When it comes to motorised transport, the bus is definitely the poor relation. It doesn’t appear to have the same appeal to decision makers that road and rail have. Indeed, both these forms of transport consume vast public resources in comparison to buses, yet buses are an essential form of transport for millions of people every day. Indeed, without them, many local economies would struggle and the burdens on our already struggling social services and NHS would increase still further. And congestion and pollution already bad in many places would become intolerable.
At a time when much is being said about the importance of investing in our transport infrastructure to support the economy, little or no mention is made of bus services. Indeed, it’s worse than that: services are actively being cut for a variety of reasons, namely:
- The squeeze on local authority funding has led to large cuts in supported bus services
- The reimbursement of the bus pass has not kept up with escalating costs
- Rising congestion has resulted in operators having to put on extra buses to maintain existing services, increasing costs so that they become uneconomic.
Perhaps it’s because buses don’t have their own tracks or they are not part of some great construction project, but buses, while hitting the headlines locally, have been almost completely ignored at a national level.
Yet bus commuters generate over £64 billion of economic output every year, while bus users make shopping and leisure trips worth £27.2 billion a year.
Some of this is down to political bias. MPs and national journalists are more likely to use trains and roads and therefore tend to focus on these when considering transport policies and stories. They are less affected by buses and therefore fail to acknowledge their importance. This was highlighted recently when MPs’ expense claims were analysed in 2017. This showed that in total MPs claimed less than £1,900 on bus fares. Compare this to £1.4 million on rail travel, £1 million for car travel, £0.75 million on air travel, nearly £60,000 on taxis, and £30,000 on the underground.
Yet over 4.4 billion journeys are made every year on buses in England, with around half of these taking place in London. Buses carry nearly 60% of all journeys on public transport in Great Britain, compared to just over 20% being carried by rail. The bus is far more important in terms of number of journeys. The problem is that because these journeys can be relatively local, it would seem that they are considered unimportant.
Unfortunately, they are not, as we know full well from the distressing stories we are being told weekly. Young people unable to get to school, college or work. Older people worried about the isolation they face after their village has been completely cut off. People who can’t get to the shops, disabled people who can’t enjoy an independent life, can’t get along to support their local football club or visit friends and relatives. All those important activities that so many of us take for granted.
So what can we do about this? We need to encourage local transport authorities to use the tools that the Bus Services Act gives them. They also need to stop allowing sprawling out of town developments which are not designed to be served by buses and instead end up dumping even more cars on our roads, increasing congestion and pollution.
But none of this is going to get us very far in the absence of a coherent national approach to tackling traffic congestion and rising traffic levels. We need a long term investment strategy for buses like the ones that roads, rail, and even cycling and walking have, backed up by real cash.
The inequity in funding has to stop. Tens of billions of pounds go into roads and rail while buses get the scraps when it comes to physical infrastructure and a £30 million green bus scheme.
While supported bus services cost English local authorities £225 million in 2015/16 this is only the equivalent of one bypass. These services have seen funding slashed by £75 million in five years, while the distance travelled by supported services has halved in the same period, showing how devastating these cuts have been. In very few places has there been any attempt to quantify the impact of these and other cuts and the costs they place on other public services.
Ultimately, a bigger slice of the cake needs to go towards buses. It shouldn’t be just used to buy more subsidised services but to create a transport system that is properly joined up and works for people. Get this right and the economics will follow. Get it wrong and we will end up paying through the nose (as we currently are) for a transport network that is dysfunctional and headed in the wrong direction.
While there are signs some people are beginning to get it, this time we need to move beyond the fine words and actually deliver. In the meantime we will continue to campaign to end the wall of silence surrounding buses and bus cuts and will be asking people to join us in this.