Politicians need to recover their affection for the man on the omnibus

The status of buses, and their users, has taken a battering of late.

“The man on the Clapham omnibus” was once a widely-used term to refer to the average person on the street. Fast forward a few decades to the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher allegedly said that any man (but presumably not any woman) on a bus over the age of 25 can consider himself a failure. The reputation of buses has yet to recover from this put-down.

Yet, although buses lack the glamour of the car or high-speed rail, they provide an essential service to millions of people across the country – especially those on lower incomes and those unable to drive a car (for example due to disability).

Among those in the lowest household income quintile (the poorest 20% of households), 80% of public transport trips are made by bus. This compares with 39% for the richest 20% of households.

Source; National Travel Survey data for England

Notably, the richest 20% of households are the only income quintile where trains account for more trips than buses – something that you might not appreciate when reading all the news articles about soaring train fares and rail delays, with scant discussion about the abysmal state of bus services in the UK. With the UK’s journalists disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds, they often overlook the facts of life for the majority in society – including the relative importance of buses over trains for getting around. 

Disproportionate coverage of rail woes in the media distorts political discourse on public transport – with an excessive focus on a means of transportation which is mainly used by the richest in society; the richest 20% of households accounted for 40% of all train journeys made in England in 2017 – meaning they disproportionately benefit from public subsidies for and spending on rail.

The costs of ignoring buses are all too clear to see in the data, with the bus network deteriorating notably. The Campaign for Better Transport estimated that 301 bus routes in England and Wales were reduced or withdrawn in the 2017/18 fiscal year. At the same time, the bus services that remain have become much more expensive. While rising rail fares have been widely discussed by politicians, much less has been said about rising bus fares – yet these have risen even more strongly in recent years:

Buses are in a downward spiral. Rising prices and a declining ability to get around curbs demand for buses – which in turn leads to further deterioration of services. This is storing up problems for the future – particularly given an ageing population which might struggle to get around by car as their eyesight, mobility and coordination declines.

Rather than trying to reverse this downward spiral through public investment, politicians are instead focusing their attentions on the white elephant that is HS2.

If the government really wants us to give up our cars, for the sake of the environment and reduced congestion, why is it curtailing the ability of those in many parts of the country to get around via other means? Politicians would do well to reconnect with their friend on the omnibus..


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