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What's driving bus patronage change?


1. Executive Summary .............................................................................................. 1 2. Background ........................................................................................................... 4 3. What do we know about the factors driving bus patronage change? ............... 6

Theme one: wider social and economic change ...................................................... 6 Theme two - the bus compared with the alternatives............................................. 11 Theme three ? public attitudes to bus travel .......................................................... 20 4. Are there common denominators among places which have been more successful on buses? ......................................................................................... 24

Report Authors: Jonathan Bray and Stephen Bellamy

January 2019

What's driving bus patronage change?

1. Executive Summary

This is a time of both crisis and opportunity for the bus. Crisis as, year on year, bus services and patronage continues to decline to such an extent that more communities are now living without any bus service at all. At the same time there is an opportunity from the growing awareness around the potential of the bus to achieve multiple public policy goals - from reducing congestion for all road users and tackling social exclusion by providing access to opportunity, through to opening up access to new developments and improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions. In this context, more attention is being given to the relative lack of funding priority given to the bus when compared with other modes. The Bus Services Act 2017 has also overhauled the legislative framework for the bus, allowing transport authorities to push the limits of what can be achieved within a deregulated framework, as well as opening up a simpler route to the franchising of networks of bus services (similar to the way in which bus services in London are provided). Despite the bus remaining the main form of public transport, research and development in the sector remains relatively low. As Stagecoach Group founder Brian Souter put it: "How much have we as an industry put into research and development in the last five years? We're getting worse, not better and we have to change that"1. Much of the research we do have can be commissioned to support pre-determined positions around the balance of responsibility between public and private sectors, and also in relation to the on-going debate about regulation versus deregulation. With the legislative framework now settled for the sector for the near future, there is an opportunity to step aside from these debates, however valid they may be, and take an objective view of what we do know and what we don't know about the causes of bus patronage decline. In doing so, we also identify the most significant gaps in the evidence base and see how these might be addressed, including in collaboration with other organisations. The report does this by taking an overview of the full range of factors that our research suggests are relevant to patronage decline. These are summarised under three themes.

Theme one: Wider social and economic change Theme two: The bus compared with the alternatives Theme three: Public attitudes to bus travel

It also provides a commentary on the relative strength of the evidence base for each of these three themes and where additional research could prove valuable. The key trends it identifies from the three themes are:

Young people are moving away from car ownership... but not necessarily towards the bus.

Older people are moving to car ownership and away from the bus.

1 Passenger Transport Magazine Issue 194 12th October 2018, pages 4/5


January 2019

What's driving bus patronage change?

More people are living in cities - which can make active travel an attractive alternative to the bus.

There is a general shift to the expectation of personalised and on demand goods and services ? which taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs) embody but buses do not.

Transformative social and technological change has led to people working, shopping and entertaining themselves more at home. It's also led to changes in the journeys people now make with a shift away from regimented and regular daily and weekly journey patterns on the same corridors.

As bus travel has become more expensive it faces ever tougher competition from low cost taxis and PHVs, more extensive and much quicker steel wheel networks, and from cheap and comfortable private car use.

More priority on the road network can improve the bus's competitiveness but road space is being squeezed to create places that favour people over motorised traffic. At the same time demands on remaining road space for different needs and types of vehicles (deliveries, taxis, cycling and so on) can be subject to highly politicised debates.

Many bus users have an emotional connection with bus travel because of the positive aspects of its shared, communal and social nature. This is particularly the case where a bus operator provides a good service that reflects a shared pride in the identity of the place it serves.

The way in which bus travel is perceived can vary significantly depending on the nature of the local service and also by social class, age, gender, ethnicity, mobility, disability (mental or physical).

There are particular issues around bus travel as a shared social space, both positive (shared experience) and negative (behaviour of drivers or fellow passengers). There are also stress points in relation to the bus travel experience which are unique to bus travel and which can exacerbate some of the shared space issues (for example, will the bus arrive, the potential for protracted interaction with a driver over fares whilst being watched, when to get off, etc.). These issues may be a factor in particular for none or irregular users.

Many, but not all, of these background trends are unfavourable to the bus.

This report also looks at areas which are bucking the general trend of bus decline and seeks to draw some initial conclusions about the common denominators which are present where bus use is high, or growing, or both. The report finds that one or more of three factors are present. These factors are:

Good quality bus service - i.e. levels of research and development, marketing and fleet investment are relatively high and focussed on matching the bus offer to the needs of the local market.

Car travel is difficult or unattractive - due to congestion and/or expensive or limited city centre parking (sometimes this is also strongly correlated with a road layout which is highly constrained for car access due to the historic nature of the city centre built environment).

Denser urban areas - where car ownership is relatively low and there is a strong culture of bus use.


January 2019

What's driving bus patronage change?

The report does not aim to produce a simplistic checklist of policies that if adopted will lead to increased bus use in any circumstances. The reality is that the bus market is hyper-local, from deep rural hinterlands through to the centre of London and every kind of local circumstances between. It is our belief that the intelligent application of local research and development into what might work in each individual market, taking into account what's relevant from wider research and development, is likely to achieve the best results. We also see this report as the first stage in a process of arriving at a more structured understanding of the causes of bus patronage decline rather than the final word. In relation to this, the report also identifies the areas where the evidence base could most benefit from additional research. These are:

1. The correlation between the performance of the national / sub-national economies and bus travel.

2. The relationship between parking availability and cost, and its impact on the demand for bus travel.

3. The relationship between the simplicity and integrated totality of the bus offer and patronage.

4. The way in which people respond to the experience of bus travel is relatively underresearched with more focus on bus consumers as rational economic actors (so looking at comparative costs, journey times, etc.) rather than underlying emotional responses, which also inform the travel choices that people make. There is also inadequate research around how different segments of users and non-users respond to bus travel and how the bus product might be adjusted accordingly.

5. To substantiate or challenge the conclusions on the three factors identified as being present in areas of growing and/or high bus use including the relationship between congestion and bus travel (as in, why is it that in some areas of high congestion and low traffic speeds bus patronage is high or growing?).

In order to start the process of addressing these evidence gaps we have decided to commission research on the fourth of these topics. This research will take a deep dive into available existing evidence on how people respond to the experience of bus travel (including the bus as a social space) as well as undertake original research. In doing so it will look at how the bus as a social space could be changed to build on the positive associations that people have and address the negative aspects. In conclusion, we look forward to working with our members, and with other interested organisations, in further developing the evidence base on what drives bus patronage and the lessons that can be learned.


January 2019