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Buses are in meltdown, but they remain vital to our future

John Whitelegg Visiting professor of sustainable transport School of the Built Environment Liverpool John Moores University Liverpool
26 June 2020

Bus use has experienced a 90 per cent decline since ‘lockdown’ on 23 March. This is unsurprising, given the fear of infection and strong messages to stay at home and avoid using public transport unless it is “essential”.

The fall follows a long-term decline in bus use linked to a number of societal trends: reductions in bus services, budget cuts, and a planning system that promotes car dependency and neglects access to public transport, walking and cycling. DfT statistics reveal that outside of London we all took an average of 46 bus trips per annum in 2002 and 33 in 2018. 

It is relatively easy to construct a scenario that assumes the extinction of bus services. Trips in urban areas can switch to cycling, Uber-style ride-hailing services, autonomous vehicles and working from home. Bus trips in rural areas may also be regarded as irrelevant and can be replaced by community transport based on social need, car-share schemes and an increase in car ownership and use.

But there is an alternative scenario that has much stronger connections with a wide range of public policy objectives. Buses have a fundamentally important role to play in urban and rural life. They are much more space efficient than cars. They can be organised in highly co-ordinated and sophisticated ways to maximise passenger use, as is the case in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. 

Higher bus use and much better buses (all-electric and powered by renewables) are needed to support the policies that will improve public health, reduce air pollution, and deliver social justice, so that access to the destinations we all need to reach are not rationed by income or car ownership.

Indeed, the public health, decarbonisation and economic viability agendas all point to the importance of car-free towns and cities. In my locality, Hereford and Shrewsbury should be car-free. But that will depend on world-best bus services.

We need a significant increase in spending on buses, and an increase in integration and co-ordination of buses and bus-rail connections. This will require a shift from the current privatised, market-driven, unco-ordinated pattern of bus service provision towards one that delivers integration, much improved value for money and accountability. Integration and co-ordination of services should be brought under the supervision of a public body.

The UK Government and governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should follow the example of the new Irish government strategy for 20 per cent of the nation’s transport budget to go to walking and cycling, while spending on public transport infrastructure will exceed road spending by a ratio of 2:1.

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