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Perspectives on the recovery in the market for bus travel

However we deliver bus services, we must reduce journey times and increase predictablity. Vehicle configuration, fare structures and fare collection systems are part of the solution, but the significant issue is the allocation of road space. By Matt Gamble, Principal Consultant, Transportation, Atkins

Matt Gamble
04 January 2021
Matt Gamble, Principal Consultant, Transportation, Atkins
Matt Gamble, Principal Consultant, Transportation, Atkins


In so many areas of our daily lives, Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief issues and accelerated trends that were already underway.  So it is with buses.

First, why should anyone care about the fate of the bus?  That is a question that the government must answer, and the industry has to articulate more nimbly – building relationships with its users, understanding more about who they are and why they are using the bus.  

Atkins will be speaking at the virtual Quality Bus Summit on 19 February: details online here

If we want lower fares, then we have to bring down the cost of production, which means making buses quicker and journey times more predictable, to enable buses to meet the social and environmental objectives required of them.  That means hard political choices on the allocation of road space

The recent National Audit Office report, Improving Local Bus Services in England outside London, included a figure showing nine government departments whose policy objectives are influenced by the delivery of public transport services.  It’s clear from this that bus is central to government’s mode-shift, decarbonisation and levelling-up agendas. 

The trends in mode usage revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic suggest an urgency to the mode shift question.  Before the second lockdown, car usage had relentlessly increased to near pre-Covid levels.  However, the weekly transport statistics, published by the DfT, also imply that given the tapering off in cycle usage, the bus will continue to do the heavy lifting in providing sustainable mobility.

We should remind ourselves of where we are and where we might be heading. The bus industry is running practically 100% of pre-Covid services, with the capacity to carry a little over 50% of pre-Covid passengers.  Before the second lockdown, it was carrying around 55% to 60% of pre-Covid passengers. That is a significant achievement of which everyone in the industry should be proud.

Early forecasts suggested the industry might eventually recover around 80% of pre-Covid demand. Some commentators suggested that if this was accompanied by peak spreading that might be a ‘good’ thing for industry finances.  My experience of a route heavily used by key workers is that peak journeys need duplication to help comply with social-distancing requirements, but that between those peaks the buses are carrying penny numbers.  

Trends in demand may become more, rather than less peaky, and of course, an 80% recovery in volumes doesn’t help with delivering central and local government’s objectives.  It’s not a one-way street: support for bricks and mortar retailing such as business rates reform will help the bus. But the bus industry is likely to have to become less dependent on high streets and more accepting of peakiness as a fact of life as it seeks out other markets.

In the meantime, a glance at the National Bus Fares Index shows that fare increases have been outstripping inflation against a background of increasing costs of service delivery because of traffic congestion.  

If we want lower fares, then we have to bring down the cost of production, which means making buses quicker and journey times more predictable, to enable buses to meet the social and environmental objectives required of them.  That means hard political choices on the allocation of road space. 

Those of us who complain at a lack of commitment from our local politicians should remind ourselves of the comment of Professor David Begg. Had he had any political ambition beyond being Transport Convener on Edinburgh City Council, he would not have introduced the greenways. Decisions like this are going to have to come from the top – but we also need more bus users to become advocates of bus use, just as other road users have more effective and vocal lobbies.  

Making buses quicker also gives some headroom to reimagine the configuration of space on the bus.  Pre-Covid, I travelled on a crowded double-decker with the maximum number of seats fitted in the available space, followed by a crowded Glider in Belfast with more space allocated to standing. 

I know which one I found more comfortable for those two short journeys.  At the other end of the spectrum, some operators accept passengers are on their buses for a while and lay out space accordingly.  The industry needs to get more systematic at this and also accept that operators - through vehicle configuration, fare collection systems and fare structures - can influence the operating speed and reliability of their services.

Changing fare collection systems – notably to ‘Tap On Tap Out’ – would not only speed buses up but also address one of the fundamental barriers to getting non-users to try the bus.  In many areas the catalogue of fares that the passenger has to navigate is complex, and multi-operator ticketing schemes, conceived in the belief that the consumer is a rational user with perfect access to information, add to the fog for all but the most determined and savvy users.

Fares need to become more transparent and operate across buses of different operators by default, rather than by exception.

Distance-based fares are good at maximising reimbursement under concessionary travel schemes, but not at encouraging use by other fare-payers. Too often interurban bus fares compare poorly with alternatives.  

That leads to another question.  One that is almost certainly politically undeliverable.  It may even be highly unpopular with many readers of this magazine.  Make all passengers pay the same fare.  

The concessionary travel schemes operated by the British administrations distort the amount that fare-payers pay, and in doing so achieves the opposite of levelling-up.  Imagine the opportunities to level up and grow the market for bus travel if that funding were used to reduce and re-structure fares across the board, or provide mobility credits to those in need of support such as young apprentices, students and those on the minimum wage.

Finally, information is another barrier to encouraging use.  It is getting better, but so often it requires a degree of determination by the user.  As with fares, provision of information should by default be across networks.  Traveline, of course, achieves this, but I suspect few contemplating a trip on a bus for the first time will have heard of it.  Maybe Traveline needs to be subsumed into a different enquiry platform with a higher profile.

We have an opportunity and an urgent need to consider whether the structures for delivery of bus services – and the assumptions implicit in those – are still appropriate.  The fundamental, however – however we deliver bus services – is to reduce journey times and make them more predictable.  Bus operators have part of this in their gift through vehicle configuration and fares structures and fare collection systems.  The significant aspect though is in the allocation of road space.

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