Councils have expressed concern over a reported drop in the number of bus journeys taken in England, and the potential impact that this could have on air pollution.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has claimed that a decline in bus passenger journeys could lead to increased congestion and poorer air quality in towns and cities.
According to LGA, figures published by the Department for Transport (DfT) last month (June) show that overall there were 4.45 billion bus journeys taken in England, during the year to end March 2017.
This represents a decline of around 75 million journeys taken across the country in comparison to the previous year – a decrease of 1.7% – the data suggests.
In response to the figures, LGA has called for additional funding for the concessionary fares scheme, which enables subsidised travel for people of pensionable age and disabled people in England, allowing free off-peak travel on bus services.
This is paid for by local authorities, but LGA claims that due to cuts in funding in recent years, councils have spent up to £200 million per year to subsidise the scheme at the expense of other discretionary bus services, which has contributed to a drop in bus journeys.
At its annual conference this week, LGA will call for the government to “fully fundâ€? the concessionary fares scheme and give councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant – a fuel duty rebate, currently paid directly to bus operators.
Cllr Martin Tett, LGA Transport spokesman, said: “It is hugely concerning to see such a steady decrease in bus journeys.â€?
He added: “It’s nearly impossible for councils to keep subsidising free travel while having to find billions of pounds worth of savings and protect other vital services like caring for the elderly, filling potholes and collecting bins. Faced with significant funding pressures, many across the country are being forced into taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.
“The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has not kept up with growing demand and cost. By giving councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, and properly funding the free bus pass schemes the government could help us support and maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and protect vital routes.â€?
Responding to the LGA’s comments, a A DfT spokesperson, said:“Buses are vital for communities, connecting people, homes and businesses, and we have given councils extra powers to work in partnership with bus companies to improve the service passengers expect and deserve.
“To encourage bus use and improve journeys for passengers we provide around £250 million to support bus services every year, benefiting people up and down the country and nearly 10 million older and disabled people in England get free off-peak bus travel.
“We are also giving power back to communities through the Bus Services Act, which means people are able to shape the services they want to see in the areas they live.â€?
According to the sustainable transport campaign group Greener Journeys research suggests that without buses, congestion in city centres would be a fifth (21%) higher at peak times, significantly impacting air quality.
A report prepared for Greener Journeys, published today, titled ‘The True Value of Local Bus Services’, has suggested that: “Local decision-makers need to act quickly and responsibly to reduce the adverse impacts of traffic congestion by delivering a programme of measures to make transport greener and more efficient. Well implemented local bus priority measures can be an important part of this programme.â€?