THE OPINION: Current issues facing the bus industry - CILT(UK)
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THE OPINION: Current issues facing the bus industry

02 March 2021/Categories: CILT, Industry News, Active Travel & Travel Planning, Bus & Coach, Rail, Transport Planning

Since the onset of Covid-19 one year ago, sharp variations in performance can be seen. As shown in the Department for Transport’s regularly updated table of trends by mode, ridership fell to a very low level – around 11% of previous levels in April 2020 – but then rose to a high point around 55% to 60% in September and October, as restrictions were eased and schools returned, before falling to about 25% in January 2021 under the current lockdown. In all periods it has been substantially above trends for rail, but below car vehicular traffic. 

Service levels varied much less, hence average loads fell substantially. In financial terms, this has been made possible by very high levels of government support. Less severe spacing rules, essentially allowing one passenger per double seat, have enabled most demand to be accommodated except occasionally at peaks.

What of the future? Underlying factors affecting demand continue to apply, such as effects of car ownership, the importance of reliability, good passenger information, and demand elasticities with respect to fare and service levels. More comprehensive electronic service information introduced by the Bus Services Act 2017 will greatly assist in this. Scope also exists for targeting particular user groups, such as younger people, by marketing and pricing initiatives. Some longer-term trends may have been accelerated, notably working from home (although this affects rail use much more than bus) and online shopping (affecting off-peak demand).

Assuming that widespread vaccination results in a marked drop in infection, increased user confidence will encourage a return of ridership, especially among older people. Greatly increased cleaning by operators also helps this. When it is appropriate, campaigns to encourage ridership will also play a role, in contrast to specific deterrence in some government statements. The long-awaited National Bus Strategy may provide an opportunity for a more positive approach.

A policy shift from inter-operator competition, to partnership and cooperation between operators, and with public authorities, is also evident, from the 2017 Act onward. This assists users by provision of comprehensive information and inter-available tickets, and should also help in integration of bus service provision with traffic management and urban planning. Even at moderate average loadings, buses may make better use of road space than cycles or cars. 

However, to attain a good performance in use of energy and reduced emissions vis-à-vis other modes, higher load factors than currently found will be needed, encouraged, it is to be hoped, by less severe spacing rules within vehicles.

In the longer term, the government’s aims for decarbonisation will strengthen the role of public transport, and even a modest shift from car would produce a large percentage growth in bus demand.

Peter White, Emeritus Professor, University of Westminster.


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