Campaigners demand return of Sheffield's FreeBee bus to give downtrodden passengers a lift
Campaigners are demanding the return of a free bus in Sheffield city centre to give downtrodden passengers a lift.
Users, businesses and opposition parties are calling for the return of the FreeBee service linking key areas of town every 10 minutes.
They say it could help compensate for the closure of Leopold and Pinstone streets which led to 27 services being re-routed and stops shifted a quarter of a mile out.
The controversial move has deterred many at a time when the city centre is attempting to bounce back.
The old FreeBee service had three buses providing a seven-minute frequency. It ran for seven years to 2014 before being axed by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive to save money.
Now, pressure is building on SYPTE and Sheffield City Council - which is responsible for the recent road closures - to put bus users at the front of the queue.
Roy Morris wrote to The Star to say: ‘A small bus, electric preferably, every 10 minutes and free of charge doing the rounds through town would go a long way towards resolving the issue.
‘I see no reason why Sheffield doesn't make a free city centre bus top priority, especially in view of the hardship caused by moving the stops.’
Elaine Bird, of Bird Opticians on Surrey Street, who has been vocal about the impact on customers, welcomed the idea as ‘essential now that the buses have gone from the centre’.
She added: “It’s not just the elderly who have problems, some younger people are disabled or infirm or perhaps have young children for whom extended walking is an issue.
“In our discussions with the council, they offered benches on Norfolk Street so people could have a rest part way up! In the rain, that's not going to work and the benches are most likely going to be occupied by people you probably would not want to share a seat with.
“The bus needs to be free. No one wants to pay to get to town and then have to pay again to get where they actually want to go. “
Coun Douglas Johnson, leader of the Greens in Sheffield, said an electric FreeBee had been in their budget proposals for the last three years. He said the service would cost £427,000-a-year, plus £1,080,000 to buy three new, electric vehicles.
He added: “More space for walking and cycling is very welcome but the move of bus stops from Pinstone Street has led to confusion for some regular users. A city centre bus would help that.
“Under the Green councillors' fully-costed budget proposals, a frequent electric bus would reduce air pollution and the vehicles would be owned by the council, not a private company. It would run every 10 minutes for 12 hours a day.
“It is free – so there are no delays from passengers having to pay each time they board. This makes it a speedy service and ideal for popping to one or two stops.
“It is a very useful for older and disabled people and will complement other buses going through town. It is yet another step to help people choose to leave their cars at home.”
Sheffield City Council closed roads ‘semi-permanently’ in June to allow social distancing during the pandemic. Stops were moved out to Arundel Gate and Carver Street.
Since then the authority published a ‘Connecting Sheffield’ scheme to boost walking, cycling and bus use. It would close the roads for good.
Earlier this month, 13 services were moved even further out, from Carver to Rockingham Street, to make way for the city council’s Heart of the City development.
Ian Auckland, Lib Dem transport councillor, said a FreeBee could alleviate some of the difficulties caused by road changes.
He added: “Re-introducing a Freebee city centre bus service is a great idea, indeed one that has figured regularly in Lib Dem opposition budgets.
“To my mind it is a proposal which stands on it’s own merits, and I remain unconvinced that the total removal of bus services from Pinstone Street was the right choice.
“Yet more confusion is being caused by changes to services near the city centre by the closure of Carver Street and reversal of the one-way on Rockingham Street.
“A bus is by far most travellers’ alternative to the car, and yet life is being made more difficult for existing passengers, still less new ones.”
Nigel Eggleton, managing director at First South Yorkshire, said they would be interested in running a new service but they were still waiting to hear from the council whether Pinstone Street would be permanently closed.
He added: “I remember the Freebie and City Clipper very well from years gone by, sadly most of these services in towns and cities up and down the country have been withdrawn due to funding restraints.
“However, if funding could be found to reintroduce such a service, we would be interested in running it.
“We are still awaiting a decision from the local authority as to whether Pinstone Street is to close permanently, we can then make plans to serve this area of the city getting people as close to the amenities as possible”.
An SYPTE spokeswoman said they could not comment due to the proximity of the local elections.
Sheffield City Council did not comment.
Sheffield company Magtec is a leader in electric drive systems for buses, dustbin lorries, trucks and trains. It repowers existing assets at fraction of the cost of buying new.