Lancaster Bus Users' Group has endorsed the call by Bus Users UK and five other organisations to the government to change its approach to the use of buses by the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. The national body representing bus passengers has asked the Secretary of State for Transport to increase the capacity of the bus network to avoid inappropriate use of private vehicles and the associated risks to safety, congestion, air quality and health.
The Bus Users' Group supports this approach because of our concern over the very future of our bus service. Most local buses currently carry only a handful of passengers and the industry has become totally dependant on public money. A total of £615 million additional funding has been provided since March to keep buses running, but the grants are due for review in August and there is no guarantee that the cash will continue to be made available. If the industry is to survive in anything like its present form passengers will have to encouraged to return to the buses sooner rather than later.
Since lockdown began in March the government, backed by the bus industry, has run a very effective campaign persuading people not to use public transport. But as with so much of this government's approach to tackling the pandemic the messaging has become confusing and much of it has been inappropriate. The introduction of social-distancing guidelines to buses, with a requirement for passengers to keep two metres apart, has reduced passenger capacity by as much as 75%. The stated aim of the government's message campaign has therefore been to keep the remaining space available for "key workers" and others whose journeys are deemed essential.
But what that message fails to appreciate is that outside London and a few major cities the number of people who use buses to get to work is, unfortunately, very small. In 2017, only 7% of journeys to work in the UK were made by bus and that includes London, where the figure would be much higher. In Lancaster it is likely that less than 5% of people travelling to work do so by bus and people outside the major cities are being discouraged from using buses unnecessarily.
No evidence of health risk
The strong messaging has also led many people to believe that travelling by bus is a risk to their health and a Twitter poll by Bus Users UK has found that one bus passenger in three is unhappy at the idea of returning to the buses in future. But as Bus Users UK points out in its submission to government, there is no evidence to support this view and plenty of evidence to the contrary:
- airborne transmission is low between people seated side-by-side
- there is no documented evidence of virus transmission attributed to public transport use
- many other countries have made no attempt to impose social-distancing on buses
- increasing car use and the associated pollution is increasing the risk to health
There is now a need for strong messaging that buses are for everyone to use, as long as those who are not tied to fixed journey times choose to travel at off-peak periods.
If shops and pubs, why not buses?
The letter points out that buses have a number of positives compared with shops, hospitality and leisure sites.
- most passengers sit next to or behind one another and all face the same way
- the seat spacing gives 0.8m distance between people in sequential seats
- a typical bus journey in an urban area lasts only about 15 minutes, much less than the time spent in shops, pubs, restaurants or cinemas
- electronic tickets, concessionary passes and contactless cards used for payment give an automatic record of passengers for "test and trace" purposes should that be necessary
Bus Users UK says, and Lancaster BUG agrees, that the time is now right to ease the restrictions on bus use and change the public message to one that encourages bus travel with just a few simple safeguards
- no standing passengers to be carried
- seats immediately behind the driver and those that face other seats be taken out of use
- face coverings to remain compulsory (with medical exemptions)
- bus companies to continue to ensure they comply with best practice on cleaning and disinfection
- passengers to be encouraged to carry and use hand sanitation and such products to be available for use at bus stations and other supervised interchanges
- contactless card payments to be encouraged
Change the Message
Lastly, and most importantly, appropriate and ENCOURAGING messaging should form part of a campaign to bring passengers back to the buses. Unless this is done - and done soon - there is a very great danger that the travelling public will not return to the buses, even when the pandamic is over, which will lead to whiolesale reductions in services and a large rise in private car use with all the problems of congestion, pollution and poor air quality that would bring.