The concessionary bus pass is often criticised as a subsidy to rich pensioners. But in fact it's a vital part of everyday life for millions of people. Each of the 9.7 million concessionary passes held by older and disabled people is used an average of 105 times a year. Pensioners on the lowest incomes are most likely to use their bus pass and many regard it as essential for common journeys for shopping, to visit family and friends and to access healthcare.
Research shows that access to concessionary travel contributes significantly to a more active lifestyle among some older people. Being able to use public transport helps people get out and about, reducing the likelihood of weight problems, something which costs the NHS over £10bn a year. Free bus travel also helps tackle many people’s biggest fear – loneliness and isolation.
The recent LGA report shows that whilst the concessionary bus pass scheme has been a great success, years of chronic underfunding mean the scheme is now under threat and many local authorities are being forced into making financially agonising decisions to withdraw bus services or cut routes completely, leaving people with passes but no bus to use them on.
Our recent report, Buses in Crisis, showed that following significant cuts to Local Authority funding, all bus services supported by councils are taking a massive hit, with 46 per cent of councils cutting funding in 2013 and some authorities looking to remove support entirely.
With 2014 set to be the worst year yet for bus cuts, we are hearing increasing numbers of heart-breaking stories from people who have been completely cut off after losing their bus services. The single act of cutting buses can leave many older and disabled people without their vital lifeline.
The Government needs to recognise the huge national benefit of buses and the bus pass. First, it must head off the threat of whole networks disappearing. A short-term, ring-fenced fund should be established for councils to fund concessionary travel and vital supported bus services in the coming year. Second, we need a comprehensive review into central and local Government support for buses to ensure long-term, sustainable funding is in place to maintain the bus services that millions rely on.
This article first appeared in the i newspaper on 1 March 2014.