Last reviewed 26 February 2021

With much speculation about the future of bus and coach travel after the pandemic, it is necessary to consider what opportunities there will be for businesses to recover. Tony Francis here examines how a greater involvement with the home to school market could help to secure the future of road passenger transport.

Decline in traditional travel markets

The effect of the pandemic on bus and coach travel has been dramatic and the changes it has required in social and business behaviours could herald a long-term decline in traditional travel markets, especially in journeys to work and shopping. In February 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 36% of working adults are now operating exclusively from home and employees are also modifying their behaviour more than in the previous November lockdown. It is not clear whether such habits will persist once restrictions ease but the largest provider of flexible office space in the world, IWG, certainly thinks so and is set to double the planned reduction in its estate, acknowledging the accelerated shift towards flexible working as the reason. Further, the continued closure of large retail businesses and the collapse of departmental shopping chains, like Debenhams, which are often the most significant units in both town and out of town shopping centres, is indicative of a decline in conventional shopping habits.

While the market for bus services providing links to retail and business activity is unlikely to disappear, however, ongoing regional and local differences in travel habits need to be carefully reviewed in close liaison with local authorities and businesses to ensure that new opportunities for growth and expanded service provision are identified and explored.

The importance of home to school transport

One area of business that remains stable and which has the potential to grow is home to school transport. Often regarded as a necessary and “unglamorous” aspect of bus and coach operations, it is, however, part of the bedrock of the public transport market and providing people in their formative years with a quality passenger service can instil trust and the habit of continued bus and coach use throughout adulthood. Indeed, a fifth of the UK population, broadly 14 million, are aged 18 or under and all are potential customers for life.

Types of School Transport

There are three main categories of school transport. The first applies to those children entitled to free travel from the local education authority to their nearest appropriate school, via either scheduled local bus and rail services or bespoke contracts.

Then there are those children who live within the statutory walking distances and who either use public transport (but where their parent or guardian pays) or are taken by car, walk or cycle. This category could then be noted for the many otherwise unavoidable car journeys needed to get children to school.

Finally, there are the arrangements made for children with special needs, where transport is planned to match the requirements of the individuals concerned. Most contracts here are designed around a specification that will include picking up and setting down points at or near the homes of the children, with trained escorts to ensure safe passage to and from the education establishment. Generally, the vehicles used are minibuses adapted to carry wheelchairs and other equipment needed by the children being carried. Additionally, taxis are contracted, especially where a child requires one to one specialist help.

Harnessing opportunities for expansion

As spending on school transport, by education authorities and parents, is unavoidable and significant, it is important that bus and coach companies identify if there is more business that could be absorbed, especially to compensate for reductions elsewhere.

This will mean looking in depth at the potential market and being prepared to adopt a radical and imaginative approach to capturing new business. For instance, it is noticeable that in many areas, the “school peak” traffic is as heavy as or even heavier than the volume of journeys to and from workplaces but with this heavily peaked traffic, how does one capitalise on the opportunity and ensure costs are met?

In looking at the possibilities, the first step would be finding ways to entice parents who currently drive their children to and from school and who are perhaps not confident to allow them to use public transport or where no such service exists. The next step would be to commence a serious dialogue with schools, in conjunction with the education authority, to review activities during the pandemic and to see where a co-operative approach can improve public transport, both in reduced costs and increased revenue.

Here, it is worth note that schools compete for pupils and the availability of direct services, rather than reliance on parental transport, may be a welcome proposition. Especially, as many parents are now committed to home working and may not be free to drive. Also include in any dialogue the issue of staggering start and finish times. It might mean a bus can serve more than one school and while this may not always be the ideal solution, it offers a wider catchment territory and could help bring agreement on change for all round benefit.

Most importantly, it is necessary to be guided by local authorities as to where an idea might be warmly considered. For instance, the growing concern over air pollution, especially with road traffic around schools is an incentive to investigate alternative travel arrangements.

The prime objective here is to secure income sufficient to cover outlays and thus not every option will succeed. However, a more determined approach, centred on this core business, should offer success.

A Radical Option: Bespoke School Buses

During the pandemic, because of social distancing, children have been separated from other travellers on certain bus services and a more noticeable network of school buses has emerged, albeit still as a part of the public transport system. Now is thus an ideal moment to review these changing trends and to determine what might be best for longer term.

One way forward would be bespoke school buses, based on the North American model of a vehicle designed especially for carrying school children along with trained drivers and escorts. These would not need to be specifically liveried but essentially need to give adults confidence that their children are as safe and secure on the journey as when they walk through the school gates. Additionally, we would want to give those travelling the firm impression given that they are valued customers, preferably using zero or near zero emission vehicles that would add to the regard for the bus as an acceptable and desirable form of travel.

Building foundations for recovery

The future of the bus and coach business, post pandemic, is unclear but what is certain is that the sector is flexible and has shown an ability to adjust quickly to changing demands and exploit new opportunities. Services have been provided to vaccination and distribution centres and others have adjusted to reflect, hopefully temporary, lower levels of demand.

Although the hospitality and travel business should recover, a greater integration with school travel provides a good opportunity for growth. School travel is complex but joint planning that harnesses the skills held by all interested parties can provide firm foundations, as an alternative to other less certain travel sectors.