We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

The Times view on falling bus travel: The Wheels are Coming Off

December 18, 2019 12:01 AM
In The Times

Britain's network of buses is faltering, leaving many people isolated and unable to get to work. A radical government would consider making bus travel free

The great story of the British bus, which arrived in 1824 and by 1950 accounted for 42 per cent of all journeys, is running into difficulties. Use in this country is at its lowest level since records began 50 years ago. Only 4 per cent of all journeys made last year were by bus. Outside London there were nine million fewer journeys in Britain in 2018-19 compared with the previous year, a result of higher fares and cancelled routes. The inconvenience caused has not been evenly spread. Most cuts have fallen on less populated and rural regions. Some busy places have only two bus rides a day. Smaller villages might see a bus perhaps twice a week, while others are cut off entirely.

This has not happened suddenly. Bus use has been in slow decline since the 1950s as more people bought cars and lost their taste for public transport. Yet it seems unlikely that this explains the sudden fall in passengers. Train journeys are on the rise, up 3.4 per cent in the most recent figures compared with the previous year. A likelier cause of falling bus usage is rising costs. In England fares rose by 3.3 per cent in the 12 months to March, almost twice the rate of inflation.

It is little wonder that customers are beginning to feel bus travel may not be worth it. Transport Focus, an independent watchdog for users of public transport, found that only 64 per cent of bus users felt their journey was value for money. Passengers outside London face a big price differential. A single London bus journey costs £1.50 no matter how far you go, but the 45-minute trip from Winchester to Alton in Hampshire, for example, can set you back between £5 and £7.

Even those prepared to pay such fares may no longer have the option. In the past decade more than 3,000 routes have been closed or reduced, including 243 in the past 12 months. A common complaint is that different bus companies rarely co-ordinate their routes, resulting in uneven networks and other inconveniences. Some buses will not accept return tickets bought from another operator on the same route.

The downsides of cutting off swathes of Britain are obvious. There are the human costs. Residents of remote villages are disproportionately elderly and every drop in bus services risks condemning more of them to isolation. There are also economic ones. Removing commuter routes is not the way to help people to stay in a job. Nor will it assist the unemployed in finding work. And then there are the costs to air quality. Britain is committed to cutting emissions to net zero by 2050, an aim that should involve boosting environmentally friendly public transport. Cutting bus routes means more cars on the road.

Politicians have at last recognised that there is a problem. All three main parties promised more funding for buses in their election manifestos. The Conservatives plan to spend £4.2 billion over five years on local train, bus and tram services. Yet this is unlikely to be enough. The funding will not come until 2022 and will be spread between several city regions and across several modes of transport. If bus companies are obliged to raise prices, more commuters will turn elsewhere and thus the cycle will continue.

This is an opportunity for the government to be bold and help those deprived northern areas that voted Conservative for the first time. It should raise spending on buses and force the mainly private companies to provide many more services and routes. It should also encourage them to use electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles. But if it really wants to encourage a better quality of life and improved economic prospects for the north and other regions, it should consider making bus journeys free. At present millions of elderly people and children benefit from free bus passes. Why not extend this to all? That would send a message that this really is a people's government.