ITC report: What are the real reasons for bus patronage decline?

The ITC’s report has identified key areas as to why patronage is falling. Is it time reshape the business?

I hope in our spare moments we have found the time to read the 88 pages which form the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) report on bus patronage.

Authored by the well-known Professor Peter White and Dr Scott Le Vine, The Shape of Changing Bus Demand in England takes hard data from various sources and seeks to understand the relentless reduction in bus ridership that has been a feature of English operations – for many years outside London and since 2015, inside the capital as well.

Of course, we know there are pockets of growth which we are delighted to highlight – indeed the report names 18 of them – not only the familiar Brighton and Reading but places like Thurrock and Southampton as well.

But the big issue is that ridership is falling across the rest of England and more severely in some areas and amongst some users than others. Women are more prolific bus users than men, but their rate of decline is faster.

There are also steeper rates of decline for the 17-20 age group and for senior citizens.

Surprisingly, low-income groups also have a faster rate of decline, but less surprisingly there are now markedly fewer shopping trips. We all have our pet theories about the reasons for passenger loss.

Personally, I have always felt it is a blend of high street decline, taxi and private hire, congestion, online shopping, encouragement to walk and cycle plus the trend to ‘work from home’ one day a week.

No one of these issues is terminal, but in aggregate they are significant. The report only partially supports my theory.

The authors do not find a sufficient increase in taxi and private hire trips to suggest this has been at the expense of bus. I hesitate to challenge the great wisdom of Peter and Scott, but I wonder if the data for taxi and private hire trips is sound?

My anecdotal evidence (from a totally non-representative sample) seems to me to suggest quite a big drift as app-based services like Uber have become so prevalent.

Certainly, three or four people sharing a door-to-door Uber is an attractive proposition heading home from a restaurant, bar or theatre compared with the wait for a 30-minute headway bus service from somewhere near where you are to somewhere near home.

Harder to explain is the segmentation of decline between men and women. Indeed, younger men are using the bus more intensively according to the report.

Less surprising is the reduction in travel by senior citizens. As we always knew, the next cohort of seniors is generally more mobile, has more driving licences, and is more affluent.

We can certainly see that the rise in ridership which followed deregulation, and which followed mandatory free travel for seniors was temporary. The decline which was there before has resumed.

As ever the value in reports like this is not so we can wallow in self-pity but to use its conclusions to shape our businesses to reflect changing demand.

Otherwise, we are presiding over an industry that is in long-term decline which will inevitably lead to insolvencies and further retrenchments leaving more areas devoid of the only public transport left.