“Wait for a bus and then tell me the market knows best”
It is useful though unusual to have some media attention paid to buses in the national press, despite three times as many public transport journeys being made by bus as by any other form of transport.
However, the picture painted in today's Guardian by Owen Jones is not entirely accurate. Bus Users UK is a not-for-profit organisation which represents the interests of bus and coach passengers outside London and has done so to Local Authorities which are considering cuts, carried out local impact events on the ground all over the UK and discussed the social necessities of bus services with decision makers at all levels, including the Dept for Transport and the relevant government Ministers.
While budgets for subsidised services have shrunk and continue to do so, causing all sorts of unintended problems, it should also be noted that some of these gaps have been filled by private bus operators despite the inability of some services to break even or make a viable profit margin, through cross-subsidy and creativity. This is not the role of the private sector but the legal duty of local authorities to provide subsidy for services that are socially necessary, but we all have reason to be grateful to such operators for maintaining the levels of service where they do exist.
It may be a concern in the future if local authorities have to manage a devolved budget and are pulled towards spending more on adult social care than transport, without realising that withdrawing bus subsidy often has the unwanted effect of increasing the need for more social care and support. It is not surprising that today's opinion piece had a huge response to these issues as, despite the stereotype, buses are of singular importance for people from all walks of life, all ages and all abilities and people become very passionate when the services they rely on to access education, employment, health and welfare services and general shopping and entertainment facilities are threatened.
Even regular car drivers need to protect their local buses in order to avoid impossible levels of congestion, environmental and other damage. Many drivers don’t use buses until they are diagnosed with a heart problem, epilepsy or other condition that results in a withdrawal of their driver’s licence, even for a short while. People getting into employment often have to work unsocial hours and split shifts and these jobs can be unsustainable if services are not available. Many people lose confidence in their driving ability at a certain point in their lives. All of these people need the bus service to be there and it is surely better for all of us if more people use buses rather than piling yet more cars onto the roads.
While Bus Users UK deals with badly-handled complaints where bus companies haven’t done well, and see plenty of individual problems with buses that cause disruption and distress to the passengers, our annual total is a long way below the number of complaints referred to our rail equivalent. I would also point to the passenger satisfaction levels which are independently measured each year and the average satisfaction rating hovers around 90% with some achieving 98% - figures any retailer would kill for and, again, higher than rail franchises achieve. Considering the conditions in which trains operate compared to buses having to compete with other road users, the punctuality statistics are pretty impressive too. Most passengers don’t really care what system or structure is used to provide bus services, they just want regular, punctual, reliable, affordable and accessible buses to take them where they want to go and no one model will work in every area to make that happen.
The only way to achieve anything like a good local service is to make sure that passengers and potential passengers are asked what their priorities are and then to work with whoever is available in the area to see how much of that is possible, in whatever form makes sense.