Buses matter

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 9th August 2018 by Stephen Joseph.

Buses tend to get neglected in transport policy debates. They are treated as entirely a local matter, for local authorities, not as an issue for national government. Buses and coaches are now the only modes of transport that do not have a national investment strategy. But even at local level, outside London, buses don’t feature much in transport policy discussions and in decision making.

Yet this understates the importance of buses. They are the most used form of public transport, and for those without cars (still a quarter of households and many others within car-owning households) they are vital as a means of getting to school, work, training, health and other public services, and also to shops and town centres. As Greener Journeys has shown, without affordable and available bus services, access to jobs is reduced, and social exclusion increases. But buses are not just a social service for the car-less – good bus services can attract people out of cars and so can help reduce congestion and pollution.

To provoke discussion on buses, Campaign for Better Transport has since 2010 been charting the decline in subsidised bus services and cuts in local authority support for buses. By aggregating the figures, using FoI requests on every English and Welsh transport authority, we’ve made buses a national rather than just a local story. This year, we’ve shown that since 2010 in England over 3,000 bus services have been cut or withdrawn, and 46% of funding has been cut (see Buses in Crisis)

We’ve seen a steady rise in media interest in this story, with “Beeching for the buses” type headlines. However, this year, two things were different. First, much to our surprise, our figures were picked up by the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who used them at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Mrs May about the decline in bus services. This immediately ensured a jump in interest in bus services and a lot of subsequent media coverage and commentary. The comments were split sharply between those who questioned why Mr Corbyn was discussing buses instead of “real politics” such as Brexit and those who suggested it was a canny move to appeal to people bored of politics and worried about bus cuts and fares among other bread and butter issues.

The second difference this year was that there is a new Bus Services Act, passed last year with a range of new powers for local authorities and requirements on operators. We’ve found that awareness of this act is very limited, even among transport professionals and transport leads. So alongside our normal report, we’ve produced a Guide to the Act, laced with practical examples of ways in which communities and councils have already improved bus services and ideas of how to use the powers in the Act in practice.  We’ll be sending this round to local authority councillors and officers and following it up with discussions on how to make the most of powers and funding available.

Finally, we’ve further argued that buses and coaches also need a long term national investment strategy, to bring together the many different strands of public funding for buses and to give them the attention they deserve.

We succeeded in getting politicians and the media to talk about buses. What matters however is whether action will follow, at local and national level, to reverse the decline in bus use and give people better and affordable services.

About the Author

This post was written by Stephen Joseph. Stephen is a visiting professor at the University of Hertfordshire’s Smart Mobility Unit. He is a trustee of the Foundation for Integrated Transport, adviser to Transport for New Homes and was chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport 1988-2018.