Free bus passes for all can make financial sense

As we slowly emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions there has been, understandably, a marked increase in road traffic. In particular, Britain’s love affair with the car has largely created the congestion on our roads. Seldom is one able to complete a journey without delays due to accident, road works, or just sheer numbers of vehicles.

To alleviate such congestion, we are encouraged to make more use of public transport. Using buses instead of private cars could significantly reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.

But people are reluctant to give up their cars, Covid fears notwithstanding. It takes some incentive to persuade them to abandon their warm personal transport and take their chances at the local bus stop. In Scotland, congestion charging was rejected by Edinburgh and parking charges are an insufficient deterrent.  And bridge tolls have been banished.

How can we get people to use public transport? A blinding flash of the obvious; in Scotland, where I live, old people and young people use public transport because of the Young Scot card and the senior citizens card.

I don’t use my car anymore to go into town.  It’s madness for me to drive, search for a parking place, pay the fee, and spend much of the time worrying whether I will get a fine before I return. I can travel for free with my card. It is a no-brainer.

What if we extended this “free” benefit to everybody? Scotland has been very keen on other free universal benefits so why not public transport? But how would we pay for it? How much will it cost?

In Scotland, the budget for free bus passes for people over 60, who account for roughly 27.5% of the bus fare paying population, was £198.3m in 2017/2018.

Assuming a similar cost for providing free bus passes to everyone, the additional cost for all people aged 5 to 59 would be £523 million per year. The total cost of providing a bus pass to everyone ages five and above would therefore be £721 million.

According to the Reported Road Casualties report the total cost of road traffic accidents in Scotland was £1.13 billion (in 2015). The average cost for accidents involving injury is around £100,000 and of a fatal road accident £2.1m. This includes the loss of life, economic costs, damage to vehicles and property and the cost of police and insurance administration.

The cost of road traffic accidents, therefore, is much larger than the cost of extending the free bus pass scheme. Halve the number of road accidents and the saving would be in the order of £650m, not that far off the £721m cost of free buses for all. Cut them by two thirds and the savings outweigh the costs by £20m plus.

Road pricing and congestion charging need addressing too. Updated figures from the aborted congestion charging scheme for Edinburgh indicate that around £200m to £300m could be raised from congestion charging each year across Scotland’s five main cities.  A similar amount could be raised via motorway and bridge tolls. Add this roughly £500m to savings from road accidents and the free bus pass for all scheme is easily affordable.

So, encouraging folk out of their cars and into public transport could actually be a revenue generator. I think it’s worth a look.

* Stuart Crawford is a freelance journalist of several years (and many publications) standing and a party member.

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  • richard underhill 10th Jul '20 - 11:48am

    The availability and cost of alternative fuels should be included in the argument. Large vehicles, such as buses, could and should use hydrogen, which burns to create H2O, which is already widely present in the atmosphere.

  • Your maths for the costing seems to be assuming that passenger numbers would stay the same as they are now, but surely they would increase if anyone could travel for free?

    Just assuming that whatever the cost is, it is acceptable, then why not do away with the pass altogether? Part of the inconvenience of bus travel is the queue to get on whilst the driver takes payment or checks passes. That could be removed altogether if travel was free. Doors in the middle of the bus could be used and people could just hop on and off at will (when the bus has stopped, obviously). The driver could just drive and that would be it.

  • Rural Liberal 10th Jul '20 - 12:23pm

    The problem with getting rid of the pass (@Dan Martin) is that it assumes that its only role is for payment. In fact, as with Oyster, it’s doing much more than that in terms of showing how many people are travelling, when, over what routes, with what frequency (over the day, the day of the week, the week, the month, the year etc).

    This is all hugely useful in terms of determining service provision, and creating cases for route extensions, demand prediction, etc. I’d suggest that were it to become free there’d still be a clear case for continuing to touch in and out, which needn’t take any longer than the touch itself – no payment taking or pass checking, but in the context of public transport the data collection is incredibly useful. I say this even as someone against too much intrusive/unnecessary data collection…!

  • Daniel Walker 10th Jul '20 - 12:32pm

    It is worth noting that the Estonian capital Tallinn has been doing this since 2013, and Luxembourg was suppose to make public transport free for everyone from March 2020, but I don’t know if they did; presumably, the passenger numbers were down a lot anyway due to COVID-19, and it would be too soon to draw conclusions anyway.

    I don’t really have much of an opinion on the idea, although it seems do-able in principle, but you might as well look at results where it has been tried elsewhere before giving it a trial.

  • Daniel Walker 10th Jul '20 - 12:39pm

    For non-London urban areas, I would, in the first instance, want to implement Oyster-style unified ticketing – this requires devolving TfL-style powers to the regions as, as my own city of Leeds shows, getting multiple operators to agree to a single, transferable, ticket system is tricky!

  • Good for you if you can do everything you want via public transport, my wife and I would be confined to our home in permanent lockdown without our own means of transport, as I have said before a common sense approach to our future will be needed by the powers that be , one that takes all scenarios into consideration.

  • Kay Kirkham 10th Jul '20 - 1:24pm

    Free buses for all is not a strategic policy. It might be part of one but not if the whole issue of travel isn’t addressed. Critically the way people want or need or are able to move around will need to change before they get out of their cars and onto public transport. That is a big hurdle to overcome after years of individual travel.

  • John Marriott 10th Jul '20 - 2:34pm

    With social distancing likely to continue for some time, a long time in fact, the chances of buses and trains for that matter running to full capacity are fairly remote. So, for places too far away to walk or to cycle to, enter the (electric) motor car. You can’t get rid of it that easily.

    Free bus passes for all? How about free TV licences for all? And why not free money aka UBI while you’re about it? Pull the other one, please!

  • As someone who is multimodal with a preference for public transport, I think Kay Kirkham is onto something when she suggests that free bus travel may be part of a strategy but not the whole story. Reasons for choice of mode can be:
    – cost – the cheapest way of making a journey
    – convenience – a desire to do other things while travelling
    – time constraints requiring shorter journey times
    – limited choice because of destination
    – limited choice because of day or time of day
    – political convictions
    – peace of mind – any of the above can generate excess stress in certain circumstances.
    For me any specific journey decision will inevitably involve a variety of these factors and how much weight I give to each of the conflicting considerations. People are also influenced by reliability, comfort, and feelings about who they wish to share a journey with. Getting people out of their cars is difficult but worth the struggle.

  • I would guess that 95 percent of users are not paying aniything where I live – I often seem to be the only one paying – and that means buses are quite expensive, so charging everyone say 50p seems a lot fairer, given the bankrupt nature of many councils if not the govn.

  • Antony Watts 11th Jul '20 - 7:37am

    More has to change than a simple switch to busses. First we have to de-carbonise transport as the number one priority – Hydrogen or Elctricity. Full stop.

    Next we have to consider why people use cars – simple, to go to the supermarket, you cannot carry a shop on a bus. So we need to revolutionise the way goods are delivered…

    And then… what else do we need to change? Oh yes, longer journeys. how to get from the middle of Ediburgh to my village in Warwickshire – 3-5 changes, miles to walk between connections…

  • Agree Antony. There would need to be a plan to hugely improve public transport, especially buses for people to use their cars less. This needs major investment to kick start the change and once the virus situation is more or less behind us that is what government should do.

  • This pensioner won’t be using any public transport for the foreseeable future, free or not. Buses cram us into child sized seats or stand together, hold virus-friendly grab rails in a metal box with token ventilation. The largest user group is pensioners – the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Second comes the under 25s who are the most casual about distancing. What could possibly go wrong? I wonder how much of our seasonal suffering and economic loss caused by flu, colds etc is caused by public transport.

    Buses are built down to minimum standards allowed, which is why they are an ordeal for anyone tall, wide, with little children, disabled, arthritic, have a bad back or even a suitcase. Outside our biggest conurbations most who can afford a car get one.

    Our legacy of sprawling low-density housing estates miles from work, shopping and schools means that public transport in the form of a 15ton truck (aka bus) slowly grinding its way to the town centre is not fit for purpose. Instead of the constant LibDem drizzle of complaining about the half of the population that doesn’t use buses we could be a bit more respectful and accept that they might have good reasons.

    In the long term we may rediscover the advantages of quality high-density apartments and offices built above street level shops and businesses. Include pedestrian squares, parks etc and most of us could well prefer a rich working and social life without needing a car.

    Meanwhile we need to plan for cars and public transport, and speed up the transition to electric propulsion. Bus companies are still ordering new diesel city buses. It may be heresy here, but if we created better parking near to town centres and gave every space a charger we might save more town centres.

    PS The fossil fuel lobby spreads nonsense about electric vehicles and promotes hydrogen. Bulk hydrogen is made from natural gas with the same CO2 emissions as if it had been burned. We are a very long way from having surplus renewable electricity to generate clean hydrogen from water.

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