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When We Own It: a model for public ownership of transport in the 21st century

Public ownership means we can reinvest profits in improving services rather than lining shareholders’ pockets – while also improving health and tackling climate breakdown.

Cat Hobbs
22 May 2019
Edinburgh's publicly owned bus and tram service operated by Lothian. Peter Trimming / Creative Commons.

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to privatise and deregulate our buses took effect. In the same year, she is reputed to have said that anyone travelling on a bus at the age of 26 could count themselves a failure.

Today, many 26 year olds beg to differ. Car use and ownership by young people peaked in the early 1990s – each new cohort owns and uses cars less than the one before.

There are a number of reasons for this. However, the existence of a group like the New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTS), which boasts nearly 150,000 members on Facebook, shows that this is at least partly a cultural shift. Many young people are ready to leave cars behind, given the opportunity.

The problem is that today the alternative is too often substandard public transport.

Deregulation, privatisation and cuts have decimated our bus network, leaving communities all over the UK with exploitative fares and a skeletal bus service, or none at all.

Our railways are arguably the worst in Europe, with outrageous prices, packed carriages and private companies like Virgin and Stagecoach that get bailed out by the government when they don’t make the profits they were expecting.

While cities like Bordeaux invest in trams, cities like Leeds have to make do without.

Public transport has huge potential to transform our lives – tackling climate breakdown, making cities and towns liveable, reducing deaths from car accidents and air pollution, building social cohesion and making people healthier.

To make the most of this potential, we need to bring public transport into public ownership, for the NUMTOTS and everyone else.

Our new report, ‘When We Own It: A model for public ownership in the 21st century’ explores what that will look like.

BROKE: Public transport that works for passengers not profit

Public ownership involves taking back our railway and turning it into a national, publicly accountable network, with regional ‘travel to work’ areas. We can take over rail franchises one at a time as they come up for renewal.

It means creating local, municipal bus companies across the country, following the great examples of publicly owned companies that survived privatisation – like Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport – and scrapping the ‘market’ in buses.

This will be more efficient. Public ownership means we can reinvest profits in improving services, rather than lining shareholders’ pockets. Right now, private bus companies cherry pick the most profitable routes and force councils to pay for the ‘socially necessary’ services they aren’t interested in. Under public ownership, we can use profits from busy routes to make sure every community has access to a comprehensive bus network.

Publicly owned Reading Buses can invest an additional £3 million a year in the bus network (around 12-15% of its annual turnover) because it has no private shareholders. Across the country, around £506 million extra would be available both from private profits being cut out and from efficient design of proper bus networks if all buses were publicly owned and regulated.

Likewise, we’d save around £1 billion a year if our railways were in public hands – both because we wouldn’t be subsidising shareholders and because we’d have less fragmentation and inefficiency. We’d save £200 million a year just from buying trains directly (the profits that currently go to rolling stock company shareholders).

We can reinvest these savings and efficiencies in providing better services – simple, affordable fares and far more capacity across the board. Every community should have a regular bus service – with frequent and reliable evening and weekend services. Cities need trams and rail or light rail networks. Every town needs a railway station with a decent service.

New capacity should be spread across the UK instead of focussed on London. In particular, we need far more investment in the North, in South Wales, and in the industrial areas around the Clyde. We need accessible, cycle friendly buses and trains, staffed by guards who can help older and disabled people, keep people safe and advise on journeys. Public transport needs to be integrated so that buses and trains line up and connect to walking and cycling.

We’ll save money through public ownership, but we also need adequate funding. British Rail was undermined by underfunding, while the privatised railway is guaranteed with multi-year, long term funding. Future publicly owned companies also need secure funding to plan properly.

WOKE: Public transport that takes us beyond driving and flying

Public transport is already hugely more carbon efficient for each journey. All publicly owned companies will have a new duty to decarbonise, so their job will be to make it easy for us to choose public transport rather than driving or flying.

Public transport needs to be totally decarbonised with green, clean buses and trains – through electrification and rolling out renewables like community energy to power a solar railway (the ‘Riding Sunbeams’ project).

As more people consider not driving, and some feel ‘flygskam’ (flight shame), we need radically different pricing that reflects carbon emissions. Taking the train for longer journeys needs to be the easy, affordable option while flying needs to be much more costly.

Locally, 100 towns and cities worldwide now offer free local bus services, including more than 30 in the USA and 20 in France, as well as in Poland, Sweden, Italy, Slovenia, Estonia, Australia and elsewhere. Slovakia provides free rail transport for children, students and pensioners. These initiatives are happening for both environmental and economic reasons – we could copy them.

Alongside this, we can rethink our whole public transport network to make cars obsolete.

The first step would be to introduce new national standards so that, for example, if you live in a town or village of a certain size (say, above 300 residents) you can expect a certain level of public transport so you know you don’t need a car. This would begin to treat public transport as if it is a universal basic right and fit with proposals for Universal Basic Services.

The second step would be to bring all taxis into regulation and public ownership. Tech companies like Google, Tesla, Apple and Uber are investing in driverless car technology because it could totally transform the way we travel. In the future, they say, it’s likely that driving your own car will be a slightly unusual hobby, like riding a horse.

Uber is also undermining our public transport right now – offering a cheap trip at the expense of the wider network and its employees, and increasing traffic and pollution for everyone. If we let corporations introduce driverless cars on a similar individualistic, profit-driven basis, it’ll be a disaster. We could call it ‘MeGo!’

The companies that are keen to get these cars on our roads must negotiate with government to do so. This is an opportunity to rethink transport and create sustainable cities that work for everyone. We need to collectively own our flexible taxis and taxi-buses (WeGo!) and decide together what to do with new driverless technology.

Fleets of publicly owned electric taxis (whether driverless or not) could help create a seamless, clean, green public transport network so no one has to own a car. You could buy mobility-as-a-service – and be able to get anywhere, whether you live in a city or in the countryside.

Enormous amounts of land would be freed up as parked cars disappear from garages, driveways and roadsides. This land could be turned into cycle paths, and used for green space or housing.

Let’s choose WeGo, not MeGo!

BESPOKE: Public transport that transforms our culture

Public ownership in the 21st century means meaningful accountability mechanisms and democratic processes. We can combine our collective intelligence to improve transport and tackle challenges like climate emergency, inequality and automation. This could help to create a new culture where participation is more normal and even enjoyable as it helps us to connect.

All the information you might need – financial data, performance data, answers to your questions – will be online in an accessible format, instead of being ‘commercially confidential’. Transport for London already has an excellent transparency strategy.

Under our proposals, people will be able to quickly and easily register as a member of ‘Participate’ – the new, democratically accountable organisation which represents everyone as a passenger. Anyone will be able to stand to be a Participate rep or vote for a rep. There will be Participate: Buses (covering buses and trams) and Participate: Rail (covering rail and light rail).

Your rail rep will represent you at national and regional level with the publicly owned rail company, and your bus rep will represent you in your local, publicly owned bus company. These passenger reps will sit on boards alongside trade union reps and civil society reps – groups representing disabled people, older people, younger people and parents, public transport, cycling and walking campaigns, environmental groups and local communities.

You’ll be able to find out about public transport by visiting a Participate shopfront, on the high street of any town. Lothian gives us a sense of what this might look like – they already provide a travel shop with bus and tram information and tickets outside Edinburgh Waverley station.

Participate will ask for your feedback on public transport. That means you can identify problems and put forward proposals as well as making official complaints, and giving compliments! Publicly owned Reading Buses already makes the most of complaints and compliments, feeding them back to drivers as motivators and learning points and awarding one driver as ‘star of the month’ – and having a ‘star of the year’ too. But if there are instances where your new public companies don’t take your complaints sufficiently seriously, Participate will have real teeth to hold them to binding solutions.

You can give your ideas for improving public transport and vote for proposals online, on the Participate website. The most popular proposals are taken forward to monthly board meetings which are open to the public.

Every 5 years, you will be invited to a public planning process, where you can help to set the agenda for public transport, together with government, Participate, trade unions and civil society groups. Difficult or controversial issues – the pros and cons of new high speed rail, for example – will be discussed in citizens assemblies.

Annual public meetings will report back on progress, and a proportion of the public transport budget handed over to the community to directly distribute through participatory budgeting.

Workers and passengers will be able to join together to apply for funding to improve services, from the new Office for Public Ownership. This makes money and time available for new projects and grassroots innovations – they can be replicated across the country if they succeed.

And you can vote against any proposals to privatise or outsource your public transport. In the Netherlands in 2002, people voted against the privatisation of the city’s transport company.

Alongside this more participatory, democratic approach, phasing out or drastically reducing car ownership in favour of public transport would also change our culture in a fundamental way. Public transport is public space, and it’s inherently collective. The NUMTOTs recently shared a video of an Australian tram driver, singing happy birthday to a passenger and referring to the ‘Tramily’.

The wonderful public nature of public transport became obvious to me on the Severn Beach line in Bristol, where I ran my first campaign, to get the council to pay for a more frequent rail service. We chatted on stations, handed out petitions on the train and sang songs with the guards. The Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways were early kindred spirits of the NUMTOTs, back in 2006.

We won our campaign with passenger power. That’s how We Own It, Bring Back British Rail, the Association of British Commuters, Get Glasgow Moving, NOR4NOR, Better Buses for Greater Manchester, Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways and passenger groups around the country will win too.

Some of us are under the age of 26 and some of us are over. Sometimes we take the bus and sometimes the train. The ghost of Margaret Thatcher may be dismayed to see us, but we all count ourselves as successes.

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