To be sure, the public transport saga is one that has long rumbled, whether it’s ructions on funding and remote access or services that might arrive but aren’t needed in time.
If you build it, people will come, insists the man behind bus services in Harrogate.
Alex Hornby, chief executive of Transdev, believes that a sea change is afoot as perceptions change.
The company is pumping millions into an electric fleet with the Harrogate Bus Company, with the city set to become just four in the country with an all-electric system.
Amid a 1% drop in bus use nationwide, operator Transdev has seen 10% growth on its city center network since introducing its first ‘product’ electric bus.
And in three years it has seen a 21% increase in the number of passengers on its flagship No 36, with the voice of former BBC broadcaster Harry Gration reading the next stop.
Buses are a ‘force for good’, Mr Hornby insisted, with the electric future being the ‘icing on the cake’.
Hundreds of electric buses arrive in Yorkshire after £200m funding announcement…
A greater focus on the use of electric buses has been on full display, with more than 200 new vehicles announced in Yorkshire in March after almost £50m of government funding was secured.
Mr Hornby said: “We seem to be on the verge of accepting that unfiltered car growth is no longer acceptable. All of this just creates congestion.
“What we want is for towns and cities to be dynamic and pleasant places.
“We seem to have a government that seems to accept that public transit has a role to play.
“The future must be buses. If we think congestion and pollution are a problem, then buses are the solution. There is another way – and it works.
Across Yorkshire, Transdev’s two-decker flagship No. 36 has long been seen as something different. The Harrogate, Ripon, Leeds service started 20 years ago, with plush leather seats in black and red.
Now the fleet has small onboard libraries and recycling areas. There are free Wi-Fi and USB ports – and it even has double glazing.
Mr Hornby explained: “In the polls, half of the people on No 36 just like looking out the window. Standard windows fog up, they get condensation.
It helps, he admitted, to influence perceptions of Harrogate’s bus services.
“People don’t say ‘I use the bus’, they say they use 36. It’s a mark, a badge of honour.”
Now, with electric buses, it’s still changing perceptions
“People are very proud. Even when you look at estate agent adverts in Harrogate it says ‘this house is on an electric bus network’.
Harrogate has long been considered the ‘chic capital of the North’, with wide leafy streets and long lanes and with wealthy homeowners having garage capacity for several cars.
In truth, Mr Hornby reveals, this is the neighborhood where Transdev sees the highest number of car owners traveling by bus. More than half of passengers – 56% – have access to a car.
“Now more and more people are aware of emissions and the environment,” he said. “They could use a car but they choose to take the bus.”
In surveys, he said, environmental concerns are now among the top five reasons passengers use bus services.
It was “lucky” to make the top 10, he added.
“These are people saying ‘I’m making a concerted effort to do my bit for the environment,'” Mr Hornby said.
“If you think of Harrogate, you might think of the Jaguars on the driveway.
“In fact, if you give people a good choice, they use the bus and they like the bus.”
In 2017, the Harrogate Bus Company set out to go zero emissions. First, with ultra-low-emission diesel buses, with 96% fewer emissions, and then with eight electric buses.
Now bids with North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) have secured £7.8 million for 39 new electric buses within three years, including the fleet of 36, converted to zero emissions.
The diesel tanks must be “ripped out”, replaced by charging stations.
Routes such as Bond End, notorious for its poor air quality, will see single deckers that can run all day on a single charge.
It is a ‘serious investment’, Mr Hornby said, with more than £12million coming from Transdev to make it happen, aimed at creating a ‘world-class’ bus service for the city and the district at large.
It’s not perfect – he’s keen for ‘brave’ politicians to act on more park-and-ride schemes, and has strong opinions about the broader congestion benefits of buses and priority lanes.
But he thinks it will be a game-changer, changing perceptions of public transport to dramatically increase demand.
“We’re on the verge of accepting that the bus is the key to solving a pretty big problem,” he said. “The acceptance of buses as a force for good will only grow.”
Almost £50m of funds were secured for nearly 200 electric buses in Yorkshire in March as part of the government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Area (ZEBRA) fund.
The split calls for £24m in West Yorkshire funding for 111 zero-emission buses in Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds, matched with £33m from local operators.
York council received £8.5m for 44 electric buses, while £8.3m funding for a further 27 in South Yorkshire was hailed as a “huge step”.
The government has set a funding target of 4,000 across the country – which the Prime Minister pledged in 2020 to ‘drive the UK’s progress on its net zero ambitions’ and to ‘build and rebuild those vital links with every part of the United Kingdom’.
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