Buses may not be sexy, but they are a lifeline for our poorest citizens

These are tough times for our buses services. Brave decisions must be taken in order to give buses the support they need and deserve.

Martin Abrams is a public transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport

What would your response be if average train fares were hiked up to five times faster than wages and services cut to such an extent that 70 million fewer journeys were made each year?

It is a fair bet you would not be pleased. You might also expect it to be big news, with talk about the damage to the economy, the unacceptable cost to hard-pressed families, and the need for better regulation. The media would be full of outraged commuters and campaigns, while politicians of all hues would pledge to take action.

On Tuesday the Office of National Statistics published statistics showing this is precisely what happened to bus services last year.

So far, there has been scarcely a murmur about it. The ONS figures show that in the 12 months to March 2013, passenger numbers saw an annual fall of 1.4 per cent – 2.5 per cent outside London. Bus fares went up by an average of 4.7 per cent. Outside urban areas, the increase was 5.7 per cent. Total bus miles are now 4 per cent lower than the 2008/09. The 20 per cent of total routes which are financially supported by local authorities are down 8 per cent for the second year running.

These disastrous  numbers show buses facing a perfect storm of year on year cuts in support, higher fares and lower passenger numbers. What can be done to arrest the decline?

First, funding needs to reformed and increased. This can be justified purely on grounds of tackling social exclusion. There is an inverse correlation between bus use and income – the worse off you are, the more you rely on buses. Cutting funding and allowing services to disappear is regressive, hitting those with no alternative the hardest.

In so doing, it reduces the chances for people to get themselves out of poverty through training, education and access to jobs markets, while denying many important social links.

The government’s decision to protect the Bus Service Operators Grant First from further cuts as part of the last Spending Round has shown it understands this argument. In the medium term, funding reform could help to ensure minimum standards of accessibility, improvements in standards and reductions in fares for passengers, whilst retaining vital services that are a lifeline to many.

This could in part be achieved by protecting the concessionary pass for older people and introducing a concessionary pass for younger people in education, on apprenticeships or those out of work. Local authority support, however, still faces intense pressure and there has been a rash of stories in the local media highlighting further cuts to services are in the pipeline.

Buses also need investment in infrastructure. Bus-friendly town planning, investments in real-time information and smart ticketing are all proven to make bus services more attractive. One of the bright spots in this year’s statistics is Oxford where passenger numbers have increased 10 per cent in the last two years. This coincides with the introduction of smart ticketing in the city, designed to make services easier to use.

Compare this investment with proposals in Liverpool to remove bus lanes which are essential to making buses an attractive option and help tackle congestion by getting people out of their cars.

These are tough times for our buses services. Brave, innovative decisions with much longer term visions must now be taken by central and local governments in order to give buses the support they need and deserve.

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