Increasing traffic on the roads is observable by everyone and government policy is focused on reducing the demand for road space, rather than increasing its supply. One method has been to improve public transport and make it a viable substitute for car travel. Private costs of motoring have increased, but if there is no viable alternative, people will continue to demand car travel. Investment in buses and trains has improved their quality: they are more frequent, more reliable, arguably more comfortable and supposed to be part of an integrated transport policy. Local bus services provide a crucial link for local communities, but it is these services that are now facing problems.
In your economics lectures, you may have looked at local bus services, when you considered monopolies, oligopolies and possibly contestable markets. Oligopolies, whilst closer to the monopoly end of the market spectrum can be very competitive, but are also open to collusion and anti-competitive practices. The local bus sector has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading through complaints of ‘predatory tactics’ by companies. It is argued that local bus services, by limiting competition, are causing prices to rise and the quality of service to fall. One key issue is that those companies established in the market are alleged to be acting aggressively towards smaller bus companies and thus reducing competition in the industry. A low number of bids for supported service contracts in many areas, local bus routes dominated by a few large companies and predatory actions by incumbent firms are all complaints that this industry is facing.
This investigation is especially important, given the amount of public money that goes into the bus industry: £1.2bn. Investigations found that in areas of limited competition, prices were 9p higher. A number of take-overs have contributed to this situation. Two-thirds of bus services are controlled by only five operators. This limits competition in the market and hence is argued to be against public interest. Yet, industry representatives still argue that the market is competitive. Read the following articles and answer the questions about this issue. Was the OFT right to to initiate this investigation?
Local buses to be re-regulated BBC News (27/9/09)
OFT refers UK bus market to Competition Commission Dow Jones Newswires, Kaveri Nihthyananthan (7/1/10)
Office of Fair Trading prompts probe into bus services Guardian (7/1/10)
Trasport groups fear OFT competition probe over buses Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (4/1/10)
Bus industry competition queried BBC News (20/8/09)
OFT refers bus industry on poor service and prices Times Online, Francesca Steele (7/1/10)
Inquiry into local bus market ‘may delay investment’ Scotsman, Hamish Rutherford (5/1/10)
- Why are local bus services argued to be (a) a monopoly; (b) an oligopoly?
- What are the main aspects of UK competition policy?
- What is a concentration ratio and how does this apply to the bus industry?
- What predatory tactics are being used in the local bus industry and how do they affect competition, prices and quality?
- Why may limited competition be against the public interest?
- Traffic congestion is a major problem. Explain the economic theory behind government intervention in this area. Think about the effects of taxes; building more roads; investment in substitutes. Which is likely to be the most effective method?