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London’s bus champion sets out vision for transforming travel behaviour

If London is to move beyond car-dependency, bus use will have to increase, and fast, TfL’s Tom Cunnington tells Deniz Huseyin. And that’s why it would be a mistake to ignore the importance of the bus when developing healthy and liveable streets, he argues

15 December 2023
Tom Cunnington: We are saying to boroughs that when they introduce liveable neighbourhoods, the bus should be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem
Tom Cunnington: We are saying to boroughs that when they introduce liveable neighbourhoods, the bus should be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem
Superloop is due to be fully in operation by spring 2024
Superloop is due to be fully in operation by spring 2024
TfL has launched SL8, the first of 10 express bus routes, known as Superloop, an orbital service around the capital, linking town centres, railway stations, hospitals and transport hubs
TfL has launched SL8, the first of 10 express bus routes, known as Superloop, an orbital service around the capital, linking town centres, railway stations, hospitals and transport hubs

 

Buses must be at the vanguard of efforts to encourage people to drive their cars less if not give them up altogether, believes Tom Cunnington. He thinks the bus is key to making London a more liveable, net zero city where road danger and congestion are reduced and air quality improved. This is perhaps not surprising seeing as Cunnington is TfL’s Head of Bus Business Development and is unashamedly passionate about all things bus-related.

However, he is a steadfast supporter of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and other schemes designed to reduce car use and encourage cycling and walking. All he asks is that the route to net zero should feature zero emission multi-occupancy vehicles that are well placed to complement active travel.

Safe, secure, fast and reliable

Encouraging more people to travel by bus will require a modern network that is safe and secure, connecting them with the places they want to go, with fast and reliable journey times, as set out in TfL’s Bus Action Plan published last year.

“This is our strategy for the bus network for the next decade,” Cunnington explains. “We need to recognise that if we’re going to attract people out of their cars to use all of the sustainable modes, then we need to make sure that the customer offer we give for the public transport element is competitive with a private car.”

The action plan includes the target for no one to be killed on or by a bus by 2030, while also ensuring all customers and staff feel confident on the bus network travelling day and night, backed up by improved bus driver training.

Another key aim is a faster and more efficient bus network, with journeys 10% quicker than in 2015, and 25km of new and improved bus lanes introduced by 2025.

The bus network must become better suited to longer trips with better interchanges, especially in outer London, while ensuring London residents remain close to a bus stop, states the action plan.

“We need to get the stops as close to where people want to go to as possible,” says Cunnington. “So, there’s no point in dropping someone off five minutes from a rail station. That’s why we’re so focused on making sure that buses have good permeability and accessibility, and that when we design new housing we get the opportunity to ensure that the bus is at the heart of that alongside cycling or walking. It’s important that is all designed in so the buses can go through an area close to where people want to live and close the shops rather than perhaps going around the outside.” 

TfL is discussing with boroughs how plans for a better bus network can complement measures to create healthy streets.  “We are saying to boroughs that when they introduce liveable neighbourhoods, the bus should be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Cunnington notes that some boroughs (which he did not want to name) introduced low traffic schemes “very quickly” as part of emergency measures during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“If you put a lot of measures in at the same time, and you get huge amount of displaced traffic, that traffic almost always displaces onto bus routes. Buses do tend to have to stick to main roads, and where there is suddenly a lot more traffic this will affect journey times.”

With some schemes, it makes sense to install ‘modal filters’ such as planters to stop motorised through traffic, Cunnington accepts. But he thinks that in other cases ANPR is a better alternative. This, he says, would mean that buses could still have access to some routes or use them for diversions when necessary.

London is an old city with a constrained infrastructure, “so we’re not always going to achieve the kind of perfection that some might want”, he says. “There are compromises and we need to be really careful about what those compromises are and get those right - we've got to make the city liveable and affordable.”

He calls for “adult conversations”, enabling solutions that are “as good as we can achieve within the confines of that space”. And it is far better to engage with communities and gain their support rather than imposing change on them.

Harnessing data sources

Boroughs should consider the needs of those residents who depend on buses. “For example, is a scheme creating problems for people who may not be able to walk as far to a bus stop? Do you want to remove a bus route that is close to where people want to go and where their homes are? Would we want to lose that as a result of a genuine attempt to reduce general traffic and rat running through the area? It’s about getting the balance right.”

Modelling can help identify the impact of modal filters on bus services, says Cunnington. “We can harness the existing data sources and bring them together to understand what is happening to traffic flows. We can use tools to model how a particular closure will impact traffic, not just immediately around but across a wider area as well.

“We've got more developed algorithms we can use now that enable us to potentially work out which sets of scenarios are okay to have. And, also, which sets of scenarios are going to cause problems by displacing traffic into corridors that won’t be able to cope. It could also be just simple coordination, such as making sure that you’re not closing two parallel roads at the same time.”

No two streets are the same, and boroughs need to consider an array of traffic conditions and the mix of usage, Cunnington says. “That’s why you have to give yourself enough time to properly consider engineering solutions rather than taking a cut-and-paste approach.”

For instance, segregated cycleways may not always be possible. “There are times when it may be more appropriate to have a wider bus lane that buses and cycles can share. This is almost certainly better for cyclists than being in general traffic, as buses have professionally trained drivers.”

Training bus drivers

All bus drivers are undergoing training using virtual reality, which allows them to experience a journey from the cyclist’s and pedestrian’s perspective. This enables them to see “how a ‘close pass’ feels and the impact that then has cyclists”.

Alongside this, TfL is adding safety features to its bus fleet such as CCTV cameras in place of wing mirrors. “We're specifying that our new buses will have a camera monitoring system, which are basically CCTV cameras on the side of buses. These not only give better visibility in general conditions, because it's a camera rather than a mirror, which can get you can get dirty. But it also adapts to rain and sunlight and to light and dark.”

Sensors are also being fitted to buses, which will give the driver more information about what is around them, as well as advanced emergency braking, which uses scanners on the front of the vehicle to identify risks ahead. 

A zero emission fleet

TfL wants all buses in the capital to be zero emission by 2034, though with continued Government investment this target could be achieved by 2030, says Cunnington. There are now more than 1,000 zero emission buses in the capital, representing more than one in nine of the capital’s current bus fleet. Since 2021, all new vehicles joining the fleet have been zero emission. In addition, all of TfL’s other buses are low emission and meet or exceed Euro VI emission standards, the same emissions standard as the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Converting London’s bus fleet to zero-emission by 2034 will save an estimated 4.8m tonnes of carbon or an estimated 5.5m tonnes of carbon by 2030, TfL estimates.

Since 2016, the number of fully zero emission bus routes in the capital has increased from 5 to 54, with a further 15 routes using a mixture of zero emission and low emission buses. 

“TfL has a net zero carbon target for 2030, and the bus fleet makes up about half of our direct carbon emissions,” explains Cunnington. “Therefore, the bus fleet does need to become zero emission faster. The real challenge is that it will cost a lot of money. It’s a good investment, but if you haven’t got money, it doesn’t matter how good the investment is. The challenge is how to find the money alongside all the other important things we need to do. Like improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Creating a virtuous circle

Cunnington doubts that the shift to more private electric vehicles will address problems to do with emissions and congestion. “The greater opportunity is to get more people out of private vehicles, and when possible on to a sustainable mode. We've got to make our offer attractive enough that we get more people on board buses. In an ideal world that would pay for the extra cost of those electric buses.”

The key to doing this is to create a “virtuous circle”, he says. “We want to make our service offer more attractive, which generates more people, who then feel that they don't need to use the car. Instead, they use our services, walk and cycle, which gets cars off the road. And by making our roads less traffic intense, we make them safer places to walk and cycle.”

Which all results in a scenario where “multi-occupancy large vehicles are safely running alongside people walking and cycling, making our streets more pleasant in every respect.”

Road users are not distinct groups, with 90% of Londoners using the bus at least once a year, he points out. “As a society, we don't have people who are purely cyclists or purely drivers or purely public transport users. Particularly in London, most people do everything, or a lot of those things. And a surprisingly large number of car drivers are very heavy bus users, and vice versa.”

He adds: “Don't forget, almost everyone who gets the bus walks to and from the stop. People who cycle are very frequently much heavier public transport users as well, because they quite often don't have a car or don't have access to cars as well.”

Also, it should be recognised that some people have a justified reason for using a car, for example if they are a shift working and need to make a journey late at night, says Cunnington. 

“But we want people to only use a car when it's genuinely necessary. So don’t use a car to go five minutes up the road - walk or cycle.”

What is becoming apparent is the fall in car ownership among some groups, most notably young people. “A lot more people now recognise that they can lead a car free lifestyle. We've got a much greater proportion of non licence holders and that trend will continue over time.”

Bus users are broadly representative of London’s demographic mix, says Cunnington.

“We have slightly more women using our services and we’ve got more people with accessibility needs because the bus network is genuinely accessible, which a lot of other public transport isn't.

“But, broadly, buses are used by absolutely everybody. And that's why we need to recognise that we're not dealing just with the poorest who can't afford a car or don't have choices. We equally attract people in the top decile of economic activity in London for some of their trips. 

“It’s really important that we have an offer that is relevant and appropriate to all of those people’s needs. There’s not one customer base – there are dozens of different types of customer.”

Having said that, the bus remains a relatively cheap way of getting around, he adds. “For some people, the price point is not important, but for many others it is really important, particularly so at the moment.”

So, how will London’s streets have changed by 2030? “We will see a higher proportion of people walking and cycling and using buses,” Cunnington predicts. “People will use all three modes interchangeably, which will make our cities and our streets more pleasant places to be, places that are more relaxed and less worn down by noise.”

Superloop step change in making buses viable for longer journeys

A limited-stop express bus network circling the capital, linking town centres, railway stations, hospitals and transport hubs, will make it quicker and easier for people to make longer bus journeys, says TfL’s Tom Cunnington.

The orbital service, called the Superloop, is a proposed network of 10 express bus routes. It is being introduced in stages, with some routes that would become part of the network already in operation. 

“They will provide faster journey times by bus for those longer distance journeys where the car might be the current preference,” he says. 

A better network will be built around Superloop, which is “10 routes out of a network of around 600 routes”. TfL has stressed that Superloop does not in itself represent the sole solution to improving buses but it is an “important, visible element and a clear statement of our intent to make travelling sustainably in London easier and the right answer more often”’

The principles for Superloop – faster, reliable services – will be applied to other parts of the network, says Cunnington.  “Superloop will never provide every journey option that people want, but it's part of our bus network and will link with other services.”

Part of this will involve links with a simple interchange. “We want to work with the boroughs to make sure that when we have a interchange, it’s either at the same stop or the stops are very close to each other.”

TfL expects much of the orbital network to be in operation by spring 2024. The service, which is getting £6m funding from the mayor Sadiq Khan, is being introduced in stages.  

Three new routes – the SL2, linking Walthamstow Central and North Woolwich, the SL3, linking Thamesmead and Bromley, and the SL5, linking Bromley to Croydon – are due to be in operation by spring 2024. 

The first Superloop route, SL8, was launched in July 2023 and runs between Uxbridge and White City. This was followed by route SL6 between West Croydon and Russell Square, SL7 between West Croydon and Heathrow Central and SL9, offering an express service between Heathrow and Harrow. 

There are currently six Superloop services in operation. The SL1 launched at the beginning of December and SL10 end of November. The mayor said the orbital network will be complete by spring 2024, with the exception of route SL4, which will start when the Silvertown tunnel opens in 2025.  

The new express route, SL2, will run between Walthamstow Central and North Woolwich via Ilford and Barking as proposed in the consultation. Additional stops will be reintroduced at the A1020 junction with Armada Way near Gallion's Reach Shopping Centre in Beckton at existing bus laybys immediately south of the existing pedestrian/cycle crossing. This follows feedback for better connections around North Woolwich, Beckton and Gallions Reach.

Earlier this year TfL launched the first of its Superloop express bus routes - the SL8, which replaces the 607, serving the same key stops between Uxbridge and White City, but with dedicated branding, USB sockets, priority seat markings and earlier and later buses every day. 

The road to becoming a Routemaster

Tom Cunnington joined TfL nearly 20 years ago, initially as Evaluation Manager, which involved procuring bus services. In 2009 he was promoted to the role of Performance Bus Manager, Bus Services, before going on to become Senior Commercial Development Manager and Head of Bus Contracts and Development. In 2018 he was made Head of Bus Business Development.

“My role really is to drive the development of the Bus Action Plan, which is our strategy for the bus network over the next decade,” he says. His remit encompasses decarbonisation, air quality and how bus services are integrated into housing developments around London. 

Another facet of his role is helping TfL meet its Vision Zero targets, with no one killed on or by a bus 2030. 

“We’re really focusing on the customer offer, which is a mix of making our buses cleaner and run more smoothly, with better journey times and to make them safer.”

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