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Pivotal year for buses - opinion piece from Joel Mitchell

02 Jan 2020

Buses are key to making our communities cleaner and ensuring our high streets thrive as pivotal year begins

Opinion piece from Joel Mitchell, Managing Director of Stagecoach South East


2020 is set to be a pivotal year not just for our planet as a whole, but for local communities right across the UK.

Why? Because for the first time ever there is a political consensus that we are facing a climate emergency which threatens the future of our planet - and something must be done to address it.

Scientific evidence demonstrating the scale of the crisis and the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly has never been clearer. We can no longer afford a "business as usual" approach to managing the climate emergency. Radical changes are needed.

The UK will host COP26, the United Nations climate change summit, in Glasgow in November 2020. But this is not just an issue for debate and negotiations among global leaders; it’s also a local crisis that needs urgent local action.

Surface transport is the single largest producer of carbon emissions in the UK and the only sector where greenhouse gas emissions are growing. We can see the disturbing evidence of this all around us as dozens of towns and cities across the country continue to breach World Health Organisation annual limits on air pollution. In Kent there were 78 days classed as air pollution episodes in 2018 and there are now 11 local councils declaring air quality management areas.

The biggest transport source of that air pollution - some 41% - is diesel cars. An unsustainable use of cars is also responsible for the worsening congestion that is not just a drag on our local economies, it’s seriously affecting the health of the most vulnerable in society - our children and older people.

Poor air quality already causes 40,000 early deaths in the UK, with these health impacts beyond the terrible human cost estimated at £20 billion every year. Halving average city traffic speeds due to congestion leads to a 50% increase in NOx emissions from larger vehicles.

All of this means that it’s time for tough decisions by us all, including politicians who are the custodians of policies which affect our future.

The UK government has set a 2050 net zero carbon target. It has also introduced an Environment Bill which will toughen regulation to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore habitats so plants and wildlife can thrive. Legislation will also create legally-binding environmental improvement targets.

But we cannot wait a further 30 years to make the behaviour changes we owe to our children. Research last summer by Greener UK and the Climate Coalition found that nearly 70% of British people want urgent political action to tackle climate change and protect the natural environment.

The good news is that the solution to a large part of the problem already exists - the bus. Contrary to the outdated image of "dirty buses", buses are amongst the cleanest forms of transport.

New ultra-low emission technology delivers huge environmental improvements - Euro VI buses are up to 95% cleaner than earlier models and cleaner than equivalent cars. Not only that, buses offer up to 20 times the carrying capacity of standard cars. This means that modern buses are much, much cleaner on a per passenger basis. Indeed, without buses it will be impossible for governments to deliver on their ambitious targets.

As a company committed to doing the right thing for our planet and our communities, Stagecoach is leading the way in the transition to a cleaner public transport future: Over the past four years we’ve invested more than £17 million in new greener vehicles across Kent and East Sussex.

Our benefit also comes not just from making our own business more sustainable, but from providing a ready-made cleaner alternative to the car. Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that without Stagecoach bus services, there would be 190 thousand tonnes of extra CO2 a year from passengers using cars and other transport.

But the benefit of buses to our local communities goes even further. Buses are central to the health of our high streets, which data continues to show are in intensive care.

Data from the British Retail Consortium showed high street stores in 2018 suffered their worst Christmas in a decade as retail sales flatlined and massive discounts failed to lure shoppers. The signs are that 2019 was no better. Fewer people visited UK shops on the last Saturday before Christmas this year, with visitor numbers falling 8% on last year.

However, again the bus provides a route to revitalising our high streets. On average bus passengers spend more money per head in our high streets than those who arrive by car.

So instead of building a local transport system that is centred on lower revenue generating and higher polluting cars, evidence suggests the bus should be central to how we envision our town and city centres in the future.

New years are a time for reflection and resolutions. They are also a time of hope. In 12 months' time, when we look back on 2020, we hope we can say that it was finally the Year of the Bus.

Joel MitchellStagecoach South East Managing Director Joel Mitchell