Commentary on bus sector recovery

This piece was written for Transform Scotland, and is also available on TS’s website. BBC Scotland also wrote about it.

There was a flurry of interest in early October about public transport recovering from losing passengers during the Covid pandemic. The Scotsman reported transport minister Jenny Gilruth needing to find funding to avert bus service cuts Then Transform Scotland highlighted a recovery in rail patronage, though ScotRail lags behind other operators Back in July 2021, Transform Scotland had highlighted the need for ‘A Just Recovery for Public Transport’ (download link here

So, what’s the overall picture?

Edinburgh Bus Users Group focuses on bus services in and around Edinburgh, but we keep an eye on trends across Scotland and the UK. As such, we offer these comments.

It’s actually quite difficult to find reliable data on bus patronage trends. Bus operators tend to keep their ridership to themselves, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. Early in the pandemic, Transport Scotland published figures for trips using concessionary travelpermits; of course this shows only a partial figure for bus travel.

The Department for Transport (Westminster) has published weekly travel data for different modes since March 2020 It shows trends very well, but at a GB level. Phil Haigh (@philatrail) turns these into weekly graphs, comparing rail and motor vehicle traffic. What’s clear is, unsurprisingly, that there were precipitous falls in travel coinciding with pandemic peaks, followed by recovery.

Total motor vehicle traffic is now at, and sometimes above, pre-pandemic levels; mostly because of commercial (light/heavy goods), with passenger (car) trips generally around 92-100% of prepandemic levels. Rail passenger trips are now at 80-90% of prepandemic, even though there are significantly fewer trains than before. (Bear that in mind when someone says no-one’s travelling by train).

For reference, EBUG did a snapshot graph showing comparative bus (Transport for London and outside London) over 6 weeks this summer. It shows London bus around the 80% mark, with buses elsewhere tending around 70% (London Underground has not recovered as much as London bus).

The peaks across all modes reflect the substantial shift from travel to/from work to travel for ‘leisure’, which is clear across all travel.

In Edinburgh (and probably across Scotland), we’ve seen reduced frequencies and some routes cut altogether. Initially this was due to the dramatic drop in travel. As some normality returned, however, a shortage of drivers prevented operators fully restoring services even where they wished to. (The origins of this were the well-publicised shortage of lorry etc drivers, with road freight consequently offering higher wages to qualified drivers).

Whilst the Scottish (and English/Welsh) government gave emergency funding to operators (as they did to other sectors), this will eventually end; hence the concern covered by the Scotsman.

Why the slower recovery in bus patronage? What appears to have happened is that not only has travel to/from work declined and/or shifted to car, but older passengers are still staying away; 60 years and older at around 60-65% of pre-Covid, according to a respected industry source. Focus groups reveal a number of reasons: fear over ‘unsafe’ messaging, working and shopping from home, household budgets, changed habits, High St diminished.

Transport Focus ran passenger surveys throughout the pandemic. The September survey of bus users showed that ‘feeling safe in relation to Covid’ is still a factor in not using the bus among ‘lapsed bus users’, at 23%.

In EBUG’s view, governments rather overcooked the ‘don’t use public transport’ message during the height of the pandemic. OK, we’re not medical experts, but there was a slew of global evidence that public transport wasn’t a massive source of infection. Sure, we wore masks on the bus, but it wasn’t difficult to spot examples of public transport blindness in the health sector; whether the assumption that everyone would get to test centres by car, to the government adverts (fortunately soon withdrawn) implying going by bus or train was like swimming in shark-infested waters.

So part of the responsibility for the sluggish return to public transport, especially buses, lies at governments’ doors. Therefore, is it unreasonable to suggest that governments show flexibility over continued funding during the recovery period?

EBUG recently spoke at a City of Edinburgh Council meeting, in response to a motion proposing a time-limited ticket so passengers could change between buses for the price of a single. What was interesting, as ever, is what the councillors asked; it could be summarised as ‘what’s the right balance between the commercial and social in bus services?’ and ‘should government fund bus services more?’

Our reply was ‘they’re both important’ and ‘perhaps not, directly’. Lest this surprises anyone, it’s because we hold that long-term, direct government subsidy for operating costs is risky. Public transport will always rank below other government priorities such as health or education (and we accept that). So services that need ongoing subsidy are always vulnerable to funding cuts. Far better for local and national governments to focus on the environment in which buses operate; the policies and the infrastructure.

We must also consider the ‘patchiness’ of some of the ‘recovery’. It’s interesting to note the campaign which started in response to the proposed withdrawal of the 101/102 service in south west Scotland; it’s remarkably adept at publicity and profile. The service is now, apparently, often overcrowded. Does it offer a lesson about good old-fashioned grassroots work?

And finally, the importance of detail (always important with buses). Transport commentator Christian Wolmar recently coined the acronym ‘NGAD’ (it may mean ‘Nobody Gives A Damn,’ though there are other interpretations!). He was reflecting on the lack of customer focus and general sloppiness he’d seen on recent train trips. EBUG members report similar instances in Edinburgh: failure of Real Time Information, poor information on diversions; in Leith particularly ‘it’s all a mess’. No doubt some of this can be attributed to major works (tram, North Bridge etc); but it’s difficult to escape the sense that key players are operating at full stretch, with no reserve for contingencies.

Any basic marketing course will tell you that you need to start with a good product. So, where the bus service ‘product’ isn’t as good as it was before the pandemic, steps are needed to restore it. Then come the campaigns to ‘unfrighten’ the lapsed passengers. Then comes the campaign to ‘sell’ bus. But, after all, we’re not marketing experts either…