Many happy returns… and singles: the West of England’s route to a bus renaissance

It’s an age-old birthday dilemma: what do you get the region that has everything? From tranquil countryside that inspired Jane Austen to bustling city centres brimming with culture, world-leading universities and pioneering net zero industries, the West of England has it all. And that’s just scratching the surface.

One adage holds true – the best gifts are the simplest ones, the things you use everyday instead of saving for a special occasion. As Labour’s Metro Mayor, I am proud to say we have done that sentiment justice this year, with a special birthday initiative for everyone living in our region. Welcome to Birthday Buses.

From this month the million plus residents of the West of England are able to ride local bus services across 515 square miles of the region, completely free throughout the whole month of their birthday, with no limit on the number of journeys taken. This radical and ambitious scheme is a UK first, designed locally, and one I hope can offer a blueprint to the rest of the country.

Like many regions, our public transport network is struggling to match its pre-pandemic performance, though not in the ways you might think. Firstbus report that while the number of individuals in the West of England who use buses has largely returned to 2019 levels, the number of passenger journeys is hovering at 85%. They are travelling less. Delve in and this makes sense. It reflects changing demand, as working from home practices displace commuting patterns and many face-to-face meetings, like GP appointments, move online. But with people making fewer journeys there is a need to reach new potential passengers, especially those travelling for leisure, to create a sustainable and growing network.

Birthday buses is aimed as much towards those who aren’t regular bus users as those who are, with clear environmental benefits to making the shift. A staggering 44% of our carbon emissions currently come from transport, and in order to strive to meet our region’s super ambitious 2030 net zero targets we need to see innovative solutions that fix this at scale. Currently, fewer than one in ten regional commutes are made on public transport, and the economic impact of congestion costs in my area alone reach £300 million annually. Worse, there are a shocking 300 preventable premature deaths due to air pollution every year. Passengers making a significant shift from car to bus are key to a cleaner, greener and more affordable future for our communities

Yet old habits die hard, and even the best intentions get lost in busy lives. As anyone who has joined a gym in January knows, it takes more than dabbling in something to produce meaningful results that stick around. So in order to make lasting change we have to build new practices into our lives and support them along the way. That is why we are offering an unprecedented full month of free travel. Other places in the UK have tried free bus travel for a day, or a weekend, but this is something different.

The Swedish city of Gothenburg trialled boosting the share of public transport in 2019 with free two-week passes, and the results showed that around 20% of those receiving free tickets have become regular users of public transport as a result. These are the results I want to see replicated in the West of England so that our bus services thrive.

Of course, for those who do use the bus frequently, the benefits are clear as well, as a free month of travel to help during the cost-of-living crisis will be welcome. With inflation at a 40 year high, residents could be better off by one twelfth of the bus costs they shell out annually.

I am confident our initiative will create a generation of new passengers in the West of England who come to love their local buses, while supporting those who already do. It should not end there though, because truly radical and transformative change should not be the sole preserve of central government. Ultimately the power of devolution in action lies in both delivering for a region, as well as sharing ideas with the rest of the country on how to solve the big challenges of our time. What could be a better present than that?