INVESTMENT IN BUS SERVICES is urgently needed if councils are to reduce car journeys, lower carbon emissions and help the UK work towards its net zero goal by 2050 or earlier.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, says doubling the average occupancy of buses could mean up to 12 fewer car journeys are required for every bus journey.

The number of local bus passenger journeys in England in 2020/21 fell significantly by 2.5 billion or 61 per cent, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but even since 2004/05, bus mileage has declined by 34 per cent in England outside London.

The LGA is calling on the Government to fully fund the concessionary fares scheme, which provides free, off-peak travel for elderly and disabled residents. At the moment, the scheme is underfunded by £700 million a year, leaving councils having to reduce spending on discretionary concessionary fares and on wider supported bus services to try and plug this gap.

Failure to fully fund the scheme risks leaving vulnerable residents isolated and unsupported without access to routes, particularly those in rural areas. Communities could also see increased congestion and poorer air quality.

Additional funding for the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) scheme was announced in the Spending Review, bringing the total to £270 million in 2021/22. By plugging the concessionary fares funding gap, councils would have even greater means to invest in their existing schemes and pave the way to decarbonising their fleets.

Buses are the cornerstone of the Government’s future plans to decarbonise the way we travel, as set out in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and also in the National Bus Strategy.

With nearly half of all bus routes in England currently receiving partial or complete subsidies from councils, the LGA said long-term government investment in bus services across all areas would provide an opportunity to level up services for millions of people and make buses a key solution in reducing transport emissions.

Cllr David Renard, transport spokesperson for the LGA, said: “The world is gathered for COP26 to look at ways in which we can fight climate change and for the country to meet its net-zero targets, we cannot rely on electric vehicles alone. We need to reduce car journeys and buses have the potential to be the backbone of mass transit provision in this country.

“For years now there has been imbalance in the amount councils are having to pay towards concessionary fares when you consider the number of bus journeys being made, and this was highlighted by the pandemic. We are calling for this £700 million a year shortfall to be made up to allow councils to put this money to better use in improving bus networks and increasing access to routes and services for residents.

“Public transport, along with cycling and walking, is going to be key as we look to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, but with a drop of over 60 per cent in bus journeys, and car journeys returning back to their pre-pandemic peak, it is clear that more work has to be done to encourage less carbon-intensive travel across the country.”

* Read Decarbonising transport: the role of buses here.

* Source: Local Government Association