What is driving bus patronage?

“How much have we as an industry put into research and development in the last five years? We’re getting worse, not better and we have to change that.”

Jonathan Bray outlines the latest research findings from the Urban Transport Group.

These were words from Brian Souter last year, emphasising that despite being the main form of public transport across the country, research and development in the bus sector remains relatively low. Much of the debate about what is driving bus use has instead been based on assertion and gut instinct.

Our new research programme, which we launched earlier this year, seeks to change that. And today, we’re publishing the latest research from this programme (carried out by Transport for Quality), which has taken a more rigorous approach by analysing a mass of data sets across the country to find the combination that best predicts levels of bus use by local authority district.

The research finds that six underlying conditions, which when combined, can be used to define what the report calls the ‘Intrinsic Bus Potential’ (IBP) of an area, with 85% accuracy. Those areas with a high IBP could be considered “good bus territory”. So what are the factors?

It’s no secret that buses are often a lifeline for the less well-off in society, and so the index of multiple deprivation is one such factor. The proportion of households living in rental accommodation and the working population defined as ‘lower middle class’ are two other related ones.

The number of students, the working population travelling between 2 and 20 kilometres to work, and rush-hour traffic travel times complete the six.

It’s key to note that individually these factors are not necessarily the most important determinants of bus use. However, when they are combined, they provide the best fit. It intuitively makes sense that the higher the level of deprivation, the higher the bus use; the larger proportion of students, the higher the bus use, and bus operators have long been aware that more deprived areas and those with bigger student populations can record higher levels of bus patronage.

Yet it is more surprising, and somewhat counter-intuitive, that places with longer rush-hour travel times (i.e. more congestion) are associated with higher levels of bus use. This rather undermines the frequent assertion from incumbent bus operators that the only thing wrong with bus services in the UK is congestion and lack of bus priority. But it should also be noted that longer journey times could well be a proxy for higher density urban areas and that the statistics are for traffic speeds in general (so do not take into account the existence of bus priority or not).

The reports goes further by looking at 25 areas where bus use is significantly higher than predicted by the intrinsic bus potential model. These include some of the places that might be expected, including Brighton, Reading, Nottingham and parts of London but also some places which are perhaps more surprising, including Cherwell (Oxfordshire) and Rushcliffe (Nottinghamshire).

The research identifies some common reoccurring themes among these 25 areas which includes: a pre-existing culture of bus use; higher levels of bus provision; and a ‘pro-bus’ local context – where operators or the local authority (or both) have invested resource, research and development and management focus to ensure the bus ‘product’ is well-matched to the local market.

Local factors, such as relatively low levels of commuter rail provision, play a part too. There is also evidence of a ‘halo effect’, in which some predominantly rural areas outperform their low intrinsic bus potential because they neighbour a city which is also out-performing, with examples including the Vale of White Horse (which neighbours Oxford) and Lewes (which neighbours Brighton). Bus regulation is a reoccurring theme, with a number of London boroughs outperforming their potential as London’s regulated system has allowed for high service frequencies, the introduction of a flat fare, and the development of the Oystercard which speeded up bus boarding.

The report draws some important conclusions, with implications for both the bus industry and policy makers.

Firstly, transport authorities and bus operators have no, or limited, influence over the background factors that best predict bus use, with four of the six factors being socio-economic rather than related to transport.

Secondly, the factors that correlate with high potential for bus use are most often found in urban areas, suggesting it is urban areas where the biggest absolute gains could be made in patronage.

Thirdly, there are common themes which can be found in those areas which outperform their potential. Some of these could be applied elsewhere, including a long term nurturing of a culture of bus use, something which is possible to build where it might currently be absent.

It is rather sobering that the research also shows that even the most successful areas are only outperforming their intrinsic bus potential by relatively modest margins (particularly when compared to historic levels of bus use). This suggests that radical change on bus policy, and transport policy more widely, are needed for more areas to do significantly better. In particular, without a better funding deal for buses by national government, it is difficult to see how bus use will not continue to decline as it has done for many years.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group


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