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 These headlines always miss out on mentioning that bus services are in crisis: funding cut, services withdrawn and passenger numbers down.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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.