Electric vehicles tend to get more attention, but at the top of the sustainable transport hierarchy sits the humble bus. If the active transport options of walking and cycling aren’t available, then the bus is the greenest form of transport there is. And so today I wanted to draw your attention to a place that is going big on buses: Manchester.
This time next year greater Manchester will see the launch of the Bee Network, named for the city’s chosen worker bee mascot. The network will be served by an initial 50 electric buses, which will be built not far away in Scarborough by the firm Alexander Dennis. In a distinctive yellow, the buses will run routes in Wigan and Bolton first, before appearing across the city by 2025. Further orders for a planned 470 more electric buses are scheduled, bringing Manchester’s entire bus fleet to zero carbon by 2032.
The zero-emissions buses are part of a wider plan for a fully integrated transport system for Manchester, which has been a long time coming. Outside of London, British cities have often lagged behind on integrated transport, and the Bee Network will eventually include buses, trams and trains, as well as walking and cycling routes. The easier it is to move around the city, the more people will use public transport over private cars. At the moment the split is 40% journeys by public transport and 60% cars, and the target is to reach 50/50 by 2040.
The network is notable for a couple of other aspects as well. One is that it’s the first locally controlled bus franchising scheme for 36 years. Manchester will be the second city after London to take full control of its bus service, allowing it to simplify ticketing, plan routes better, and mandate quality standards and environmental performance. With more coordinated planning, the city is also able to safeguard less profitable routes, ensuring that no communities are left isolated as commerical operators withdraw services. So far the city has intervened to protect 60 routes that were under threat, and the new and efficient bus service may coax some of those routes back into the black.
A second thing that caught my eye is the way that safety is being prioritised on the Bee Network. Not everyone feels safe on public transport, and anti-social behaviour and harassment can deter people from using it. Manchester’s idea is to make the Bee Network an official district of the city, the ’11th district’, with its own police force and community support services. An emphasis on safety will improve conditions for women, create a more child-friendly city, protect elderly and vulnerable users, and improve equality and access.
This kind of transport system will already be familiar to readers in other parts of Europe, but the UK is late to the integrated transport party. Hopefully Manchester’s new vision for bus travel will be the first of many.