Hold tight please: Are buses good for our health?

12 April 2018

Chris Todd

A good transport system allows us to access people, goods and services. It is an essential facilitator and enabler for humans to live a happy, fulfilling and therefore healthy life.

Fares and fairness: Bus services are struggling

Without adequate transport links, people can be at serious risk of isolation. While much can be done digitally, ultimately some things are best done face to face and that requires moving people around. For many, transport services are a lifeline and are a major influence on people’s quality of life. Unfortunately, for some, getting around is becoming increasingly difficult, as government priorities promote greater car use to the detriment of public transport, walking and cycling.

One result of this is that commercial bus services get caught in congestion with more cars on our roads. As delays to bus services get more severe, bus operators have to put on extra buses to maintain the service frequency they committed to, significantly increasing their costs. It’s one of reasons why bus fares have risen by nearly 70% since 2005, while inflation only rose by 35% in the same period. This rise hits the poorest the hardest.

Alongside this, the relentless squeeze on local authority finances is leading to the decline in large parts of the country of supported bus services. These are the services at the margins; the ones not commercially viable, relying on council support. Consequently, they are among the first services to be cut as local authorities prioritise children’s services and adult social care (among others), as they are faced with invidious spending decisions.

All of this is having a severe impact on public health, particularly in rural areas as we at Campaign for Better Transport are hearing all the time.

Losing a lifeline: Tales of travel when bus services disappear

We’ve heard of young people having to pay £40 a day in taxi fares to get to work, yet for them to move closer to their workplace is often not viable with current housing costs. And with 64% of jobseekers not having a car they can use for work, having access to buses is essential.

In another case, someone we know has to stop buying the painkillers (and probably other things) he needs, in order to save up to pay for the taxi fare so he can visit the doctors.

We also know of people who struggle to get to work with fewer bus services, particularly as many people work shifts nowadays, while many bus services are still planned around a traditional 9-5 working day. Ultimately this is pushing young people out of rural areas which could further undermine village schools as pupil numbers dwindle. 

If young people can afford a car, they add to the congestion on our roads and represent lost revenue for the remaining bus services, further undermining them.  Yet many younger people cannot afford a car and are either left seriously impoverished with high transport costs or end up facing poorer job prospects.

In urban areas, commercial services are more likely to operate and there can also be safer routes for walking and cycling, but that too is patchy. However, in outer suburbs, the impacts can be severe. Simple tasks like accessing childcare, or a disabled person travelling to support his local football team become impossible for some.

When the bus service is finally withdrawn, apart from the few community bus schemes and volunteer drivers (who do a great job but can only do so much), people are left with costly taxis as their only available transport.

Room for one more: Why invest in bus travel?

One of the main problems is that in Britain the bus is definitely the poor relation. It doesn’t have the same appeal to decision makers that road and rail have and as a consequence buses have been almost completely ignored at a national level. Yet buses are an essential form of transport for millions of people every day. They make an important contribution to minimising the impact of transport on the environment and support the local economy. Buses help to limit congestion and dangerous levels of pollution, and buses provide the transport to work for commuters generating more than £64 billion of economic output every year.

Much is down to political decision making. Buses carry nearly 60% of all journeys on public transport in Great Britain, compared to just over 20% being carried by rail. Yet MPs and national journalists are more likely to use trains and roads and they therefore tend to focus on these forms of transport in policymaking. While bus journeys tend to be more local than their bus or train equivalents, these journeys are essential for people to access and contribute to the social and economic opportunities for good health.

There needs to be a coherent national approach and long-term investment for buses in the UK, like the ones that roads, rail, and even cycling and walking have, backed up by real cash. This will enable people to access people, goods and services for a healthy and fulfilling life, tackle traffic congestion and minimise harmful impacts on the environment.  This is something that we at Campaign for Better Transport are calling for along with a shift of some of the tens of billions of pounds going into road building to be invested in buses.

Chris Todd (@ecochris_todd) is a Local Groups Campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport (@CBTransport)

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