Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents


Written evidence from M Simpkin (BUS 19)

Thank you for inviting views from bus users. I am a recently retired local government officer with experience in social services and public health policy. A car owner, I have always been an advocate and user of public transport, including at work.

1.0  GENERAL COMMENTS BASED ON MY PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

1.1  The reduction of the Bus Operator's grant was forecast in the Department's consultation paper (impact assessment) to have the probable consequence of fewer services and more expensive fares. Buses still seem to be seen as a less desirable form of transport except for those who have no alternative and this impact would only help further to undermine bus usage (still falling as I understand). This will affect all areas of the economy and all age groups. There must be particular concern about the impact on younger people - who are losing EMAs as well. Special rates for students are only part of the answer. Young people will be less able to afford to get to work and an inability to travel to work or leisure will lead to more local congregation with the potential for increasing anti social behaviour or the perception of it. (My son has to walk 35 minutes to and from his tiring minimum wage job because he cannot afford local bus fares and has nowhere safe to store a bicycle). Cuts which affect reliability, information services (eg real time) and cleanliness of buses, will also diminish usage.

1.2  Off Peak Travel: Most attention seems to be paid to commuter services which are economically essential, reliably used, the most overcrowded and, presumably, the most profitable. However off peak travel has a crucial role not just for non-employment travel (including hospital visits) but also for enabling more staggering of travel times, part time and flexible working arrangements, and therefore both carbon emissions and work-life balance.

1.3  Service planning: The present structure outside London does not enable satisfactory networks of services. Different ticket prices and poor ticketing systems are also a major deterrent to bus use. By contrast London buses (which may locally be taken for granted or seen as an expensive luxury) are the object of great envy from bus users in other cities.

1.4  Community Transport: The local authority where I live (Sheffield) has for some years subsidised or provided particular vital services which were not commercially attractive enough including a circular service which links a poorer (and unhealthier) area of the city with one of the two main central hospital complexes. The revision and contracting of this service to Sheffield Community Transport has led to far better usage (very often by older people). Any threat to this service would have wide ripples of consequence.

1.5  Coach services: In the UK there is no widespread culture of using coaches as opposed to rail or care. Users are generally from poorer income groups including students, older people and people from countries where coach travel is much more widely accepted and often of a better standard. Few PTEs or planning authorities give any special attention to planning for coach services (whether local commuting or intercity) and it can be hard to find mention of them in local transport strategies. This is partly because of the anomalous status of the major operator, National Express. In particular local termini and stopping places are not seen as priorities (as has occurred in recent years during planning processes in both West and South Yorkshire). Significant increases to rail fares mean that more attention should be paid to more attractive and efficient coach service infrastructure.

1.6  Local concessionary bus pass: It would be hard to overstate the physical and psychological benefits of the free pass for older and disabled people. Mobility, visibility and access to all kinds of services (including leisure) are highly important in themselves and will become more so as many locally based services such as libraries retrench. Having older people more mobile also benefits their families and carers.

1.6.1  Public transport to services reduces the costs of outreach. Transport access (for all ages and abilities) is a major factor in determining viability of many public and charitable initiatives (including those designed to "nudge" into behaviour change). The same applies to leisure activities of all sorts from concerts to bingo; this sector will also be affected by reduced attendance.

1.6.2  Older people often feel fragile and unconfident so reintroduction of a fare system (even at a low flat rate) would be a significant deterrent not just financially but for practical reasons like fiddling for change, puzzlement about smart cards etc. Often it is those just above the cut off levels who suffer most and this would particularly affect older people. (cf. fuel poverty: where those most at risk of hypothermia are not necessarily older people in poor areas but those in larger properties which they cannot afford to heat.)

1.6.3  Members of marginal groups not entitled to concessionary fares are often resentful of those who get them. Older people can be their own worst enemies as preoccupation with their own safety and security (including getting on the bus) can lead them to appear to ignore the needs of others. I have also heard complaints that groups of older people can for this reason be intimidating. If service reductions and fare increases are presented in a way that blames retention of the free concessionary scheme for older people, there is a real risk of growingly overt hostility to older people.

1.7  Free national concessionary scheme: Widely welcomed by users, this pass has less obvious health and wellbeing benefits although it has probably led to greater use of bus services by a more middle class population segment. At first the introduction of the national scheme also produced occasional hostility, mainly non verbal, perhaps partly because of its original availability at 60 rather than 65. Economic impact on at least some local authorities remains a public worry, as perhaps does concern about overcrowding of certain services by OAP tourists - which led to restrictions. I outline a possible revision at 2.5.

2.0  COMMENTS DERIVING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

2.1  As a seasoned user of all types of public transport, I am clear about the attractions (and green benefits), where the service is adequate and reliable. I also observe that in urban areas outside London, better off people tend not to use buses or coaches - so the introduction of means tested fares to stop the rich swanning around on bus passes would not make a lot of difference to revenue and would encourage those who can drive back to their cars.

2.2  For me personally the bus pass is a huge liberator. I am clear that I often go out when I might not otherwise; our car use has dropped where there is an adequate alternative (it does not have to be ideal); and I am able to attend ticketed events where the additional cost of a return bus fare at current levels might push the cost over an acceptable limit. A free bus pass at the introduction of pension age, supported from general taxation (which I of course pay), seems to make all sorts of sense.

2.3  At first sight the concessionary scheme may appear as an economic drain but it should be made clear that subsidy contributes to keeping off peak services (and jobs) in existence, to a degree which fluctuating fare income may not. SYPTA support seems to be an important factor in helping improve train services between Sheffield and Leeds where off peak travel on shorter distance inter county trains is free to older residents of South Yorkshire (but not West Yorkshire) - thus helping to make off peak rail travel available to all users on the line, where otherwise it might not be economic. The overall significance of the subsidy to public transport is implicit in Stagecoach's Brian Soutar's comments (or threats?) on 8 December 2010 about perhaps running Granny Buses if the concession calculations are mishandled.

2.4  Uncertainty around fare levels, whether between different companies or the correct zones, deters older people. It also leads to delay at bus stops (wrong change, argument about fares, etc). When visiting cities abroad, I generally purchase a period travel pass which obviates the uncertainty and prefer this even if I am unlikely to achieve its full value. This is one welcome feature of the national concession scheme for buses, particularly in London.

2.5  If the national scheme had to be modified for economic reasons, my suggestion would be that people over 65 should have their local zone (Travel Authority area) free plus one other neighbouring zone (so as not to disadvantage border residents - eg for hospital attendance as well as general travel). A national pensioner's bus pass would be available only on payment of an annual fee - analogous to the Senior Railcard but without further payment for tickets. National availability should provide economy of scale thus minimising administrative costs while enabling the fee to be set at a level which contributes to bus operation but could be seen as reasonable by pensioners. Such payment seems quite reasonable for those who want / are able to travel beyond their local area. Arguments for health and well being benefits are less cogent for the national pass given what everyone is having to suffer in terms of deficit related cuts.

2.6  Passenger Focus: I was vaguely aware of the rail function, but not of the bus function until checking in relation to this request for evidence.

January 2011



 
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