Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from S Norton (BUS 59)


I contend that cutting bus services probably causes more kinds of damage than any other area of cut; even one believes that each form of damage is not serious (and I don't) nevertheless when one adds them all together they become extremely serious. Let me start by outlining the logical steps in my argument.

1.1 The economics of bus operation, both for commercial and supported services, is highly marginal, with little opportunity to cut costs (Section 2). This means that withdrawal of funding, however it is done -- by cuts to local transport authority (LTA) support budgets, reduction in funding for concessionary fares, or reduction in Bus Services Operator Grant (BSOG), is bound to lead to cuts in the scope of the bus network.

1.2 Buses are important in that their loss will exacerbate social problems (Section 3). It is indeed quite likely that some cuts may cost the nation's economy more than they save. Furthermore, some of the social problems appear so quickly after services are withdrawn that it needs to be seen as a matter of urgency to set up a system which enables services to be maintained.

1.3 Perhaps more than for any other form of public service, the democratic system has failed to secure an adequate voice for bus users (Section 4). Therefore the Government's argument that it is up to LTAs to choose does not hold water.

1.4 Because of the urgency referred to in 1.2 above, I propose a bus rescue fund which would provide ring-fenced funding for LTAs to maintain their bus spending for 2011-12 at 2010-11 levels (Section 5). This would provide time to develop a longer term strategy - and if a year isn't enough then the rescue fund can always be continued.

1.5 In Section 6, I outline some of the main elements of my proposed longer term strategy. Perhaps Passenger Focus could initiate a consultation among bus users to find out what they think should be the priorities.

1.6 Finally, I estimate how much the proposals I am recommending would cost in my own county; in my opinion this would represent much better value than the likely outcome of current policies.


2.1 In general buses outside London are thought of as a "last resort" mode of transport used only by people without choice. This means that demand has tended to decline inexorably as people find alternative modes of transport, with little replacement patronage to maintain overall levels of demand.

2.2 This decline in demand has been exacerbated by positive feedback effects caused by the imposition of service cuts and/or fare rises. There are problems of methodology in quantifying the effects of service cuts, but, for fares, one study[1] suggests that the long term fare elasticity of buses may be greater than 1, ie that fare rises actually reduce revenue as, over time, people switch to alternative modes of transport or cease to travel. Even if the elasticity is less than 1 the positive feedback effect makes fare rises and service cuts likely to lead to more fare rises and service cuts—the spiral of decline, familiar to users but apparently not to those who wish to withdraw external funding for buses.

2.3 If bus passengers switch to cars this will lead to increased traffic congestion which will make buses less attractive to users and more expensive to operate.

2.4. Cuts to one route can have knock-on effects on the rest of the network. Passengers can no longer make journeys requiring a connection to/from a withdrawn service, which affects patronage of each service on their route (and maybe their return journey as well). If people acquire cars because of the inadequacy of public transport, or move away from their area and are replaced by car owners, many bus routes in the area will lose patronage, not just the one that is withdrawn or reduced. Also, if people get out of the habit of using buses when some journeys are made impossible, this will affect patronage for those journeys that continue to be possible; furthermore they may cease to pass on that habit to their children. Similar effects may result from fare rises.

Given the above one would expect bus services to be in a state of continuous decline, with service cuts and fare increases helping to cause but failing to compensate for a drop in underlying demand, so that operators cannot hope to make sufficient profit to absorb any loss of external funding. In general, with some exceptions, this is exactly what has happened in the last few decades.


3.1 Transport - and in many areas people without access to their own motor vehicle have no alternative to the bus - is a human right. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] says "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state". There is a similar statement in paragraph 1 of Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[3]

For an explicit statement that public transport is regarded as a basic human right by Amnesty International see page 23 of[4] (the headline article). Who are we to protest about the deprivation of rights in foreign countries - admittedly in this case the villagers have other grievance than buses -- when many of our own villagers are similarly deprived.

3.2 Withdrawal of buses can cause social hardship. Several case studies are mentioned in the recent report by the Campaign for Better Transport[5] and I have nothing to add to this.

3.3 Buses are environmentally friendly. All the problems referred to in the following paragraphs would be relieved if more people used buses instead of cars.

—  3.3.1  Globally, the biggest environmental issue is climate change. If our country continues to use the car as the "default" mode of transport, there is no way that we can hope to reduce our carbon footprint to levels that, if replicated globally, would not cause climatic disaster. (Electric cars are no solution - it will be a long time before we can hope to generate enough renewable electricity to power them all at current levels of usage.) Note that this implies that not only do we need to retain our current buses, we need to strengthen the network so that it can cater for a much wider variety of journeys -- see Section 6.

—  3.3.2  The more traditional environmental issues - air pollution, noise, land take, danger, congestion - haven't gone away.

3.4 The withdrawal of buses can damage our economy. This applies at both microeconomic and macroeconomic levels.

—  3.4.1  As is shown in,[5] people need buses to get to work. Inability to get to work can cause a very substantial loss to the economy. (Note that these days many jobs require evening and Sunday working, so it cannot be assumed that this problem can be avoided by concentrating cuts at these times. Shops and tourist attractions depend on buses to bring at least some of their customers.)

—  3.4.2  An increase in fuel taxation for cars would help to fulfil both macroeconomic and environmental goals. But one argument commonly used it is the hardship that might be caused to people who depend on their cars as a result of inadequate public transport. If supporting an extensive and attractively priced public transport network could be regarded as an investment enabling fuel tax to be raised to levels which reflect the long term need to reduce fuel consumption, it would be seen as an investment with a very high rate of return. In other words, more spending on buses could actually help to reduce our budget deficit.

—  3.4.3  Even if climate change does not force the world to moderate its appetite for fossil fuels, supply problems ("Peak Oil") are likely to. Each time the world recovers from recession, excess demand will lead to price rises which will push the world back into recession. The only way out, as far as I can see, is to reduce the carbon intensity of our economy, including our transport system, which means developing an extensive public transport network based on high load factors (see paragraph 6.7 and[6] for an indication of how this might be done).

3.5 Last but not least comes the quality of life. One of the most insidious effects of cutting buses is likely to be the clearing of bus users from the countryside by making it impossible to live there without a car, so that they are forced to move to the cities. Even when those who stay can still access their basic needs, they are likely to suffer from increasing isolation - which can be detrimental to health, especially for older people. And many people's quality of life is dependent on their ability to make certain journeys, such as visits to the countryside by public transport, including visits to friends and relatives who live there.


There are a number of reasons why the usual democratic safeguards aren't working for bus users.

4.1 In many LTAs few if any leading councillors actually depend on buses. Many people complain when decisions about public sector schools are made by people who send their children to private schools, but this problem is much more prevalent for transport. At best LTAs will lack expertise on user attitudes towards buses; and in some cases they appear to lack empathy too, having decided that the needs of bus users don't matter.

4.2 Few LTAs make serious attempts to engage bus users in discussions about what they need. During the last round of major cuts (in the 1980s) the first intimation many people had that they were losing their bus service was when it didn't turn up at the bus stop. Things may have improved since then, but cuts are usually still pushed through too fast to enable bus users to mount an effective campaign. I suspect that some LTAs are very happy with this situation, as it means that every time they face a short term financial deficit they can bridge it by cutting buses.

4.3 Shire counties are ideally placed to avoid electoral punishment if they cut buses now. Cuts on the scale threatened weren't even being talked about in 2009 when the last elections were held; and by the time of the next elections, in 2013, many people will have been forced to leave their homes as seen in 3.5 above; it is unreasonable to expect them to stay in their county for the sole purpose of being able to punish the party which controlled the council when it became impossible to maintain a decent quality of life there.

4.4 People who wish to use bus services outside their LTA area have no voice in the services they need. For example people in both of the urban areas surrounding the New Forest National Park—Southampton and Bournemouth—have no vote on Hants CC which is responsible for procuring socially important services within the Park.

4.5 The principle of "localism" cannot be used to justify violations of human rights (see 3.1 above). Would the Government be willing to allow local education authorities to close their schools and force parents to go private? If the answer is "no", why is transport different?

4.6 Furthermore, localism only makes sense when local authorities have the ability to raise the money they need to provide the services the people want (fiscal autonomy). This is obviously not the case at the moment.

4.7 The concessionary fares system means that LTAs actually have a disincentive to maintain services because they have to reimburse operators for the use of services by passholders, including those from outside their area.

4.8 There can be problems with cross-boundary services, especially where one or both of the LTAs is more interested in saving money than providing a high quality network.


An idea that could be implemented very quickly is to provide a fund for LTAs throughout the UK on a per capita basis. LTAs would be required to use this to bring their levels of bus support for 2011-12 up to 2010-11 levels; if there was any left over they could use this as they liked.

How much would this cost? My own county, Cambridgeshire, has decided to go for the "zero option'' of phasing out all bus support, so if we can save buses in Cambridgeshire most other LTAs would probably be spared cuts.

According to an email I received from a Cambridgeshire CC transport officer, Cambridgeshire faces a cut of £0.69 million in 2011-12. Assuming a county population of 570,000 (the 2005 figure given in page 154 in),[6] and a UK population of 60 million, this means:

—  that a national fund of just £73 million could save buses in Cambridgeshire.

This idea would buy us breathing space to develop a more long term policy. If one year wasn't enough it could be continued for a second year.

One way of financing this policy which wouldn't cause much damage would be to charge for concessionary passes (but continue to allow their holders to travel free). How about a charge of 20 pounds, halved for holders of Senior Railcards?


I suggest that Passenger Focus should consult bus users and others on what they thought was needed to underpin a stable and attractive bus network. Here are my own ideas.

6.1 LTAs should be required (and funded) to provide the equivalent of redundancy pay to any bus users who found themselves unable to get to work as a result of service cuts. I hope that this would prevent the implementation of cuts that would have this effect.

6.2 LTAs should be required (and funded) to pay a "remote areas allowance" (RAA) to people living in areas without specified levels of public transport, in recognition of their increased cost of travel. The RAA would be means tested so that wealthy people (but not "middle income" people) would be ineligible. It would replace the Government's proposed fuel equalisation scheme which has a similar motivation but which would only benefit motorists. However I hope that this would give LTAs the incentive to provide sufficient public transport, in all but the remotest areas, to avoid the need to pay RAA.

6.3 Planning authorities would be given guidance not to allow speculative developments (ie those without an intended user) in areas where the LTA would have to pay an RAA.

6.4 LTAs should be given guidance to allow public use of all school buses in areas where other services are irregular. Royal Mail should be required to bring back postbuses, over 90% of which have been withdrawn in recent years. Works buses should also be made public where suitable. Positioning workings should also be opened up—they could play a particular role in assisting leisure travel to the countryside.

6.5 LTAs would be required to develop Bus Network Strategies in consultation with bus users. This would start immediately but would eventually be incorporated into the Local Transport Plan process. Bus Network Strategies would specify minimum service levels for all parts of the LTA area; and if the LTA wished to reduce service levels it would first have to apply to vary its Bus Network Strategy accordingly. Specific guidance would be given to require LTAs to facilitate cross-boundary travel.

6.6 The Government should contribute a proportion of an LTA's transport spending, ie the more they spent the more they would receive, as happened with Transport Supplementary Grant in the 1970s. This would encourage them to provide a high quality network (which is in the interest of the country at large for reasons such as those given in paragraphs such as 2.4, 3.4.2 and 3.5) and offset the disincentive mentioned in 4.7.

6.7 LTAs would be given a duty to market their networks. For example if schools taught adolescents how to use buses for leisure travel, in financial terms this would surely be a long term money spinner. (I myself grew up in London at a time when London Transport also covered the Home Counties, and it was coming across items of LT publicity at the age of 14 that turned me into a lifelong bus user—well it won't be lifelong if the bus network disintegrates completely, as is looking all too likely at present.) In recommending this I am conscious that marketing consultants have described a deregulated system as "unmarketable"—see page 85 of[6]—but LTAs do have the option of going for a Quality Contract system similar to that operating in London. We may also need larger LTA areas.

6.8 LTAs should be encouraged to develop Swiss style integrated transport networks where buses and trains are timed to connect with one another. (This would probably require their enlargement as suggested above. Changes would probably also be required to the rail franchising system - see pages 155-6 of).[6].The benefits of the Swiss system form the main theme of[6]—see in particular the section on Sternenberg (pages 3-5), which is in the excerpt referred to in this reference. The author comes to the conclusion that the reason why this system works so much better is that people can use its easy interchanges to make a much wider variety of journeys than is possible at present.


Where would all of this lead? Well, for the first time, bus users would have a say in the services they depend on. The development of a Swiss style network would lead to radically improved modal shares for buses, and public transport in

general; for example, the figures of[6] suggest that if Cambridgeshire's modal share for journeys to work increased to that of Zurich canton minus Zurich city, it would go up from 8.4% (page 154—note that I'm excluding walking and cycling journeys) to 37.5% (see page 49). With a subsidy per journey of 30p (the figure for Zurich canton given in page 140), this would cost £23.2 million, or 78p per person per week. Considerably more than the present figure (2010-11) of less than 10p per person per week, but hardly unaffordable - it would take nearly a decade before it reached the cost of Cambridgeshire's (largely unwanted) guided busway.

This contrasts with the likely effects of current policies: an increasing proportion of the country's transport spending is used to support an ever growing motor vehicle fleet and fossil fuels that are ever more expensive (before tax); while those who do not have access to their own vehicles are ever more excluded from society by transport problems, only relieved (and not for those who are car-free by choice) by dial a ride type services which are expensive to provide on a per passenger basis.


[1]  TRL paper 593 http://www.demandforpublictransport.co.uk page 16 (page 24 of PDF file).

[2]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.

[3]  European Convention on Human Rights, http://www.hri.org/docs/ECHR50.html.

[4]  Amnesty International UK magazine issue 165 (January/February 2011).

[5]  "Buses Matter", Campaign for Better Transport (January 2011), see: http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/system/files/11.02.23.buses-matter.pdf.

[6]  "Transport for Suburbia", by Paul Mees, 2010, Earthscan http://www.earthscan.co.uk, ISBN 978-1-84407-740-3. An excerpt from the book can be found at http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/beyond-the-automobile-age.

March 2011

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