Bus journeys have been in decline for years, from a high of over 13 billion in the mid-1950s to 4.8 billion last year. Of course changes to lifestyle and the growth in private car ownership have contributed to changes in travel habits, but when the railways are the busiest since Victorian times, why has the local bus declined by almost two thirds?
Part of the problem has been chronic underfunding - almost £400 million has been cut from local bus funding in the last decade alone - resulting in fewer and fewer services and a reduction in the quality and usability of local buses. Our latest report on bus funding, The Future of the Bus, showed that national government support for buses is now £234 million a year lower than in 2009/10, and local authority funding for buses is £163 million lower in real terms compared to ten years ago – a reduction of over 40 per cent.
Small wonder then that well over 3,000 local authority supported bus services have been lost or reduced in a decade - 243 in the past year alone - with over half of local authorities cutting their financial support for buses by 50 per cent or more since 2009 and ten local transport authorities providing no financial support for buses anymore. Rural areas have been particularly badly hit with some towns and villages left without any public transport at all.
The problem isn’t just funding though. Decades in the political wasteland have left buses without any kind of overarching strategy, or any form of national policy, until now that is. A long-awaited National Bus Strategy will be delivered this year backed up by substantial central government funding; £220 million for buses and a further £5 billion to improve bus services and cycling in England. The latter will be spent over five years on many of the improvements that we've been campaigning for. The Government has said it will fund:
- Higher frequency services, including in the evenings and at weekends
- More affordable, simpler bus fares
- Thousands of zero emission buses to help tackle climate change and clean up polluted air
- Support for local authorities to restore services that have been lost
- Bus priority schemes to help buses that are often delayed by traffic.
This, along with a National Bus Strategy, should begin to reverse some of the damage done by years of neglect to our local buses by supporting and growing bus networks to deliver social as well as economic and environmental benefits.
We want to see a thriving, affordable network of buses serving all communities and making a difference to more people’s lives, and with buses finally getting both the political and media attention they need, the fortunes of our most used form of public transport could be about to change.
Panorama, Britain’s Bus Crisis, airs on BBC One on Monday 16 March at 20:30.