowledges that a significant proportion of the Island electorate, possibly a majority, has yet to see the point of the Bus Service. We know about that, it is one reason why we exist.

An anti-bus attitude might also be acceptable in the voting patterns at States meetings, if Deputies in general were simply to reflect the views of their constituents. In practice we know that parliamentarians are chosen to think wisely, and not just as to reflect their “members’” views as delegates. Given this, BUG is comfortable that a majority of Deputies understands the social and economic benefits to the Island of having a well-developed, well-used public transport service.

However, for an anti-bus attitude to be suggested by the actions of the Environment Department Board is not acceptable. If bus users cannot trust the Environment Department to fight their corner, to whom should they turn? If, at the heart of the policy machine, the Department responsible for implementing the Road Transport Policy acts as if it does not care, what hope is there that the policy will be implemented?

To say, as the 25th July Environment Department press release does, that a 67% fares hike on its own will “not compromise the policies of the Road Transport Policy”, is creeping double-think. Higher fares, announced in isolation, WILL tend to push people off the buses and into cars.

Who will admit that the emperor has no clothes? Members of the Policy Council show some solidarity, and are less likely to criticise another Departments publicly. Treasury and Resources would not cast doubt on their consultants, Tribal, over such a small matter. Possibly this attack on the bus subsidy is the thin end of a much larger plan at T&R, whose round-about logic may or may not succeed. The civil service generally are also unlikely to draw attention to their own over-spends, by defending someone else’s subsidy.

BUG is realistic about this. As the Department most cited for merger with another to save costs, Environment is almost as vulnerable to Tribal over-simplifications as the bus users are. It will probably not speak up for us.

Therefore, BUG is left to appeal to the non-aligned Deputies on the floor of the House. If today’s consultation process results in a renewed sense of urgency about the Road Transport Strategy, if Deputies can bring the subject to debate, even after the August implementation (the House first sits again in September) and call for a more balanced response, then possibly the proposal to raise bus fares in isolation will prove to have a silver lining.

6 Social considerations:

The key point here is that small children and OAPs keep their free travel. Had they been affected, the uproar would have been considerable. BUG can only be grateful, although we also know of OAPs who would (and even do) happily pay the fare because they regard themselves as able to, and consider the service to be value for money at the price. We hope this tendency will continue under the new price structure, although it seems less likely.

The buses benefit society in many ways. The benefits are felt by people who would not dream of getting out from behind the wheel themselves, for example

• active car drivers who risk losing their licence and could not always take a taxi if they did,

• active car drivers who temporarily find themselves unable to drive because of injury,

• active car drivers whose elderly and teenage relatives are less dependent on them, thanks to the bus,

• active car drivers who spend more time at home than they would if other commuters were not taking the bus.

This message needs to be repeated by Environment and by Deputies in general, since a significant portion of the public seems keen to ignore it while they can.

7 Economic considerations:

Economists constructing a supply and demand model of the buses, may conclude that bus demand is relatively “inelastic”- i.e. higher bus fares will collect more revenue, because people will tend to use them only a little less than before. Partly this is based on a lack of substitutes, and partly on the fact that humans are creatures of habit. The problem with this type of thinking is that it is much too narrow. Is revenue really higher, seen in the wider context?

Tribal’s published bus subsidy savings are based on spurious cost/benefit analysis.

The symptoms of the problem are all around us. The Town car parks are overcrowded – office workers are forced into early-morning camp-outs and mid-morning clock-fiddling. Commuters along the eastern seaboard suffer lengthy jams at rush-hour.

Tribal simply forgot the benefits of keeping existing bus passengers in buses. The current bus subsidy lowers fuel costs for individual car-owners – getting out of 1st gear improves fuel economy dramatically. Other benefits include less-clogged roads improving economic efficiency, for instance more retail distribution or construction deliveries per day; more predictable delivery times; a workforce which wastes fewer man-hours sitting in jams – an hour saved per person per week has a huge annual value; the positive impression given to business visitors; the economic value-added of giving non-drivers independent mobility; the large environmental benefit – fewer CO2 emissions; and the tourist amenity. These benefits offset Tribal’s “saving” many times over.

Tribal’s recommendation about the bus subsidy was flawed. Given the number of recommendations in their report, some 130, this may not be surprising.

The economic mood outside Guernsey these days is to “tell it like is”. At home, silence still rules. To imply, as the 25th June Media release from Environment does, that buses only benefit bus users, is further evidence of creeping double-think.

8 Operational considerations

BUG considers the bus operation to be clean, safe, punctual, and driven by friendly staff. The high operational standards are reflected in gently increasing bus usage. We believe it would be counter-productive to “reward” the delivery of a good service, with a bus fare increase.

BUG’s analysis is supported by answers provided in Figure 1 (above) to our Survey Question in January 2010 to the question “What is the best thing about the Guernsey Buses?”. A cluster of almost identically supported comments reflects a general level of public comfort about their practical operation, albeit within pricing, routing, timetable and infrastructure constraints set by Environment.

Similarly, the responses in Figure 2 (below) to the Question “What is the worst thing about the Guernsey buses?” focus on items which are outside the bus operator’s control. Complaints that the bus is unfriendly, or doesn’t run on time, were notably fewer than issues about the size, route-plan or frequency of the buses.

Fig.2. Unattractive features of Guernsey buses – BUG survey closed 20.1.2010 (44 responses)

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9 Conclusion

From a marketing, social, economic and operational perspective, the sensible course would be to match the bus fare increase with pro-bus mitigating factors, which could include a clear assertion of where the Road Transport Policy is going, and at least some of the following proposals, listed here in order of public preference:

• paid parking in Town,

• a revised bus timetable to suit office workers,

• real-time bus information freely available on the internet and 3G mobile phones,

• smaller buses,

• bus shelters,

• better bus numbering (sides and back, not just on the front).

The question then is whether from a political perspective this is achievable. BUG is convinced that providing a balanced message around the bus fare increase makes good political sense. If for internal reasons the Environment Department continues to dodge this opportunity, then we hope that States Deputies will do so from the floor of the House at the first opportunity, which will be the States Meeting in September.

Fergus Dunlop

Coordinator, Bus Users Group

9th July 2010



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