Analysis of bus use statistics for the last quarter before the COVID-19 crisis does not bode well for the industry’s post-lockdown future, writes Chris Cheek

Bus demand in Great Britain maintained its downward trend in the quarter ended December 31, 2019, falling by 2.7%, according to statistics published by the Department for Transport. The third successive quarterly fall followed a short-lived upward movement last winter.

Though the numbers have been overshadowed by subsequent events and therefore seem less relevant, it’s important to note that the stagnant economy and the accelerating downturn in High Street retail footfall meant continuing shrinkage in volumes. These trends do not bode well for the industry’s future post lockdown.

The DfT’s provisional seasonally adjusted estimates put total demand during the 12 weeks at 1,170 million passenger journeys, compared with 1,202 million in the same quarter in 2018, a fall of 2.7%. The figures show that demand fell in all areas. With the English PTE areas seeing the largest decline, of 4.4%. Next came Wales on 4.2% and London on 3.2%. The fall in the Shire areas of England was the smallest, just 0.4%. The total for Great Britain outside London was 2.2% down on 638 million.

The longer-term trends remain similarly gloomy, showing a fall of 6.3% in the GB total for this quarter compared with five years earlier. Largest fall was in Scotland (7.9%), followed by the English PTE areas (7%), London (6.8%) and the English Shires (4.5%) and Wales on 2.6%.


Graph 1: Bus patronage in Great Britain over the past 10 years

Rolling Year figures

The provisional figures for the whole year to December 31 show total demand for bus services in Great Britain at 4,749 million passenger journeys, 0.3% lower than the same figure in 2018. This total is the lowest figure since June 2006, a few months before free concessionary travel was extended to all areas of England.

Largest fall came in the English PTE areas showing a 1.8% decline, followed by London (1.8%) and Wales (0.8%). There were very small gains in Scotland and the Shires.

Over the last five years, the numbers show an overall decline of 5.9% in the GB total. Scotland once again led the downward spiral, with a fall of 7.0%, followed by the English PTE areas on 6.7% and London at 6.3%. The English Shires saw a drop of 4.8%, whilst the Welsh operators saw a fall of just 0.6%.


Graph 2: Bus patronage in Scotland over the past 10 years


The latest fare indices, also published by DfT, show that in the year to December, bus fares rose by an average of 3.1% after taking account of inflation, compared with December 2018.

The trends in different parts of the country tended to converge again, with 3% plus rises in the PTE areas, the Shires and Wales. Scotland saw a very small 0.5% rise, whilst London was virtually unchanged.

Looking back over the last five years, fares in the capital have fallen by 5.1%, thanks to Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze. Elsewhere there have been real-term rises, including 9.7% in the English Shire areas, 5.9% in the PTE areas, 4.6% in Scotland, and 3.3% in Wales.

Graph 3: Bus fare trends in Great Britain


These numbers were published at the end of March 2020, but tended to get buried under the avalanche of news concerning COVID-19 and the lockdown imposed a few days before. There is a sense too that the cataclysmic events since the end of March have rendered the figures of little importance other than to historians.

The betting must now be that the industry that emerges from the crisis induced by the pandemic will have a radically different regulatory and economic complexion

The irony is that, with the publication of the government’s Decarbonising Transport document in the same week as these figures, the industry could have hoped to be on the cusp of a new renaissance. That may still happen, of course, but I suspect that nobody in the industry is holding their breath, and the betting must now be that the industry that emerges from the crisis induced by the pandemic will have a radically different regulatory and economic complexion.

Meanwhile, these numbers reinforce the link between economic performance and transport demand – ONS statistics show that the economy was flat in the October-December quarter, with no growth at all recorded. Given the disproportionate influence of London and the South East on the national numbers, that could very well mean that other parts of the country were actually going backwards last autumn.

The continuing switch to online sales was reflected in dismal numbers for retail footfall. Numbers were down 2.5% in December compared with a year earlier, 3.4% in November and 3.2% in October. Worse was that the High Street (as opposed to shopping centres and retail parks) showed steeper declines in the autumn, 4.3% in November and 4.9% in October.

I wonder how long it will be before we see that number of people on our buses again

In this last quarter before the COVID-19 crisis struck, 1,170 million bus passengers may have seemed a disappointing result in the context of life as we then knew it. I wonder how long it will be, though, before we see that number of people on our buses again.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Cheek has worked in the public transport industry for over 46 years, the last 31 as an analyst and consultant. He is Managing Director of Passenger Transport Intelligence Services (PTIS). To read more about Chris – CLICK HERE.

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