The Future of Free Bus Travel

A Standing Ovation During my 30+ years in transport I have only received a standing ovation once.  It was 1993 I think. I was presenting some research to a conference sponsored by Age Concern (which would merge with Help the Aged to become AgeUK). The research told a story of…

A Standing Ovation

During my 30+ years in transport I have only received a standing ovation once.  It was 1993 I think.

I was presenting some research to a conference sponsored by Age Concern (which would merge with Help the Aged to become AgeUK).

The research told a story of confusion amongst older people over the use of their bus passes.  At that time, just a few years after bus deregulation, local authorities offered a range of concessions: free travel, free travel after 0930, cheap flat fare travel (even trade in your bus pass for a TV Licence).  This patchwork of concession was made more complicated for people travelling across transport authority boundaries.

I reported that there was a case for a national concession: maybe even a free concession.

Then came the ovation!

A Consultation

Free travel for those over 60 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and for those of female pensionable age in England, has now been in existence for some time (nothing to do with my presentation!).  The tabloid headline is now often more about the “ticking time bomb” of offering free travel to an ageing population – especially a future elderly cohort who will routinely live to 90+ years. (At the same time, transport professionals are having a parallel discussion about the use of concessionary passes reducing significantly: Baby Boomers being married to their cars?  Relatively cheap price of petrol?  Reduction in tendered buses services giving less options to the user?)

Policy makers are looking at the “ticking time bomb”.  Transport Scotland’s consultation (CLICK HERE) on Free Bus Travel closes on Friday 17 November.  The consultation asks whether free bus travel entitlements should remain the same, rise to pensionable age at one fell swoop (April 2018) or in a gradual transition.  The savings under these scenarios are well presented.  Transport Scotland is also consulting on whether free travel rights should be extended to the approx. 30,000 Modern Apprentices under the age of 21 at a cost of £8m pa.

A Survey of the Great British Public

Our ESP Easy Travel Index (click here), undertaken in May 2017, asked nearly 5,000 people in 45 cities and regions in the UK about concessionary travel and suggested some future proposals.  The results paint a picture of a population which has an appetite for the further development of concessionary travel: building on national schemes – not eroding them.  The proposals we laid before the British public, which they could prioritise as their first, second and third preferred options, were as follows:

  1. Current free travel arrangements remain the same
  2. Older people pay a 50p flat fare
  3. Only lower income older people receive free travel
  4. A set travel allowance is put into a “travel account” for older people which can be spent on any form of transport (incl. taxis)
  5. Free travel is extended to lower income young people undertaking apprenticeships AND those seeking work
  6. Free travel is extended to people undergoing courses of medical treatment for a set time (e.g. cancer treatments)

What is the brave new world that people want?  In terms of aggregated votes (total top three votes) the results are, in winning order:

  • Extending free travel to those undergoing medical treatment (with little variation across the UK or across age groups). This proposal attracted most first priority votes and a massive majority of the aggregated vote;
  • Extending free travel to apprentices and those seeking work (this being slightly more popular amongst 16-29 year olds and decreasing in popularity slightly with age);
  • The status quo – keeping current arrangements the same (supported much more strongly by the over 60s). It should be stated that those who want the current arrangements to stay the same are most likely to rank this as their first priority: a very strong view!

And bringing up the rear……paying 50p flat fare.

Interestingly, people predominantly rank the travel allowance to be spent on all modes as their third option (with overall aggregated votes just below those cast for the status quo).  This is a strong result given it is a radical change and thus arguably more difficult for people to fully envision.  The fact that there is this degree of interest in such a proposal does provide a boost for Mobility as a Service (MaaS) solutions. Policy makers think on: could the NaviGoGo MaaS service (click here) be used to deliver concessions targeted at younger people? Certainly something for the (near) future.

So what?  Well perhaps there is a view amongst the public that accessible transport (in this case financially accessible) changes lives.  Keeps people healthy – physically and mentally. Keeps people connected.  Enables lifestyles.  Makes the economy grow.  Tackles unemployment.

So what for Scotland?  Well this isn’t an Exit Poll, but Scottish cities are broadly in line with the UK average.  People in Dundee are least likely to support a 50p flat fare and (together with people in Falkirk) are very much above average in their support for extending free travel to young apprentices.  Glasgow and Edinburgh record the highest numbers of people in the UK for ranking the status quo as their first option.  Perhaps because of the dense bus network in these cities and national free concession at aged 60, people do feel their pass delivers real travel options and is therefore of great personal value.

A thought – or two

There is an appetite to build on concessionary arrangements to make accessible transport work for people and to deliver outcomes.  Health outcomes.  Economic outcomes.  Social outcomes.  Transport is THE great enabler.  Perhaps the transport ministers – and in Scotland Mr Yousaf – should be taking some of the budget of their colleagues in health, social care and employment to pay for delivering on their objectives.

That would deserve a standing ovation.

Steve Cassidy

It should be noted that the Transport Scotland consultation also poses the option of expanding free travel Companion Cards to companions of disabled children under 5.   

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