02Why we need better bus services

Buses are the most used public transport mode in Britain. They provide an essential service in towns and cities and make transport accessible to everyone – young and old – for work, education, health, leisure, shopping and so much more. Even those who don’t use buses recognise their value. Motorists, for example, know that without buses there would be more cars competing for road space.

But, while buses provided a valuable service before the pandemic, passenger numbers were in decline outside London – and this has been hastened by the necessary restrictions put in place to protect the public as people have stayed at home or used the car. As we seek to ‘build back better’ the aim must be to reverse that trend, growing passenger numbers once again, so that bus services and the cities they serve can play the fullest role possible in the economic recovery post-Covid.

Grow the economy

Buses are critical for Britain to bounce back from Covid; to rewire the economy while accommodating changes to where we work, where we shop and how we use technology.

Achieving an economic recovery will involve investing in new skills. Young people – many of whom will not have access to a car – will need to be able to access training at colleges, universities and other sites. Older people too will need to travel to acquire new skillsets, with the Government promising funding that will allow retraining at any age.

Economic growth will also depend on matching jobs with those who can do them. Some jobs will remain in city centres but others will be at business parks and technology campuses remote from most homes. Buses will be essential to allow jobseekers to access opportunities. Nearly 9 per cent of all trips by those on lower incomes are by local bus, compared to 3 per cent for those on the highest incomes.1

After Covid, home-working may be more common but workers will still need to travel and buses must be available when they do. Traditional travel flows will also change – store closures mean city centre space will switch from retail to residential so we can expect more reverse commuting.

Support new homes

Demand for new homes in Britain continues to outstrip supply despite major developments in towns and cities. With the pace of home building likely to accelerate following reforms to planning laws there is a risk that residents of these new homes will need a car in order to access work, education and local services. To minimise additional traffic and avoid social isolation, public transport systems need to be flexible so that they can be extended to serve new developments and adapted to changing demand.

Bus services also provide a way to unlock redevelopment of land while permitting high-density housing that minimises urban sprawl. In London, the existence of high frequency bus services has allowed parking requirements to be reduced.

Cut carbon emissions

The UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November is a reminder of the urgency of cutting emissions to avoid irreversible climate change. Meanwhile, some 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to poor air quality in the UK.2 Whether you are a minister wanting to set the global agenda or a parent wanting your children to play in a park without inhaling traffic fumes, reducing emissions from transport is key. Investing in electric and hydrogen buses is a fast way to deliver a zero-emission transport offer but to maximise such investment mayors need to be able to decide how best to deploy these new vehicles.

Maximise street space

In cities space is at a premium and ambitions to improve the public realm have to be balanced with the need to keep transport corridors clear. While the replacement of petrol- and diesel-engined cars with electric vehicles promises a welcome reduction in emissions it will not resolve the issues of traffic congestion which affect productivity. Every car kilometre driven in the UK creates on average 17p of societal harm, mostly through congestion.3 Up to 90 passengers who might otherwise require over 80 cars to travel can be carried on a single double-decker bus in the road space of fewer than three cars.

Travel restrictions during Covid lockdowns have encouraged many people to walk or cycle more and have led to a variety of pop-up walkways and cycle lanes. Many people would like to see this trend continue with wider pavements and bike lanes made permanent but often this is only possible by reducing space for motor traffic. Again, the solution is more efficient use of road space; good bus services can reduce traffic and free up space for other use without penalising drivers.

Levelling up

What can be done to increase the prosperity of cities and large towns in the North and Midlands? Giving leaders the powers and resources to control their own city’s bus services – just like their counterpart in London – would be a start. Without bus franchising mayors in Yorkshire, Merseyside and elsewhere cannot specify services to run where most needed to spur regeneration and recovery.

With the arguments for better bus services so strong there is also a feeling, expressed by many elected officials including mayors, that more people would use buses if only services were better tailored to meet their needs.

The statistics bear this out. While bus passenger journeys in London have increased significantly since 2000, when the mayor was given control, journeys in other metropolitan areas have consistently declined and have halved since deregulation.

Why has London bus use bucked the trend seen in other English cities? Because the capital’s mayors have used their control of the capital’s bus network and the revenues it raises to entrench the most significant pro-bus policies in the country. More funding, more bus lanes and a congestion charge have supported more frequent and reliable buses, a 24-hour service, lower fares and more concessionary fares, cleaner vehicles and a new payment system.

Now every metro mayor needs to do for buses in their area what London’s mayors have done for buses in the capital.

Box 2: History of bus regulation in the UK

Pre-1985 – Under the Road Traffic Act 1930, bus services were licensed by regional commissioners who set the quality standards for vehicles and drivers and regulated routes, frequencies and fares. These licences provided local monopolies to predominantly local and publicly-owned operators in major cities that used cross-subsidy to support an extensive and affordable network. From the 1950s, local authorities increased funding to municipal operators to keep fares low and maintain service levels in the face of rising car ownership and use.4

Transport Act 1985 – Bus services outside London were deregulated in 1986 to open markets up to competition from any private operator meeting minimum safety standards. They had only to register that they would provide a service rather than hold the licence to do so. Local authorities were no longer allowed to subsidise fares. National government privatised its national and local bus operations and local authorities were able to sell off municipal bus companies. Locally, authorities could only fund concessionary fares and tender for services that private operators did not provide. Around the same time, London was required to move to a locally-run franchising system.

Transport Act 2000 – Cities and local bus operators were now able to form voluntary and statutory Quality Partnership Schemes to increase co-ordination to improve local bus services and increase patronage. Improvements to bus station facilities, or bus lanes or marketing are provided by cities in exchange for new buses or higher driver standards delivered by operators. Quality Contract Schemes that enabled franchising were included in the Act but legal barriers for cities to introduce them proved to be too high.

Bus Services Act 2017 – The government responded to representations by city transport leaders and franchising powers were made easier to access for metro mayors in England. Enhanced partnership schemes that go further than Quality Partnership schemes were made available to all cities.

National Bus Strategy for England 2021 – No new regulations but government gives mayoral combined authorities an ultimatum to commit to establishing enhanced partnership schemes unless they have started the statutory process of franchising bus services by the summer. Those that aspire to franchising must show progress – judged sufficient by the Government – or commit to implementing enhanced partnerships in the meantime until the franchising process is complete if they are to retain funding and gain access to new streams. Franchising will also be open to smaller local transport authorities subject to approval from the Department for Transport.


  • 1 https://www.tfwm.org.uk/media/2917/congestion-management-plan.pdf
  • 2 Royal College of Physicians/Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2016), Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution
  • 3 https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/city-centres-past-present-and-future/
  • 4 Butcher, L. (2010) Buses: deregulation in the 1980s, House of Commons Library