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The Bus Crisis

In the mid-1980s, Britain’s bus market was shaken up. The formerly regulated and publicly provided bus services were to be provided by the private sector. Prior to deregulation and privatisation, local authorities strategically planned, managed and ran the regional or metropolitan bus networks. 

Since then, it is the private bus operators who freely decide where, when and how frequently to run buses. Inevitably, bus operator’s focus on routes that can deliver a profit, and consequently the services can be patchy, and focused on peak hours.

Although, local authorities can choose to fund socially inclusive bus services to complement the for-profit network, they are not obliged by law to fund bus services. Consequently, bus services have been hit particularly hard by successive government cuts to local authority budgets. Since its peak in 2010, local government bus funding has been cut by 46%, and thousands of services have been cut.   

Bus usage has also been in long-term decline: over the past two decades, miles travelled by bus have fallen by 17% . The driver of the decline is due to the sharp fall in travel on local government funded bus services. Over the decade to 2016-17 travel fell by 46.6%, and the fall has been even sharper in recent years.

Meanwhile, over the same decade, bus miles travelled on commercially operated services have only increased by 1.8%. As public bus services are cut, and private companies focus on profitable routes, bus networks and the travel options they offer are shrinking. Over the past two decades bus fares have risen by 45% in real terms. This has made buses much less affordable and a less viable travel option for many. 

This affects everyone - buses are Britain’s most frequently used form of public transport. Last year, 4.4 billion bus trips were made across England. They account for 59%  of all public transport trips in Great Britain – compared to only 21%  by rail. Yet bus services are in crisis.

People on low incomes, the young and the elderly are particularly reliant on bus services to get about. Bus services provide a vital means of independent travel for the young and the elderly.  Without bus services, many would be left without a way to access vital services and opportunities – and would ultimately, be excluded from society. Rather than supporting the return to work, poor public transport options presents a major barrier to employment options.   

The lowest income households make 3 out of 4 public transport trips by bus. They also make 3 times as many trips by bus a year than members of the richest households. The richest fifth of the population make 20% fewer public transport trips and 75% more private transport trips. 

Poor bus services affect those on low-income disproportionately because few have access to private transport i.e. a car – due to high purchase and running costs. For those who can’t afford a car or taxi half of all trips are made by bus, in comparison to those who can afford a car, bus trips make just 4% of their journeys. 

Even families who have access to a car suffer from the cuts made to buses, as many cannot afford to use the car as frequently as they need to.

Research by the University of Leeds estimates that 6.7%  of households in the UK experience forced car ownership. This means that people are forced to pay for and use a car despite not being able to afford it, because a car is the only viable means of transport. And just over half of those in forced car ownership, were in arrears for unpaid utility bills, as well as being burdened with significant debt repayment from hire purchases, being unable to afford to heat their home adequately. 

Without viable public transport options, these households are highly dependent on their car and have no option but to find savings elsewhere, to meet the cost of driving. Many of these households are forced to cut expenditure on other necessities and/or reduce travel to a bare minimum - often leading to isolation.

Falling passenger numbers encourage a vicious cycle of bus service cuts and a drop in bus usage. London, unlike the rest of England, has to some extent managed to avoid the long-term downward spiral. Over the last 25 years, bus usage per person is up 52% in London – compared to the 40%  drop in England’s other metropolitan areas. Today, more than half of all bus trips in England are made in London . Unlike the rest of England, bus services were not deregulated in London in the 1980s. 
London retained its ability to strategically plan and manage the routes: to set frequency, times of operation and fares of its buses. Its model enables the city to plan at the network level: profitable routes can cross-subsidise less profitable – but socially important – routes. 

Importantly, the model allows the city to integrate bus services with other modes of public transport such as rail. This creates better travel options for all, and a viable alternative to the car. 

London’s relative success supports the case for re-regulating the bus market. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report concludes that the “deregulated public transport system […] too often fails to meet the needs of low-income users”. One of the reports policy recommendations is re-regulation of the bus market, or where this is not viable stronger models of cooperation.  

In 2017, the UK government passed the Bus Services Act  – a tacit acknowledgement that the current deregulated bus market model is not working. The new law gives combined authorities, including the directly elected mayor, powers over bus regulation similar to that in London. 

Currently, six metropolitan regions qualify for these new powers: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West of England and West Midlands. These new powers have the potential to transform the bus networks in these metropolitan regions. However, the rest of the country still does not have the powers to manage and plan their bus networks strategically. 

Bus services help tackle social exclusion and loneliness, and allow those living outside the city centre and without a car to access employment, education and healthcare. As bus services are cut, not only do many people’s travel options shrink or vanish – so does their ability to be a part of society. Regulation of the bus market alone cannot compensate for lack of funding. However, strategic planning and management of bus services could lead to a more connected network that will provide better travel options for all.

By Nicole Badstuber