We should talk trains less – and buses more

Buses on Manchester's Wilmslow Road. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Buses have long been underappreciated in the UK. In the debates that rage around public transport, the bus seems to lose out to other modes in the battle for attention that has an impact on policymakers.

The traditional New Year uproar over train fares rises is one example of this trend. But it goes unremarked that bus fares have risen in line with rail fares over the last 30 years, with both growing at nearly twice the level of inflation. By contrast, the real cost of motoring has fallen in that period – something which is much worse news for buses than trains.

Who does this bus fare inflation primarily affect? People from the poorest fifth of households catch nearly 10 times as many buses as trains, but buses become much less popular relative to trains as household incomes rise. As we go up the income scale, that ratio shrinks to 7:1 for the second lowest quintile of household, then 3:1 and 2.4:1, until we get to the richest fifth of people, who on average catch more trains than buses.

In other words, the political and media obsession with rail fares is to the detriment of poorer people in cities across the country.

This is one good reason why buses should have a more prominent place in the national debate about public transport – but there are many others.

The scale of bus usage is huge, especially relative to rail/light rail usage outside London

Buses are the workhorses of local transport systems. The National Travel Survey shows that, in urban areas outside of London, around 6 per cent of all journeys are made on buses exclusively – much more than via rail, which accounts for only 0.5 per cent of all journeys, in seventh place behind cars, walking, buses, bicycles, taxis and other modes of transport.

Around half of multimode journeys include rail usage. But even if we add those to journeys taken exclusively on trains, that still equates to less than a quarter of the number of bus journeys in cities beyond the capital.

Bus services reach into almost every corner of our cities, linking neighbouring areas together. Trains play much more limited role in local travel in most cities. In fact, 64 per cent of train journeys begin or end in London – which nonetheless accounts for over half of bus journeys in England.

As such, the debate about train fares is primarily of interest to people in London and its surrounding areas. By contrast buses, by far the main mode of public transport in cities elsewhere in the country, barely get a mention in public discussions around transport.


Buses are a brilliant – and undervalued – mode of transport

We might not think of them as being the newest technology or hugely innovative. However, the modern bus – running in a well organised, integrated transport network – offers economic, financial, social, cultural, and environmental qualities it would be foolish to look past.

For example, a large modern diesel bus can be up to 500 times less toxic (per passenger) than some small modern diesel cars. Around 22 per cent of bus journeys are commutes, underlining their importance as mode of transport for people getting to work. (This figure is bigger in London, where buses are cheaper, more plentiful and more integrated in to the transport system.)

Suffice to say that buses offer benefits that other transport modes do not, and deserve a greater role in the debate on public transport on this basis alone.

Bus services are under threat

Despite some notable exception – such as Brighton, Merseyside and Nottingham – journeys have fallen in most cities over recent years.

The reasons for this are numerous: some people have been tempted into cars because driving, or being driven, is cheaper. Others may be put off buses because the reliability/efficiency/regularity/price have deteriorated, possibly driven by reduced local authority subsidies.

Research by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that, since 2010-11 a total of £73.8m has been cut from supported bus services in England, a reduction of 25 per cent. But the decline of the bus – if allowed to continue – will be result longer traffic jams, dirtier air, and less active, prosperous or integrated cities.

Moreover, the scale of bus usage means that any falls in journey numbers have a big impact on overall public transport usage in a city. In South Yorkshire, a 20 per cent fall between 2010 and 2016 equated to around 15m few journeys per year – greater in absolute terms than the entire annual ridership of the Sheffield Supertram network, which carries around 12.6m passengers.

The truth about trains

Compared to this, trains appear to be in rude health, if a little cramped and expensive at rush hour. Rail passenger numbers have doubled in 20 years. On some parts of the network in the South East growth has outstripped even that: the Thameslink franchise has seen numbers double in just 10 years.

The railways are fantastic feats of engineering. They stand apart from other modes of transport by physically standing apart: they have the privilege of operating on their own network completely free of any other kinds of traffic, apart from freight trains and the occasional level crossing. It’s fair to argue that we need more and better trains.

But whatever the problems with the existing rail system, the threats to bus services across the country are deserving of a much greater focus in national conversations about transport.


Devolution will be integral to strengthening and improving bus networks in cities across the country

These threats have started to get some national media coverage outside in recent months – for example, the BBC highlighted the issue of shrinking services last month as part of its collaboration with local media. But as Chris Todd from the Campaign for Better Transport points out, getting buses up the policy agenda to where they need to be is not helped by the probability that journalists and politicians catch the train more than the bus.

And with national media and politics so focused on London – where bus quality and usage has flourished since the start of the millennium – even those that do catch the bus won’t be having a representative experience. Personal experience can have a huge impact on public policy. This can be for good if it is representative of the broad spectrum of experience. But if it is narrow and unrepresentative, it can blinker policy and warp its focus. Putting more powers and funding in the hands of cities is one way to avoid some of the biggest blunders that this can create.

Buses deserve and demand a bigger place in the transport debate. Much of what makes trains work in this country – franchising, focus and funding – would be fantastic for our bus networks and our cities.

Hopefully this is what the Bus Services Act will help bring to cities with metro mayors.   

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.