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The case for free bus travel for all

January 29th 2018

Victoria Winckler says it’s time for a radical upheaval in Wales’ bus services.

The Welsh Government’s consultation on concessionary fares closed a few weeks ago. Like many of its consultation papers, it asked a lot of very specific questions. So this time we had questions about whether seriously-injured veterans should continue to get a bus pass, whether older people’s free travel should be limited to off-peak times and so on.

These kinds of questions certainly make it easier for people to answer and doubtless help officials to summarise responses. But they also – as they did this time –miss the point.

There was a deep tension within the consultation paper.

On the one hand there were questions about reducing eligibility for free travel, for example if the age at which someone is eligible for a pass should rise to state pension age. On the other, there were questions about extending eligibility, for example to volunteers giving more than 30 hours a week of their time or to a second companion for a disabled person.

But the issue isn’t who gets a bus pass and when they can use it. The issue is Wales’ patchy and costly bus network.

Bus services are extremely limited outside Wales’ cities, especially in early mornings and evenings. They can also take four or five times longer than the same journey by car and are eye-wateringly expensive. It is hard for car-drivers and city-dwellers to understand how bus-users’ lives are shaped – and constrained – by the lack of buses.

Ironically, one of the reasons that Wales’ bus services are so sparse outside the hours of 9 am to 4 pm is the concessionary fare scheme. Subsidising the demand of retired people, who now comprise more than half of bus passengers, means that bus services are heavily skewed towards what those people want – which is daytime services to town centres or nice leisure destinations. The passengers on your average mid-morning bus into Cardiff are typically almost all using their pass.

Older people just love their bus passes – who wouldn’t like to be able to go to the shops or on a day out absolutely free?  And here is a clue to doing something different.  What if everyone could have that same freedom of going on the bus for nothing or for a token 50p fare?

Sounds fanciful? It’s actually not far off do-able.

According to the Department for Transport, Wales’s industry has operating costs of £161 million a year.  The Welsh Government contributes around £106 million to the industry, of which £59 million is for concessionary fares – around two-thirds of the bus industry’s operating costs. Add another £55 million and it could be free travel for all at current levels of patronage. Charge all passengers a flat fare of 50p and the current 100 million trips would generate £50 million – and the difference would probably be met by filling all those half-empty buses.

In other words, there is a choice.

It’s not about whether veterans or volunteers should get a pass but whether there should be:

  • Free travel for over-60s, high fares for everyone else and a shrinking network?
  • Or a 50p fare for everyone and a growing network that meets the needs of all ages?

We accept this is a massive leap and one that many older people are unlikely to welcome. But the change could transform the lives of young people and low-paid workers, who’d not only save a lot of money but be able to get to and from work or college easily.

If the Welsh Government is serious about the prosperity of the nation and the well-being of people of all ages, but just the over-60s, it will give this a go.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. She loves her bus pass but would happily pay a 50p fare. 

You can read our response to the consultation here



2 Responses to “The case for free bus travel for all”

  1. Sonia Behr says:

    That’s a brilliant idea! I recently took my 6 year old grandson by bus to Royal Gwent from Cwmbran as couldn’t face the prospect of finding parking. Couldn’t believe that the return journey was over £6 for me and over £4 for him -I had assumed children would be free.
    The bus was full of pensioners enjoying a nice day out which is fine BUT clearly being subsidised twice. Once through taxes and again by extortionately high fares. I’m sure that most could have afforded a 50p fare.
    At 50p per journey young people, families and those in in-work poverty would surely benefit enormously and there’d be a decrease in car use if cheap and more numerous buses were available when people actually need them.

  2. Nick Butcher says:

    Whilst I have no real issue with the conclusion, no attempt was made to justify “The case for free bus travel for all”.

    The title was misleading to say the least


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