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Opinion: What the Stagecoach East MD makes of Cambridge’s transport challenges and the GCP’s plans





Opinion | Amid the debate over the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s proposals for peak-time congestion charging in Cambridge, which have been unravelling as politicians refused to back them, what does the managing director of bus company Stagecoach East make of it all? Writing exclusively for the Cambridge Independent, Darren Roe shares his verdict – and urges leaders to be bold with their solutions.

At the end of August, the Greater Cambridge Partnership brought forward its revised proposals on the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ). There will now, no doubt, be further democratic scrutiny and, as the local head of the region’s biggest bus operator, I will ‘watch this space’ with particular interest.

Stagecoach East managing director Darren Roe. Picture: Richard Marsham
Stagecoach East managing director Darren Roe. Picture: Richard Marsham

I can entirely understand that everyone will have different opinions on these specific proposals, but there are a few important points that I hope people would consider.

Points to consider

Firstly, a very real challenge does exist for our local transport network. Once a bus leaves the depot, the service punctuality is overwhelmingly reliant on the control of road management and road space, which falls with highways and the local authority.

Our region’s roads are congested, leading to service cancellations, delays and increased pollution; service disruption is also caused by inappropriate parking, and insufficient traffic priority for buses – which slow down journey times. No amount of extra buses in the system will improve this, as extra buses just sit in the jams too.

There is a vicious circle in bus services that poor road management and congestion lead to slower bus speeds, which in turn lead to a fall in demand, then higher costs and inevitably higher fares and more cars on the road, which all leads to more congestion and road management challenges.

These conditions are not going to change on their own, so will require a response from our public officials. The existing proposals are a bold vision and, whatever option you or I might prefer, an equally bold vision will be required to attempt a rebalance between bus and car in Cambridge.

Traffic in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Traffic in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Secondly, the environmental challenge is not going away. We urgently need to find a way to rebalance away from such high rates of car use to help our Carbon reduction responsibilities and to improve local air quality. One full bus can take up to 75 cars off the road, but I do get it, getting people out of their cars is unpopular and a very daunting task for any public authority, political party or local Councillor.

And, thirdly, it is a challenge to support rural services where population density is too low to make them financially viable. There is a real social need for these services and that inevitably means they will have to be subsidised. The fact is that rural services need funding support to run them, and that support has to come from the taxpayer.

Opportunities

Now, I do not want to give the impression that the world is full of challenges – there are certainly opportunities as well! Enhancing our city and surrounding communities can be done with a properly bold vision. I have a fantastic team around me, it is in our DNA to want to deliver the best transport service possible – it is what we come to work every day to do. And the truth is that we are making significant progress across a range of areas.

At Stagecoach East, we will always continue to make investments like the £7.2m that has brought 30 fully electric buses to Cambridge and the Intelligent Speed Assist project that has helped limit vehicle speeds on the Cambridge guided busway by the use of cutting-edge technology.

The launch of the new electric buses for Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
The launch of the new electric buses for Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell

And remember that, so far in 2023, we have already introduced 22 route and service enhancements, including additional early and late services, 34 initiatives to improve reliability, ensuring that services keep running to our set timetables, and 5 completely new services: the 4a, F, 8a, 8X and X9.

Need for investment

Again, however, there is a challenge that many of the costs of any new service need to be paid up front, from day one, but it might be some years before that service becomes sustainable. So new routes and services have to be balanced with what passenger growth potential we believe can be achieved in a medium term.

And, maybe we, as an operator, need to be a little bolder ourselves in speaking up for the value of the services we provide. For an adult in Cambridge, unlimited travel can cost as little as £2.61 a day. By comparison, in London an adult One Day Bus & Tram Pass costs £6.

Partnerships

The key word is ‘partnerships’; we need to work together with the Combined Authority, local highways teams, and active travel advocates, each of us understanding that we have skin in the game. All these aspirations need investment, funding and commitments at all levels to get them kick-started.

We need bold public policy, designed to encourage bus use and develop relationships and partnerships with those key stakeholders, all whilst putting the customer and the community at the heart of everything we do.

So, to use a word that I have used several times during this article, my challenge to anyone who, quite fairly, criticises the current proposals is this: what is your bold alternative proposal to those currently on the table?

As a bus operator, I am happy to commit that we will work with anyone that our elected officials choose, and under whatever model, but we need to face facts: the existing proposals promise a much-needed sea change in how we do local transport in Cambridge, and promise £31million to make those changes. I have not seen any similar proposals, or a Plan B, that comes close to making the necessary funding available to enable changes on this kind of scale.

Whatever the solution, the challenges remain and they remain real – we need a bold vision based on long-term partnerships to face up to them.



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