The shape of changing bus demand in England

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Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 11th February 2020 by Scott le Vine.

Scott le Vine, Transportation Planner, State University of New York and Honorary Research Fellow, Imperial College London

Prof Peter White, Emeritus Professor, University of Westminster


The Independent Transport Commission (ITC) has published our report “The shape of changing bus demand in England”. This report forms part of the ITC’s road and rail travel trends research programme and was supported by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund. It uses data from the National Travel Survey (NTS) to explore what has been happening to bus travel demand in England since 2009, and investigates how the bus market has been changing in recent years.

Although there has been an overall decline in bus demand per head, this does not apply equally to all categories of user. Some of the traditional bus markets, such as members of households without cars, have shown a greater than average decline, whereas greater stability can be found in the bus trip rates for members of car-owning households and professionals (albeit at a lower trip rate per capita). Likewise, travel by women has fallen faster than by men. Men between 17 and 39 who use buses are making 14% more bus trips per person than in 2009. Following a peak in free pensioner concessionary travel around 2009/10, this has declined.

Growth in car ownership per head outside London is clearly an important factor, especially amongst lowest income groups, together with behavioural changes such as shopping patterns: although shopping remains the single most important purpose for bus travel, it has declined more markedly than bus use as a whole. Despite a large growth in the supply of taxis and private hire vehicles in recent years, travel by this mode has remained broadly stable, and it does not appear to be a major factor in decline of bus use.

The NTS enables us to identify ‘bus users’ within the population (taken as those making at a least one bus trip within the seven-day diary period) as well as bus ridership averaged over the population as a whole. These have fallen from 21% to 18% of NTS respondents, but those using buses do so a slightly greater intensity (trips per person year) than before (by 5%), pointing to a concentration in the bus market, in contrast to the wider spread of rail use found in a previous ITC study.

Bus ridership data collected by the Department for Transport enable us to identify areas with differing rates of use, including those with net growth, or lower rates of decline than the average. These are located in the southern parts of England, rather than the traditional areas of high bus use in the north. NTS data then enable us to link this to demographic characteristics, supporting the findings above. Bus use in areas of greater prosperity and economic activity may have fared better than elsewhere.

The findings are consistent with a policy directed to improving bus service quality, rather than seeking to recreate past patterns of bus use.

The report is available to download from

About the Author

This post was written by Scott le Vine.