2018’s been a miserable year for buses. Campaign for Better Transport released its “Buses in Crisis” report in July, showing the 46% reduction in supported bus services funding in England between 2010/11 and 2016/17 and the commensurate withdrawal or reduction of more than 3,000 services.

This is added to by research published in August 2018 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which shows bus services are failing low income people, as austerity cuts make it more difficult for out of work people without cars to access employment. 

Added to this, a DfT report from late 2016 resurfaced showing the rather limited benefits of providing free concessionary travel for older people: "Evaluation of Concessionary Bus Travel: The impacts of the free bus pass".

The  report suggested that it delivers low-medium value for money, with a central case BCR of 1.16 in England outside London. Take up of the concessionary pass is good at 75%. Unsurprisingly, use of the bus is best where bus services are most plentiful – London, followed by metropolitan areas. Four times fewer trips are made by rural concessionary pass holders compared to Londoners. Whilst rural dwellers will have higher levels of car ownership, this is a little ironic that people in areas with poorer accessibility are less able to make use of a service to provide mobility.

I’ve been involved recently in some studies in Wales looking at rural transport. The irony here is that older people lucky enough to live in a town or village with a rail service can enjoy good accessibility to a range of destinations, but of course have no concessionary entitlement (unless they buy a Senior Railcard for £30 per year, in which case they can start saving a third on train fares after the first £90). Many with concessionary bus passes could travel for free, if only there was a bus service. And when you consider the anticipated growth in older people (for example, 37% of Monmouthshire’s population will be over 65 by 2039), the irony is even greater – these people are the backbone of demand for rural transport services but are generating very limited revenue for transport operators providing the services.

One of the biggest challenges to realising the Holy Grail of MaaS and the seamless end-to-end journey is making the business case and identifying a financially sustainable model (if MaaS is going to be socially inclusive and not just a service offer to wealthier, more mobile urbanites). When, in rural settings, we have a disparate collection of operators (bus operators, train operators, community transport operators and taxi / PHV firms) providing that end-to-end journey, on a range of membership and fare tariffs, negotiating and reimbursing fares to these providers (whilst keeping the journey affordable), is going to be incredibly challenging – without giving away part of the journey for free.

Wouldn’t it be better in a MaaS world if, instead of giving older people free travel on the bus, we operated a multi-modal discounted travel scheme where older people could get, say, a 50% discount across all modes, or vouchers / credits (similar to taxi voucher schemes of old) that gave them discounts for a certain amount of travel? Taking it one step further, an account-based system may be able to offer free travel for journeys with specific purposes, such as travel to a medical appointment, whatever the mode[s].

For the time being however, Government has kicked the issue into the long grass by announcing a continuation of the concessionary scheme, despite a £40m blackhole in Local Authority budgets. With the ageing population and continuing squeeze on public finances, it’s difficult to see that free concessionary travel for older people can be sustained in the long-term. It would be good to pilot a scheme in a ‘MaaS location’ where older people got a discount or a voucher allowance across all modes.

Of course, we could decide to follow the Estonian model and make travel on buses free for all, but that’s for another blog….