Bus patronage recovery ‘a challenge for rest of the decade’

Bus patronage recovery destined to be challenging

That the bus industry overall may return to only around 90% of pre-COVID-19 patronage through the rest of the current decade was among ideas and suggestions concerning patronage recovery aired at the Association of Local Bus Manager (ALBUM) conference, held on 26-27 April in Blackpool. 

Regaining previous users – both fare-paying and concessionary – was a major source of discussion at the gathering as the sector looks to life beyond current revenue support schemes. Although there is reason for some optimism in the long term – particularly around climate objectives – the head of one major independent operator highlighted how for some in the industry, the biggest challenge will be negotiating the next few years with likely reduced usage and income. 

‘Challenge the car as part of bus patronage recovery’

Consensus was reached that other parties’ behaviour and actions will have a greater influence on the bus sector’s fortunes in coming years than before, with a recognition that recovery to 100% of pre-COVID-19 usage is only likely in areas where private motoring becomes more difficult and/or expensive. 

In certain of the parts of England where Bus Service Improvement Plan funding has not been forthcoming, worry around the futures of some services is real, Stephensons of Essex Managing Director Bill Hiron says. In the particularly problematic area of concessionary passengers, he is “very concerned” that by October, only between 65-70% recovery will have been achieved. For farepayers over the same timeframe, “if we get above 80%, we will be very pleased,” Mr Hiron adds. 

A more optimistic prediction for October was given by Confederation of Passenger Transport Chief Executive Graham Vidler. He believes that 90% of farepayers will have returned by then, but only 75% of concessionary travellers. Jane Cole, MD of Blackpool Transport, largely agrees; by October she predicts that the Fylde operator will have seen an overall 85% return. 

Segmental nuance in play for rates of recovery, expert believes 

Chris Cheek, MD of Passenger Transport Monitor, has undertaken analysis of the likely rate of bus patronage recovery over the remainder of the 2020s. From a cross-industry perspective, “between 88 and 91% is the best we will do,” he boldly told the conference as part of a wider look at the future of buses. 

Mr Cheek, too, identifies that the concessionary market will be a major challenge. He believes that continuing fears of infection with COVID-19 among older passengers is causing a reduced rate of return among that demographic. 

But when recovery patterns are broken down, Mr Cheek’s analysis suggests that the drop in usage for the remainder of the 2020s will vary considerably across segments. Only one – leisure travel – will ultimately see no loss from pre-pandemic levels, he says. The highest drop will be in commuting, by 23%, while he suggests that education-related travel will also fall, albeit by only 4%. 

In England, reduced ridership will spell difficulties in many areas when Bus Recovery Grant Extension funding ends after 4 October, Mr Cheek continues. It could lead to a combination of service cuts, fare increases and reduced investment. In some locations that recipe may threaten the future commercial operation of services and strengthen the case for re-regulation.