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Bus services in England outside London - Report Overview

This is a House of Commons Committee report with recommendations to the Government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Transport Committee

Date Published: 22 May 2019

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Barriers to travel

Bus passengers want reliable and timely services, they want to know when and where a bus will turn up. Congestion is not the only reason that buses can be unreliable, but it has a major impact on reliability. Unlike other factors, like bus or driver availability, bus operators can do little to address it. Tackling congestion, by using bus priority measures or encouraging people out of cars and onto buses—modal shift—will not only improve reliability but will also improve air quality. Better bus reliability could encourage other people to leave their car at home and take the bus instead, further reducing congestion.

Bus priority measures can be deployed best when local authorities work with bus operators to understand pinch points and where such measures can make the most difference. Active enforcement of these bus priority measures by local authorities achieves the most effective results.

The Committee is recommending that:

  • local authorities be given the powers they need to enforce moving traffic violations.
  • the Government update its guidance on bus priority measures to better reflect new technologies.

We believe that bus services need to be more passenger focused. It is important too to think about the people that currently choose not to use the bus. Getting people out of cars and into buses—modal shift—is a major part of reducing congestion. Making sure people have correct and timely information about tickets, fares and when buses will arrive makes bus use more convenient and can entice new passengers.

The Committee is recommending that:

  • the Government and bus operators invest more to make sure that passengers can access the right information how, where and when they need it.

View the Committtee's full list of recommendations

Planning and buses

Having options for bus travel built into new developments can be an effective way of encouraging people to change from cars to public transport. This works best when planning teams and transport teams work together within local authorities. At present too many new developments or changes to services, like relocating doctors’ surgeries, housing offices or hospitals, do not have adequate access to public transport.

Image: Bus

Bus interior

Image credit: © Parliamentary Copyright

Successive governments have tried to improve services for passengers by legislating for different bus operating models, where local authorities and bus operators work together: quality contracts, advanced quality partnerships, enhanced partnerships and franchising. Most bus partnerships are voluntary, with no legal framework, and some of the models provided for in legislation have never been used. Some areas can adopt any of the statutory models they like, while others must seek the permission of the Secretary of State. The Committee believes local authorities are best placed to know which model is right for their area.

The Committee is recommending that:

  • the Government bring forward legislative proposals to make all models available to all areas on the same basis.

View the Committtee's full list of recommendations

Funding of bus services

Funding for buses mainly comes through bus passenger fares but the Government, through a variety of mechanisms, provides over 40% of the money. A lack of long-term funding means that money from the Government is often seen by local authorities and bus operators as uncoordinated and fragmented.

Long-term certainty over Government funding would mean that bus operators and local authorities could plan bus networks more effectively than they do now. The Government has long-term funding plans for roads and for rail investment; it seems strange not to have a similar plan for the most used form of public transport.

The Committee is recommending that:

  • the Government considers how funding of bus services could be reformed to give local authorities and bus operators greater certainty about funding.

View the Committtee's full list of recommendations

We recognise that it is unlikely there will be more funding available from the Government for bus services. As well as a long-term funding settlement, the Government needs to ensure current funding is used to best effect and helps to increase bus use. This will require reform of some of the current funding mechanisms, like the Bus Service Operators Grant. Some investments, like investment in low carbon buses, will not return the greatest value for money unless they are accompanied by measures that will get people out of cars and onto buses.

Figure 1: Increase in cost of different forms of transport

Increase in cost of different forms of transport

Source: House of Commons Library, Railways: fare statistics, 20 November 2018, page 5

Bus operating models

The deregulation of bus services outside London in the 1980s was meant to address the steady decline in bus use since the 1950s and bring in a new era of bus travel. In the 1984 Buses White Paper the then Government asserted that:

Without the dead hand of restrictive regulation fares could be reduced now on many bus routes and the operator would still make a profit. New and better services would be provided. More people would travel.

[…] bus operators will look keenly to see where and when people want to travel. If one operator fails to provide a service that is wanted, another will.

Successive governments have stuck with deregulation, but the promised benefits have never materialised. Deregulation has, at best, done little more than slow the decline in bus use.

Without buses people would not be able to get to work, places of education, healthcare appointments or travel for leisure or social reasons. Nearly three in every five journeys by public transport in Great Britain were by bus in 2017/18. However, in most parts of England bus use is falling and hundreds of bus routes have been withdrawn. This has direct consequences for people’s lives. Without buses people face the unpalatable choice of using cars and taxis or giving up work or educational opportunities entirely. This also narrows their choice around such opportunities. We heard that buses are not reliable, making it difficult for people to get to work or medical appointments on time. We also heard that routes are often too far from people’s work, home, school, college or other places they need to visit.

If this trend continues not only will it make it difficult for those who use the bus the most—and particularly those who, for economic, social or health reasons, have no alternative—it will have both economic and environmental impacts. It would reduce economic growth and make congestion and air quality worse as people move from buses to cars and taxis.

In most places local authorities help to fund socially necessary services, where such services are not being provided on a commercial basis by a bus operator. Financial pressure on all non-statutory council services is, however, putting such routes at risk. Routes are being withdrawn, or their frequency reduced, and the communities they serve are becoming isolated.

Bus strategy to tackle decline in bus use

The Committee concludes that a bus strategy is needed to halt the decline in bus use and give passengers a fairer deal. The Government has not provided evidence that it has tried to halt or reverse the decline in bus use and bus passenger numbers are still falling. Given the scale of the contribution that taxpayers make to funding bus services we conclude that the Government should more clearly set out what it expects to achieve from this investment.

Any strategy must be passenger focused but should also address the reasons why people choose not to use buses and what changes are needed to encourage them to make a different choice. A strategy would give a clear indication that there was ambition to improve bus services and provide a single point of reference for local authorities and bus operators to increase bus use.

This strategy could:

  • set out clearly the Government’s ambitions for increasing bus ridership;
  • show how the full suite of operating models can be made available to all local authorities;
  • describe a more stable and multi-year funding framework;
  • assess the evidence for the effectiveness of bus priority measures, and provide information on good practice in their use and examples of where they have worked; and
  • provide a framework for setting and tracking targets for modal shift, while also providing examples of the kinds of things local authorities could do to meet such targets.