Over the last quarter century, bus use is up 52 per cent in London – and down 40 per cent in other British cities

A bus passes the Middlehaven redevelopment site. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Every January brings the annual ritual of headlines decrying rising rail fares and deteriorating services. These headlines always miss out on mentioning that bus services are in crisis: funding cut, services withdrawn and passenger numbers down.

The bus is Britain’s most frequently used form of public transport. Bus trips account for 59 per cent of all public transport trips in Great Britain, compared to only 21 per cent by rail. Last year, 4.4bn bus trips were made across England. Just over half of these bus trips were made in London.

As bus services are cut, not only do many people’s travel options shrink or vanish – so does their ability to be a part of society. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found poor transport options to be a major barrier to finding work. High bus fares can also make the bus an unviable travel option. Over the past two decades bus fares across England have risen by 45 per cent in real terms. Without comprehensive and affordable public transport options many are forced into unaffordable car ownership.

Bus services in Great Britain broadly fall into two categories: commercial and local authority supported. Commercial bus services are planned and operated on a for-profit basis. Private bus operators decide where, when and how frequently to run buses. As operations are focused on routes that can deliver a profit, the services can be patchy and focused on peak hours.

To complement the for profit network, local government can choose to fund socially inclusive bus services. Since local authorities are not obliged by law to fund bus services – unlike social care – bus services have been hit particularly hard by successive governments’ cuts to local authority budgets. Since its peak in 2010, local government bus funding has halved and thousands of services have been cut.

Cuts to local government supported (non-commercial) bus services are driving the decline. Miles travelled on local government supported services nearly halved in the decade to 2016-17 (the latest figures available). The fall has been sharper recently, falling 14 per cent in one year between 2015-16 and 2016-17 alone.

Meanwhile, over the same decade, bus miles travelled on commercially operated services have only increased by 1.8 per cent. As local government funded bus services are cut, the private companies are rarely picking up the cancelled routes.

This affects everyone. People on low incomes, the young and the elderly are particularly reliant on bus services to get about. In England, those from the lowest income households make three out of four public transport trips by bus. They also make three times as many trips by bus a year compared to members of the richest households. By comparison, the highest income fifth of the population make 20 per cent fewer public transport trips and 75 per cent more private transport trips. Top earning households also travel more by train than bus.

Poor bus services affect those on low-income disproportionately because few have access to private transport due to high purchase and running costs. Therefore, bus services are particularly important to those without access to private transport. For them, bus journeys make up 43 per cent of all motorised trips, compared with just 4 per cent among people who have access to private transport.


Non-car ownership is also disproportionately concentrated among low-income households: roughly 70 per cent of carless households rank among the lowest earners (that is, the bottom 40 per cent on income scale). In car-dependent areas, the carless experience a larger “mobility gap”: restricted travel because of lack of car access, because of poor public transport alternatives. Therefore, in car-dependent areas, even the carless are highly reliant on car lifts and taxi rides to get around. Good public transport options reduce the mobility gap.

Even households with access to private transport suffer from poor public transport options. Across the UK, 9 per cent of households struggle with high motoring costs on low incomes. This figure rises to 12 per cent in families with children, to 13 per cent in households without any family members in full-time employment and to 17 per cent in families with one or more members unemployed. An estimated 7 per cent of UK households experience forced car ownership: car ownership and use despite constrained household funds, because cars are seen as the only viable means of transport.

To pay for motoring costs, households in forced car ownership must cut costs on other necessities and/or reduce travel activity. Across the UK, of those in forced car ownership, 51 per cent were in arrears for unpaid utility bills, 49 per cent are burdened with significant debt repayment from hire purchases, and 46 per cent could not afford to heat their home adequately. Among those households with low or no disposable income (the bottom 40 per cent on the income spectrum), forced car ownership was over 70 per cent higher than the average (11-12 per cent vs 7 per cent). Without viable public transport options, these households are highly dependent on their car and have no option but to find savings elsewhere, to meet the cost of driving. Many of these households are forced to cut expenditure on other necessities and/or reduce travel to a bare minimum – often leading to isolation.

In addition to investment in local public transport, we need to reform how bus networks are managed and planned: reregulate the bus market. The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Tackling transport-related barrier to employment in low-income neighbourhoods concluded that the “deregulated public transport system… too often fails to meet the needs of low-income users”. Regulation of the bus market alone cannot compensate for lack of funding, but, strategic planning and management of bus services could lead to a more connected network that will provide better travel options for all.

Over the last 25 years, bus usage per person is up 52 per cent in London – compared to a 40 per cent drop in England’s other metropolitan areas. London, unlike the rest of England, has broadly managed to buck the downward trend, because bus services were not deregulated in London in the 1980s as they were across the rest of England, London retained its ability to strategically plan and manage the routes: to set when, where and how frequently to run services. Its model enables the city to plan at the network level: profitable routes can cross-subsidise less profitable – but socially important – routes. Importantly, the model supports integration of bus services with other public transport modes such as rail. This integrated multimodal public transport networks can then successfully compete with to the private car.

In 2017, the UK government passed the Bus Services Act – a tacit acknowledgement that the current deregulated bus market model is not working. The new law allows combined authorities with a directly elected mayor powers adopt the London model. Currently, six metropolitan regions qualify for these new powers: Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West of England and West Midlands. These new powers have the potential to transform the bus networks in these regions. However, the rest of the country still does not have the powers to manage and plan their bus networks strategically.

Public transport funding and service cuts fuel a vicious cycle of declining public transport usage and growing reliance on private transport. This in turn widens the mobility gap between those with and those without access to a car, and forces households into unaffordable car ownership. To tackle forced car ownership and the mobility gap, we need to create and maintain reliable, affordable and comprehensive public transport. Buses are a great solution: easily deployed to boost service, agile to accommodate route changes and high capacity use of road space.

Nicole Badstuber is a researcher at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.