The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on just how critical bus services are. Bus workers have been the lifeblood of rural communities, putting their lives at risk getting keyworkers where they need to be and ensuring everyone can buy food and access essential services.
Some bus workers have made the ultimate sacrifice and at the time of writing, it’s estimated as many as 40 people may have lost their lives to the Coronavirus (Independent 6 May).
Operators have been working incredibly hard to keep services running against a backdrop of staff shortages and massively reduced passenger numbers. And while many services have been temporarily cut or re-scheduled to cope with the crisis, there are concerns that some may be lost for good.
Rural areas have already been badly hit by cuts to bus services, and between 2011 and 2017, rural bus mileage fell by 6%. Any further, long-term cuts would be catastrophic, and not just for the people who rely on them for transport.
Buses provide access to life’s opportunities, connecting people to schools, colleges and work, essential services, shops, friends and family. They reduce inequality, social exclusion and loneliness and improve health and well-being.
A lack of access to transport increases the burden on already over-stretched social care budgets. In West Sussex, they put the cost of care for anyone who becomes dependent on the local authority at £28,000 per person, per year.
Alongside the health and social benefits of having access to bus services are the benefits to the wider community. Buses reduce congestion and pollution, a growing problem even in rural areas, and make a significant contribution to local economies: £64 billion in fact.
The challenges faced by operators during the current health crisis represents the greatest threat yet to bus services. Without adequate transport links, rural communities will struggle to survive, something that has already been experienced by seaside towns across the UK.
To prevent this from happening, rural bus services urgently need funding and transport policies that prioritise public transport over private care use, including a freeze on fuel duty for buses, well-planned, properly enforced, bus priority measures, and a more creative approach to rural transport provision.
There are some great examples of innovative solutions already in operation, including Timetabled Dial-a-ride and Go-to-Town services, demand-responsive and group hire vehicles (with or without a driver), and mobility services for people with physical disabilities, all of which will help to ensure the future sustainability of rural transport.
More immediately, however, as the lockdown eases and rural communities begin to re-connect, operators face the tricky challenge of balancing rising passenger numbers with the demands of social distancing. Passengers need to be confident that operators can keep them safe while travelling and, in return, passengers need to get back on board and enjoy the great benefits of stress-free, low-polluting, congestion-busting, bus travel.
Dawn Badminton-Capps, Bus Users Director for England
Bus Users is a registered charity that campaigns for accessible, inclusive transport.
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