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The future of the bus

Darren Shirley's picture
passengers at a bus stop

With 4.4 billion journeys made by bus each year, buses are the backbone of transport networks across the country. But in recent years, falling passenger numbers and cuts to services have left many communities disconnected. Following the Chancellor's announcement of £200m this week to "put the wheels back on the Great British Bus", what should Government do to support this vital transport mode? 

Uniquely for a major transport mode, the UK has had no national strategy for buses for several decades. Our report out today, The future of the bus, argues that such a strategy should focus on: 

  • Increasing the use of bus services across the country
  • Better integration of buses with other transport
  • A clear route to zero emission buses
  • Growth in use of technology to improve services

There are plenty of things the Government can do to achieve these aims. Funding for buses is currently fragmented and short term. The current funding regime should be replaced with a more coherent approach aimed at maximising service levels and value for money by bringing together all public sector spending on buses, including from the Bus Service Operators' Grant, concessionary travel, NHS patient transport, school transport and social services.

There is a pressing need to accelerate the move to zero emission vehicles. The National Bus Strategy should include a plan for all new buses to be zero-emission by 2025, and all buses on the road to be electric or hydrogen by 2035.

Bus manufacturing sector deal
The Government should set a deadline for all new buses to be zero emissions (electric or hydrogen) by 2025. To support this, it should invest in the capacity of the UK bus industry to transform vehicle fleets. A manufacturing sector deal would ensure the future viability and growth of UK bus manufacturers, create high skilled jobs and make the UK a world leader in zero emission buses.

We also need a programme of investment in physical and digital infrastructure to support buses. This should include a new generation of modal interchanges connecting bus networks with rail and other forms of transport and incentives to encourage the development of multi-modal ticketing, account-based ticketing and integrated journey planning.

Bus fares have risen 61 per cent since 2009 – significantly faster than rail (50 per cent) and motoring (35 per cent). Other recommendations in our report include measures to make bus travel cheaper, including a local trial of free or reduced price bus travel to assess the impact on patronage and overall effectiveness of the local transport network. Besides this we want to see targeted support from Government to reduce fares for young people under 19.

Mobility credits
Mobility credits should be used to encourage the shift to public transport. Credits equivalent to 30 days' free travel on public transport could be offered to people who scrap an older, polluting car. They could also be given at key life moments, such as when people move home or start a new job, to encourage the use of public transport.

The need to intervene to support bus networks is clear and urgent. The Chancellor's announcement of £200m should be used to kick-start a longer-term programme of change if the Great British bus is to continue cutting air pollution, tackling loneliness and driving economic growth into the future.