Unite has issued a warning against the ‘Uber-isation’ of bus services, following an announcement from beleaguered transport secretary Chris Grayling outlining proposals in support this week of on-demand buses.
The government said it would soon unveil a strategy “which could transform bus travel through on-demand services, flexible routing and smartphone apps”.
As part the strategy, the government said in a statement it would be “looking at the legislation covering flexible bus services, to ensure that demand responsive bus services can operate across the country” but Unite has highlighted that such services could create a ‘two-tier’ system.
On-demand bus services operate much like Uber taxi services – where they have been rolled out, recently in Liverpool and Oxford, minibuses can be summoned via an app. Passengers can choose a pick-up point and reserve a seat. There are no fixed bus routes and the technology maps a route to pick up other passengers along the way.
ArrivaClick was introduced in Liverpool in August last year after a trial period in Sittingbourne, Kent, while the Oxford Bus Company now runs its own on-demand service called PickMeUp. Both services advertise affordable fares – ArrivaClick says journeys start at £1 and PickMeUp says fares usually won’t exceed £2.50.
But the websites of both services say in fine print that such fares are “for a limited time only”. ArrivaClick notes that “prices may vary depending on time and day of travel, and other factors”, similar to Uber with its ‘surge pricing’. This has confirmed fears Unite has highlighted that the extended roll-out of on-demand bus services could lead to an increase in prices, excluding those who cannot afford it.
“Chris Grayling’s reverse Midas touch has struck again,” Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said, responding to Grayling’s latest strategy. “These proposals are laying the foundations for the Uber-isation of the bus service.
“Not only will they lead to higher prices, the exclusion of everyone who does not possess a smartphone and the decimation of existing bus routes but it will lead to bus companies competing against taxis and mini cabs,” he added. “If rolled out, this will result in buses racing each other to collect passengers, endangering the safety of all road users.
“To improve buses the government should be bringing back services into public ownership and ensuring that fares are affordable in order to increase usage and the mobility of the financially excluded.”
The announcement comes as Transport for London (TfL) plans to trial its own on-demand minibus service in Sutton, south London following a consultation which closes on Wednesday, March 20. Fares will be £3.50 per journey – more than double the £1.50 fare for a standard bus ride.
Commenting on TfL’s project, Unite regional officer John Murphy warned that “there is a real danger with the creation of on-demand buses, that TfL are preparing to apply the gig economy to London buses.
“We have already seen massive cuts in central London bus routes, with the money being funnelled into this vanity project, if the trial is extended other routes face the axe,” he added, pointing to the fact that the service “will be advantageous to a few elite users while hitting low paid workers, who rely on buses to get to work, squarely in the pocket.”