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Is there a future for bus travel in Bath?

On 20th July, Extinction Rebellion and the Bath Constituency Labour Party (CLP) hosted a talk with James Freedman, the Managing Director of First West of England, to explore the future of bus travel in Bath in relation to both the environmental crisis and the current global pandemic. Many Bath students, accustomed to that feeling of defeat when £300 leaves our bank accounts for the annual bus pass in September may be surprised to learn that First West of England actually began as a workers’ co-operative called People’s Provincial Buses, and that Freedman himself believes that bus travel should be free at the point of use. 

Bath’s geographical position – in a valley surrounded by hills – makes it a challenging place to run public transport. This has significant consequences when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of buses. For the physics students among you, this may be obvious, but electric buses can’t scale large hills such as Bathwick, because the journey would generate too much power going down, and not enough going up. Therefore, biomethane buses, currently being trialled in Bristol, might be a more suitable alternative for Bath. While these are only “a halfway house, not an endgame” in terms of environmental considerations, their potential for reducing pollution is promising, and reflects First Bus’ recent commitment to zero CO2 emissions by 2035.  

In the shorter term, the Clean Air Zone, expected to be introduced in Bath early 2021, has led First to convert all Bath’s traditional diesel buses to a much cleaner air pollution standard. Therefore, both the council and First appear committed to lowering air pollution in Bath in the future – now we can only hope that they deliver on these promises.  

Bath bus networks have also had to adjust to social distancing measures.  First has dramatically reduced capacity on its Bath buses, with large yellow signs covering many of the seats. Most bus routes have, however, been able to keep going thanks to the COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant, a direct grant from government available to bus services such as First. That said, many people, especially those particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, are still dubious about using public transport at all. This is especially concerning considering that an estimated 15% of passengers are, according to Freedman, still not wearing masks on Bath buses, a worrying statistic given that masks are supposedly compulsory. Drivers are reluctant to police mask wearing, fearing for their own safety if a confrontation occurs. Regardless, the company is cautiously optimistic that buses will remain a viable mode of transport for universities and schools. 

Congestion and traffic are long-running issues in Bath, and this is only set to compound with lockdown easing, where more buses are needed to ferry fewer passengers around town. However, any solutions to the congestion problem are difficult for local authorities to implement because, according to Freedman, “politicians shy away from difficult public transport decisions when it affects motorists”. While pressure groups such as Bath Trams argue that the solution for the congestion problem is for the centre of Bath to be pedestrianized and a tram system implemented, Freedman is dubious. He states that it is “quite a tall order” and would require “so much money, so much time, so much difference…that I wonder whether it’s [sic] even possible.”  

Although there are challenges to be overcome – in terms of environmental improvements, social distancing issues, and congestion problems stemming from Bath being a small city designed to accommodate a few horses and carts – it seems there is still a promising future for bus travel in Bath. 

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