COVID-19 threatens future of commercial bus operation, says new report

Bus passenger numbers are set to fall substantially even after the end of the current lockdown, and could be up to 26% lower in the medium term, according to the latest Bus Industry Monitor report published by Passenger Transport Monitor.

The 146-page report, The Bus Demand Jigsaw 2020, analyses underlying trends in bus demand over the last decade, by area and region, looking at changes in the market for services in different parts of the country. It finds a complex interplay of demographic, economic and social changes, which have driven underlying patronage downwards in many areas.

The book analyses bus travel by journey purpose, by age and gender, by income and by socio-economic classification. It highlights the importance of car ownership as a determinant of household bus demand.

Experience of working on bus demand models over many years enables author Chris Cheek to explain the changes in bus patronage that have occurred in recent years by economic, social and demographic factors. Such work can explain both the falls that have occurred in many places and the gains that took place in London up to 2014.

Looking ahead, the author’s understanding of all these factors is used to examine the likely effects of the current COVID-19 crisis and the Government’s Decarbonising Transport plan on demand for bus services in the short, medium and longer term.

The report identifies three causes of decline in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis - social distancing, lifestyle changes resulting from people's experience of the lockdown, and the nature and extent of economic recovery. Analysing the risks for each journey purpose for each cause, we expect demand to recover to no more than 55% to 60% of pre-crisis demand during an initial period of social distancing. "In the medium term, lifestyle changes and economic issues could keep demand between 18% and 26% below pre-crisis levels," he commented - adding that this depends on the assumptions made.

It's pretty clear that current levels of commercial service provision would not be sustainable, whilst other areas such as London and Northern Ireland already under public sector control would also need ongoing government assistance.

However, the report remains optimistic about the industry's long term future, as concerns about climate change are expected to lead to more people switching from private to public transport - as set out in the government's plans to decarbonise transport. The report shows that, on the latest figures, each 1% of car demand switched to bus would increase patronage by over 19%. However, he cautions that relying on major modal shift driven by climate change is fraught with difficulty. "We don't know whether and to what extent any measures taken to drive modal shift will be acceptable to the electorate (and the tabloid press) and therefore deliverable politically."

On the other hand, we know that many places have met and overcome the challenges in recent times: as the report shows, 38 of the 88 (43%) local transport authorities in England saw some measure of bus patronage growth during 2018/19, with many having a record of growth across a five-year period, whilst 23 of them can show growth over the last decade.

This suggests that success can be achieved, and with it a huge range of benefits to the whole community – economic, environmental, commercial and social. Despite the imponderables with which we are currently grappling, this is still a prize worth fighting for.

The Bus Demand Jigsaw 2020 is published on 1 May, and is available to order in paperback or PDF format online from our online shop. It is free of charge to Passenger Transport Monitor's bus and all modes subscribers.