More than one in four bus services in England have been grounded in the past decade, with the pandemic accelerating the decline, a transport charity has found.
Almost 5,000 routes have been canceled since 2012, with the North West and East of England being the hardest hit.
Research by the Campaign for Better Transport showed that 27% of bus services by mileage have disappeared in a decade, while the number of services on official registers in England has fallen from almost 17,000 in March 2012 to just over 12,000 last March .
The sharpest drop in bus kilometers has been seen during the pandemic, with a drop of 18%, compared to a 10% drop in the years through 2019.
The charity called for a national, government-led campaign to encourage people to get back on board routes across the country, and urged ministers to prioritize investment in buses and lower fares, rather than fuel taxes for motorists to lower.
Paul Tuohy, executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Buses are trusted by millions of people and should play a central role in a green transport future, but they have been struggling for some time and the pandemic has made things much worse.”
“Last week’s spring declaration included a tax break for motorists with a 5p cut in fuel tax, but nothing for public transport users, although fares have risen far more than fuel.”
The charity highlighted action in other countries to encourage the use of public transport once the Covid lockdown ends. Germany and New Zealand both cut fares, while Wales last week launched a fare offer campaign to get passengers back on board.
Fares in England for buses – like trains – have risen well above the growth in average wages for workers over the past decade and have outpaced increases in fuel prices even after the recent surge in pump prices. According to the RAC Foundation, bus and coach fares have increased by 58% over the past decade, while gasoline has increased by 19%.
Government plans to reverse the decline in buses have stalled during the pandemic. Just ahead of the first lockdown, the government announced its intention to publish a national strategy with an additional £3 billion in funding. The Bus Back Better strategy was released in 2021, but much of the money went to emergency funding for operators after passengers were told to avoid unnecessary travel.
Fears that networks could collapse further when Covid emergency funding ended in April were temporarily averted when further support of £150million was announced by the Department for Transport last month.
However, ministers have clarified that funding will expire in October 2022 and encourage services to then be adjusted to demand, which is around 80% of pre-pandemic levels.
The Urban Transport Group, which represents regional cities with large bus networks, called on the government to “use the next six months to implement a long-term, enhanced and decentralized approach to funding bus services,” as outlined in its strategy. It also called on the government to work to get people back on buses after warning them to stay away from public transport because of Covid.