Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Are buses doomed?

Bus use has been in decline since well before Covid - in fact since deregulation in 1986 and more recently - since about 2012 - even in London. Cycling on the other hand is on the increase. Many schemes have tried to persuade people to switch from cars to buses with limited success. More home working is likely to increase commuting distances making buses less practical. More and more people are discovering the joy (and health benefits) of electric bikes. Purchase price is a barrier for some but you can now buy an E-bike on a subscription basis for less than the price of a bus season ticket. Is there still a role for buses? - probably, but less for commuting and not the same sort of buses. (This is an opinion - tell me if you agree.)

The main driver for shifting is to save time. Low cost has a lesser role.

Environmental awareness has an impact but the main driver of mode choice is to save time - even in the context of free bus fares. This diagram illustrates the mode shifts observed in the various studies described below assuming very low cost or free bus travel. Cheap fares do increase use of buses, but a lot of this is due new travel demand or shifting from walking. On-demand buses are preferred because they are quicker to use than normal buses and more accessible to people with mobility needs. On-demand buses can also be quicker than walking or cycling in some circumstances. E-scooters and E-cycle are often quicker than the bus and sometimes quicker than a car.

Bus use has long been in decline.

Bus use has been in decline since well before Covid. It is now back up to about 80% of pre-Covid levels but people who have switched modes will probably stay switched. This decline started with bus deregulation in 1986, leading to competition between operators and a lack of strategic planning. Poor services reduced demand leading to higher costs and reduced provision which further reduced demand [2]. Since deregulation, bus fares in England have increased 2.5 times as fast as motoring costs (403% for bus fares, 163% for cars) [2].

From the National Travel Survey [1]

Cycling has been on the increase since long before Covid.

Cycling is on the up - in terms of distance travelled it increased by about a third from 2002 to pre Covid and 128% up to 2020. Interestingly, the number of trips has remained much the same so people are travelling further on average - distance is not such a barrier as before. However since more people are working for home there is less commuting so more trips for other purposes. In 2019 the number of leisure and commuting trips was similar but now only 20% are commuting and 55% are for leisure. Unfortunately the National Travel Survey does not distinguish between E-bikes and ordinary bikes but there is no doubt E-bikes are increasingly popular. (More on that later).

From the National Travel Survey [1]

Making buses free increases demand, with some switching from cars - and from walking.

Free public transport schemes are multiplying across the world. In the UK, elderly people get free off-peak travel on buses. This improves mobility (use of the buses increased by at least a third) and massively improves quality of life for many [6]. In Luxembourg free travel for all was implemented in 2020 as a social measure [14]. In Lausanne, public administration workers got free travel as part of a wage settlement [10]. Schemes in France have been justified by reducing inequality - everyone can afford it - and it reduces car use and hence pollution [13].

Does it really reduce car use? Sometimes. In Dunkirk, use of the bus increased 60% in the week and doubled at weekends. Nearly half of new users said they would previously have used a car [17]. In Frýdek-Místek (Czechia) free public transport for residents was implemented in 2011 and over time this has spread to neighbouring areas. Visitors still have to pay. Use of the buses almost doubled but most of this increase was due to the same people using the buses more often. Car drivers are still far more likely to use their car than the bus because they perceive it to be quicker. The bus users disagree, thinking the bus is quicker. (Perhaps it depends on where you are going.) The free bus service has also enticed more people to use the bus for very short distances when they would otherwise have walked or cycled, presumably also to save time [7].

On-demand buses in London, achieved similar shift, even though they were not free.

On-demand buses are more convenient to use than conventional bus routes and are often very popular. They typically have flexible routes so they can pick you up from closer to home and take you closer to where you want to be. However, they can never be as reliable as private cars; even the best AI route planner cannot guarantee everyone’s journey with a limited supply of buses. 

On-demand buses have been trialled in two places in London: Sutton and Ealing [4]. The on-demand bus journeys were quicker and more convenient. Often a journey that would have required two buses could be done in one. Of the passengers of the new service, half shifted from ordinary buses, 30% said they would have taken a car or taxi otherwise, 8% would have walked and 2% would have cycled. 10% would not have traveled at all - it was a particular boon for people with mobility issues who would struggle to get to an ordinary bus stop. These shifts occurred despite the fact that these trips were not free – they cost at least £2, showing that journey time and convenience is very often more important than price.

On-demand buses are more expensive to run.

Unfortunately on-demand buses are more expensive to provide than conventional buses, at least at the moment. Early trials have suffered from high costs: Singapore cancelled rolling out their trial because of high software costs [3]. The London trials also found that software was expensive – and people costs were high because in addition to the drivers the system needed more call centre and data support [4]. The DfT Bus Strategy considers on-demand buses are good value for rural area where demand does not justify a frequent service or in city areas late in the evening [2].

Buses face competition from E-scooters and E-cycles for short trips.

E-scooters and E-cycles are increasing in popularity. They can replace cars for short journeys, especially with only one passenger but whether this actually happens depends on other local factors. For example, the E-scooter operator Lime reports from their surveys that only 8% of users in Paris, Lyon and Marseille switched from cars or taxis to E-scooter. However a similar scheme in Portland, Oregon found 30% of users had shifted from a car. The difference is partly due to very high car use to start with in Portland and hilliness discourages conventional bikes but is no barrier with power assist. There is however stronge evidence of users switching to E-scooters from walking and (unassisted) cycling, or from public transport such as buses [11].

However, bikes are only practical for short trips. From the National Travel Survey, in 2020 69% of all cycle trips are less than 5 miles and 87% are under 10 miles. The distance travelled in each trip has been increasing since 2002, but travel over 10 miles is still quite rare, as you can see in this chart showing 2002, 2018 (pre Covid) and 2020. Bikes do not go fast enough for longer journeys.

Data from the National Travel Survey [1]

Shifting from public transport to E-bike is good for health. Shifting from conventional bike also has benefits.

Shifting from public transport to E-scooter is arguably a bad thing as it increases congestion. However, the congestion issue is not nearly as bad as with cars and they are low impact in terms of pollution and carbon emissions. In addition, using an E-bike improves fitness in people who are inactive to start with [15]. For people shifting from conventional bike to E-bikes, there is no fitness advantage but there is the benefit that you breathe less hard so less pollution gets into your lungs [16].

Hills and wind are no longer a barrier to cycling when you have an E-bike. Ditto infirmity.

Cycling in hilly areas or on a windy day is hard work but when you have an E-bike you know you will be able to manage. This applies especially to people who are less fit (at least to start with) or have health issues. The E-bike makes exercise possible - and fun. A trial of E-bikes in hilly Brighton quotes one user: I live on a steep hill and normally, on my regular bike, I would have to stop halfway up because, for me, it’s too much and I found, ... I could cycle all the way up from the bottom of the hill to my flat, and that was great ... It felt like a real sense of achievement, you know, getting a bit of assistance and I was happy with that [17].

Age and infirmity are less of a barrier than you might think too. A lady with chronic health issues once told me she loved her E-bike because it meant she could rely on being able to get home even if she was very tired and missed the bus. If stability is a problem you can get an E-trike bike. Another chap I saw riding a bike with an ankle in plaster explained it was easier than walking.

Commuting in Lausanne University: cycling doubled, cars down by a third...

Lausanne University has an annual survey of commuting by staff and students. Between 2005 and 2017, car use dropped from 25% to 16%, use of public transport increased slightly from 56% to 60% and cycling doubled from 4% to 8% [10]. The shift from car to public transport is attributed to parking restrictions and staggered start times (to reduce peak demand on the buses) as well as good local bus provision. 

... law faculty members more likely to commute by car, scientists cycle and arts students use public transport.

There are some rather strange findings in the Lausanne study, as to who uses cars, public transport, and active travel modes i.e. walking and cycling. 

  • Administration staff used cars more often than academic staff and used active travel modes less.
  • Men used public transport less than women, and active travel more.
  • Members of the Geoscience and Environment faculty used active travel modes more often than Arts faculty members and public transport considerably less. However there was little between them on car use.
  • Law, Criminal Sciences and Public Administration used a car much more often than either of the above.
The authors attribute these differences partly to environmental awareness, and for the science/arts difference to 'socio-psychological characteristics, to perceptions and image of the various modes, to values and attitudes.'

Commute distances are getting longer - and more home working increases this trend.
Saving time on short trips usually means cycling. Saving time on long trips means a car. Trends before covid, were for commuting less often but for longer - car commutes were 5% longer in 2018 than in 2002. This makes switching to bus less likely. With increased home working, this trend is likely to increase, as people are happy to commute longer distances as long as it is less often.

Definitely a role for on-demand buses, and bike-friendly express buses.
So is there hope for the conventional bus? Poor reliability and long journey times deter passengers on time critical journeys like commuting - but perhaps not for other purposes and for people who are less time pressed such as the elderly retired. On-demand buses are likely to prove increasingly popular, where they are provided but they will need subsidy at least to start with. Express buses for connecting villages and towns will also have an important role, but to be really useful they need to be friendly to bikes too, either with secure bike parking at the ends, or accommodating folding bikes on board (bus companies vary in their guidelines for these).

The main trends I have found: less commuting trips and longer cycling trips are great for our health. Perhaps we should not mourn the demise of the bus, but cheer for the on-demand bus and the E-bike. There are always losers, of course. For example school children accustomed to doing their homework on the bus will have to find another time as you can't write an essay while riding a bike.

[1] National Travel Survey ( 2020

[2] Bus Back Better: National Bus Strategy for England (Department for Transport) Mar 2021

[3] LTA drops on-demand bus plan due to higher costs (The Straits Times) Jun 2019

[4] Demand Responsive Bus Trials (Transport for London) uly 2021

[5] Over 100 cities have made public transport free (New Scientist) Jan 2021

[6] Impact of the statutory concessionary travel scheme on bus travel among older people: a natural experiment from England, Elis Whitley, Peter Craig and Frank Popham(Aging and Society) July 2019

[7] The Effects of Fare-Free Public Transport: A Lesson from Frýdek-Místek (Czechia) Daniel Štraub (Sustainability) August 2020

[8] Making public transport irresistible? The introduction of a free public transport ticket for state employees and its effects on mode use, Annika Busch-Geertsema Martin Lanzendorf Nora Klinner (Transport Policy) June 2021

[9] Shared Cars (comouk)

[10] A campus on the move: Modal choices of students and staff at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, PatrickRérat (Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives) Dec 2021

[11] Model shift effects of e-scooters (www.parliament .uk) Oct 2020

[12] Public transport in London is most expensive in the world (Intelligent Transport) May 2019

[13] Free Urban Transport is growing in France ( 2008

[14] Free Mobility in Luxembourg ( 2020

[15] Health benefits of electrically-assisted cycling: a systematic review, Bourne et al (International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity) Nov 2018

Experience of Electrically-Assisted Cycling in a UK Study, Behrendt et al (Sustainability) July 2021

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