The inequality of bus travel

A well researched report on that transport of the Common Man – or the man on the Clapham omnibus at least – is here and suggests that all is not well…

As only about a third of the poorest 10% of households have access to a car or van, many are, unsurprisingly, highly dependent on the bus.

As the Common Wealth think tank’s motto is ‘ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy’ their opinion may be unsurprising – for the commercial bus companies have, in my view, endeavoured to be rent extractors since their foundation.

The figures show that while motoring costs have decreased, bus travel costs have increased:

Source: ONS

Fares have increased throughout the UK with the lowest increases being in London, where of course the Mayor of London controls the system and keeps the fares – as well as also all the revenue ‘risk’.

This is unique in the UK.

If we concentrate on the current situation, (indeed as I’ve previously suggested) the report suggests that bus companies do have a preference for dividends and not investment:

Their studies suggest that in the period studied, 99% of bus funding came from local government. That is likely to be the case right up till the pandemic, when survival of all bus services was threatened and the government stepped in by adjusting in a major way the rather obscure fuel subsidy that they have always received in order to ensure continuity of service.

For when austerity came so did the defunding bus investment – remarkably by £900million in a decade:

Source: Department of Transport

Nothing to see there then…

Except of course there is… while the transport for London system works pretty well and, prior to the pandemic, used to have increasing passenger numbers, elsewhere in the UK, rural areas or not, bus travel has been in decline.

If the government really had a green agenda then this decline would be a clear number reversal objective!

For buses and coaches are responsible for only 3% of transport greenhouse gas pollution – while for cars and taxis it is an enormous 55%.

And there is little sign of government improvement – even if partially rural Cornwall has an ‘experimental’ pseudo franchise system that remarkably, relies on Go-Ahead for its actual administration. Let us hope that Cornwall eventually takes notes from both Go Ahead and Transport for London to learn that it can actually do it itself . Though – with a new Tory Council this may not be easy or obvious….

We have a system where:

For the big five [bus companies] we see that they are principally owned by a combination of high net worth individuals, large banks and asset management companies. For the foreign companies, we see that foreign governments dominate the ownership network.

Remarkably when we travel by bus and pay the fare we are often directly contributing to foreign governments’ treasuries – mostly in Europe. How does a Brexiter government not have a problem with that?

(Indeed, in this context, Go Ahead is actually probably the best of a bad bunch.)

The report has a very informative graphic of the bus companies’ most remunerative subsidiaries.

And this chart shows that there is a reassuringly high proportion of income for shareholders rather than capital investment.

I thoroughly agree with the conclusion:

When we piece it all together, the significant bus fare increases that the UK has experienced serve a dual purpose. First, they finance the private investment of bus companies, partly offsetting the sharp cuts in government investment in local public transport. Second, they redistribute income from those reliant on bus services, many of whom find themselves in the bottom part of the income distribution, to the bus companies’ shareholders.

How on earth is this capitalist confusion of a transport system going to get government to persuade people to travel by bus?

Like, I suspect, most of us, outside London, I rarely do – simply because it is so ‘reassuringly’ expensive.

We need basic bus transport as a free service to the user even in rural areas.

Then we can really make a start on tackling transport climate change…


  1. Charles Adams -

    “We need basic bus transport as a free service to the user – even in rural areas.”

    Completely agree. Buses should be hydrogen powered or electric.

    Public transport preferable to private car, including private EVs.

    1. Peter May -


      The further problem is the incessant rise of rail fares – whilst meanwhile fuel duty is frozen…

  2. Graham -

    Agree. We need some imaginative thinking. Unfortunately not something we’re likely to get any time soon. Plus the pandemic has made public transport something of a pariah.

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