Media Release

Radical changes needed to boost UK bus travel

Adopting a London-style franchising system could improve some of the UK’s bus networks, but may only provide a short term boost to ridership, a new report suggests today. 

The next government will need to consider “radical” changes to arrest a long-term decline in bus use, according to Professor Mike Waterson of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) at the University of Warwick. 

Cities around England should learn from London’s system of bus franchising, he says.  He also says that long-term reforms could include emulating German laws that deter public bodies from paying expenses for taxi travel. 

Professor Waterson makes the suggestions in a paper published today at the Social Market Foundation which studies the current state and future prospects of bus services in England. 

Bus travel is still by far the most commonly used and cheapest form of public transport. Outside the London commuter area, travelling to work by bus is up to 10 times more common than rail commuting, and around 10% of people in major conurbations rely on the bus for getting to work.

Yet bus use is falling while ticket prices rise, the paper shows. 

Ridership per person has fallen by an average of over 1% each year in the nine-year period since 2009/10. Fares have risen by an average of around 2% each year above the Consumer Price Index (CPI) measure of inflation. 

All the main political parties including the SNP have acknowledged the importance of bus travel in their 2019 manifestos:

  • Labour have pledged to regulate or bring buses into public ownership
  • The Conservatives have promised support for local authorities who want to create franchised services or increase coordination in their areas
  • The Liberal Democrats have promised to give councils powers to commission and regulate buses

Professor Waterson says that “in reality, different areas of the UK require different solutions to enable their bus networks to thrive.”

In the short term, English cities should learn from the bus franchising system in London, he argues. 

In most cities, private operators compete on the same routes. In London, operators bid for route-based franchises to run services. Waterson says that this system creates more effective competition between operators.

Some cities including Manchester are planning to copy London’s franchising model, which the paper says may well prove beneficial. But better management of franchising “may provide only a relatively short-term (say five-year) boost to ridership,” the paper concludes.

In the long run, Professor Waterson warns, ministers will have to make more radical changes to promote bus travel and to meet environmental and congestion concerns. 

One option is to emulate Germany’s Travel Expenses Act which will not normally reimburse expense-paid travel by taxi on public business. German federally-funded institutions insist that travel should only take place on public transport. 

“Such a policy, if introduced in Britain (as regards at least to travel on the public purse), would lead to some modal shift. Radical moves such as this should be considered in Britain,” Waterson concludes. 

James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said:

“Bus travel is one of the issues that politicians at Westminster don’t pay enough attention to.  Too much of our national conversation about transport policy focuses on rail commuters and drivers, ignoring the millions for whom buses are the only way to get to work or out to the shops.  Any politician who wants to respond properly to the politics of the last decade should be paying close attention to the work of experts such as Mike Waterson.”


Driving change in the bus market: lessons from London will be published by the Social Market Foundation on Tuesday 3rd December, with a presentation at 13:00 at the Social Market Foundation, 11 Tufton Street, London, SW1P 3QB.  Register for the event here:

Media contacts:

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact the SMF on:

James Kirkup, SMF director: and 07815 706 601

Barbara Lambert, SMF media officer: and 020 7222 7060

About CAGE:

CAGE is a research centre in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. The Centre’s research programme is focused on how countries succeed in achieving key economic objectives such as improving living standards, raising productivity, and maintaining international competitiveness, which are central to the economic wellbeing of their citizens.

About the SMF:

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets.  The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

The SMF retains complete editorial independence of its publications.


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