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 These headlines always miss out on mentioning that bus services are in crisis: funding cut, services withdrawn and passenger numbers down.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 see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.