Every January brings the annual ritual of headlines decrying rising rail fares and deteriorating services. These headlines always miss out on mentioning that bus services are in crisis: funding cut, services withdrawn and passenger numbers down.
The bus is Britain’s most frequently used form of public transport. Bus trips account for 59 per cent of all public transport trips in Great Britain, compared to only 21 per cent by rail. Last year, 4.4bn bus trips were made across England. Just over half of these bus trips were made in London.
As bus services are cut, not only do many people’s travel options shrink or vanish – so does their ability to be a part of society. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found poor transport options to be a major barrier to finding work. High bus fares can also make the bus an unviable travel option. Over the past two decades bus fares across England have risen by 45 per cent in real terms. Without comprehensive and affordable public transport options many are forced into unaffordable car ownership.
Bus services in Great Britain broadly fall into two categories: commercial and local authority supported. Commercial bus services are planned and operated on a for-profit basis. Private bus operators decide where, when and how frequently to run buses. As operations are focused on routes that can deliver a profit, the services can be patchy and focused on peak hours.
To complement the for profit network, local government can choose to fund socially inclusive bus services. Since local authorities are not obliged by law to fund bus services – unlike social care – bus services have been hit particularly hard by successive governments’ cuts to local authority budgets. Since its peak in 2010, local government bus funding has halved and thousands of services have been cut.
Cuts to local government supported (non-commercial) bus services are driving the decline. Miles travelled on local government supported services nearly halved in the decade to 2016-17 (the latest figures available). The fall has been sharper recently, falling 14 per cent in one year between 2015-16 and 2016-17 alone.
Meanwhile, over the same decade, bus miles travelled on commercially operated services have only increased by 1.8 per cent. As local government funded bus services are cut, the private companies are rarely picking up the cancelled routes.
This affects everyone. People on low incomes, the young and the elderly are particularly reliant on bus services to get about. In England, those from the lowest income households make three out of four public transport trips by bus. They also make three times as many trips by bus a year compared to members of the richest households. By comparison, the highest income fifth of the population make 20 per cent fewer public transport trips and 75 per cent more private transport trips. Top earning households also travel more by train than bus.
Poor bus services affect those on low-income disproportionately because few have access to private transport due to high purchase and running costs. Therefore, bus services are particularly important to those without access to private transport. For them, bus journeys make up 43 per cent of all motorised trips, compared with just 4 per cent among people who have access to private transport.
Non-car ownership is also disproportionately concentrated among low-income households: roughly 70 per cent of carless households rank among the lowest earners (that is, the bottom 40 per cent on income scale). In car-dependent areas, the carless experience a larger “mobility gap”: restricted travel because of lack of car access, because of poor public transport alternatives. Therefore, in car-dependent areas, even the carless are highly reliant on car lifts and taxi rides to get around. Good public transport options reduce the mobility gap.
Even households with access to private transport suffer from poor public transport options. Across the UK, 9 per cent of households struggle with high motoring costs on low incomes. This figure rises to 12 per cent in families with children, to 13 per cent in households without any family members in full-time employment and to 17 per cent in families with one or more members unemployed. An estimated 7 per cent of UK households experience forced car ownership: car ownership and use despite constrained household funds, because cars are seen as the only viable means of transport.
To pay for motoring costs, households in forced car ownership must cut costs on other necessities and/or reduce travel activity. Across the UK, of those in forced car ownership, 51 per cent were in arrears for unpaid utility bills, 49 per cent are burdened with significant debt repayment from hire purchases, and 46 per cent could not afford to heat their home adequately. Among those households with low or no disposable income (the bottom 40 per cent on the income spectrum), forced car ownership was over 70 per cent higher than the average (11-12 per cent vs 7 per cent). Without viable public transport options, these households are highly dependent on their car and have no option but to find savings elsewhere, to meet the cost of driving. Many of these households are forced to cut expenditure on other necessities and/or reduce travel to a bare minimum – often leading to isolation.
In addition to investment in local public transport, we need to reform how bus networks are managed and planned: reregulate the bus market. The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Tackling transport-related barrier to employment in low-income neighbourhoods concluded that the “deregulated public transport system… too often fails to meet the needs of low-income users”. Regulation of the bus market alone cannot compensate for lack of funding, but, strategic planning and management of bus services could lead to a more connected network that will provide better travel options for all.
Over the last 25 years, bus usage per person is up 52 per cent in London – compared to a 40 per cent drop in England’s other metropolitan areas. London, unlike the rest of England, has broadly managed to buck the downward trend, because bus services were not deregulated in London in the 1980s as they were across the rest of England, London retained its ability to strategically plan and manage the routes: to set when, where and how frequently to run services. Its model enables the city to plan at the network level: profitable routes can cross-subsidise less profitable – but socially important – routes. Importantly, the model supports integration of bus services with other public transport modes such as rail. This integrated multimodal public transport networks can then successfully compete with to the private car.
In 2017, the UK government passed the Bus Services Act – a tacit acknowledgement that the current deregulated bus market model is not working. The new law allows combined authorities with a directly elected mayor powers adopt the London model. Currently, six metropolitan regions qualify for these new powers: Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West of England and West Midlands. These new powers have the potential to transform the bus networks in these regions. However, the rest of the country still does not have the powers to manage and plan their bus networks strategically.
Public transport funding and service cuts fuel a vicious cycle of declining public transport usage and growing reliance on private transport. This in turn widens the mobility gap between those with and those without access to a car, and forces households into unaffordable car ownership. To tackle forced car ownership and the mobility gap, we need to create and maintain reliable, affordable and comprehensive public transport. Buses are a great solution: easily deployed to boost service, agile to accommodate route changes and high capacity use of road space.
Nicole Badstuber is a researcher at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.
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