Last reviewed 29 October 2020

Despite the Department for Transport’s long-stated aim to increase bus use, passenger numbers have fallen according to a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The DfT will need greater clarity on what it wants to achieve and how it will measure success, the public spending watchdog suggests, if its forthcoming national strategy for improving bus services is to succeed.

Improving Local Bus Services in England Outside London can be found at www.nao.org.uk and examines value for money in the local bus service system overseen by the DfT.

It shows that between 2010–11 and 2018–19, the number of bus journeys fell in 65 of 88 English local transport authorities outside London and by 10% overall. There was a 38% reduction in local authorities’ financial support for bus services over the same period.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a further drastic reduction in bus travel across the country and created uncertainties about future travel habits, however, bus travel will likely remain the primary and essential mode of transport for many, the NAO notes, especially the most disadvantaged.

In 2019, central and local government subsidies and support made up around 24% of bus operators’ revenue income from bus services.

Increasing congestion means bus operators need to put on more buses to maintain frequency, which, when combined with falls in paying passengers, puts pressure on operator profit.

The DfT pays a subsidy to operators to keep services running and fares down but, between 2010–11 and 2018–19, estimated operator revenue fell by 11% and bus fares increased by 18% on average.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “To meet the needs of local people, especially those in rural and disadvantaged communities, the Department’s future bus strategy should match the funding provided to its objectives, and better enable local authorities and operators to work together.”