Last week I gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee in the House of Commons as part of its inquiry into the health of the bus market in the UK. We all know that buses are a vitally important transport mode for many people and communities, yet they get little national attention. This inquiry is important, as it will bring the issues that we've been seeing, and passengers have been experiencing, onto the national stage.
We are one of the few groups campaigning on buses at a national level. Our Save our Buses campaign makes the case for more funding and support for local buses to ensure essential routes and services can be maintained. We also support local campaigners fighting cuts.
The insight from these local campaigners, plus the experiences of people at the sharp end of the cuts to bus services, was prominent in my evidence to the Committee.
For instance, I told them about Caroline, who uses buses to get to meetings where there are no trains. The local bus services near her home have been cut. Now to get to her meetings she has to trek across muddy fields to get to the nearest bus stop. The buses are also less frequent and more costly than going by train. Sometimes the hourly bus doesn't turn up at all, leaving children, pensioners and working people at the side of the road with no idea if a bus is coming or not. She's now finding she will be forced to get a car to get around.
We had a disabled woman from Somerset get in touch who can't drive and is now considering resigning from her job because she can no longer get to work since the bus through her village was reduced to a skeleton service. And with no buses at all in the evenings or on weekends, shopping and leisure activities outside the village are now impossible without a car.
Then there's a woman with breast cancer who had to knock on neighbours' doors to ask for lifts to get to her medical appointments because the bus service no longer served the local hospital.
John gave up his car when he retired to cut down on his carbon emissions for his grandchildren's sake and chose to use the buses instead. He's since found that the services are of little use. The hourly bus from his village was cut and reduced to once every two hours; then there's the ongoing attrition to the remaining services, which leads to reduced passenger numbers and eventually the local authority saying the service is not needed at all. He said the buses are old, uncomfortable and smelly.
This was just a small sample of the issues and problems people have told us about, and points to a bus market in a state of crisis that is no longer meeting its passengers' needs.
Our Buses In Crisis research found that 3,088 bus services have been reduced, altered or withdrawn in the last eight years and that two thirds of local authorities have reduced their spending or spent nothing on supported bus services last year. Overall, funding for supported bus services has been almost halved (46 per cent) since 2010 with £172 million removed.
It's quite clear that cuts in services are affecting bus passengers. The origin of this is national policy, or a lack of one. There is no clear policy framework from the Department for Transport for reversing the decline in bus services or bus use; for improving the affordability of buses; or for reducing emissions from the bus and coach fleet as a whole.
Whilst the Government recognises it must tackle these issues its view appears to be that bus policy in general is a matter for local authorities; whilst it does make funding available to bus operators and local authorities through the Bus Service Operators Grant, it appears to have no policy framework behind it, or any assessment of the national costs and benefits of a high-quality bus network.
The absence of a coherent policy for buses contrasts with every other mode of transport in England. What we need is a national bus investment strategy that can reverse the decline in services that are leaving communities isolated and disconnected. For John and Caroline, this can't come soon enough.
Photo: Mislav Marohnić on Flickr