Welsh cities are grappling with an urgent issue that could reshape the urban landscape – the crisis in the bus transport system. In a significant shift away from traditional roadbuilding schemes, the Welsh Government has indicated a desire to reduce reliance on cars and promote public transport. However, a crucial piece of the puzzle remains missing – a robust public transport infrastructure, especially in the form of buses.
The focus on trains, despite commendable efforts from Transport for Wales (TfW), has overshadowed a critical aspect of Welsh transport – buses. The decline in bus services, coupled with rising ticket prices, paints a worrying picture. According to a report by the Centre for Cities, Wales has witnessed a consistent “war on buses” over the past 25 years.
The Decline in Bus Journeys: A Troubling Trend
The decline in bus journeys across the UK has been evident since the late 2000s, and Wales is no exception. In 2004-05, the average person in Wales made more bus journeys than those in English non-metropolitan areas. Fast forward to March 2020, and Wales had the lowest bus ridership in Britain, except for the east of England.
The Centre for Cities report uses data up to 2020, revealing a significant drop in bus journeys even before the pandemic hit. The decline in Wales outpaced that of other regions, with both rising fares and a reduction in available routes contributing to the problem.
Reasons Behind the Decline: A Complex Web
The director of CPT Cymru sheds light on the long-term decline, attributing it to challenges in the economy, funding issues, and a societal preference for cars in public policy. The default 20mph speed limit, a contentious policy, has led to higher running costs for buses, especially in city routes. He emphasizes the need to challenge assumptions, suggesting that local authorities redirect funds from free parking to support buses.
The Pandemic Exacerbates the Crisis
The decline in bus ridership, already evident in the decade preceding the pandemic, took a drastic turn in 2021-22, plummeting by a staggering 70%. To address the funding gap created by the pandemic, the Welsh Government introduced the Bus Emergency Scheme, which was later replaced by the Bus Transition Fund. However, the funding provided under the BTF was capped at £46m for the 2023-24 financial year, creating challenges for operators.
The managing director of Stagecoach Wales acknowledges the importance of the BES but highlights the cost pressures faced by operators. The end of stringent lockdowns in Wales, coupled with discouraging public transport messaging, further complicated the situation.
Funding Challenges and a Glimpse into the Future
The Welsh Government’s commitment to maintaining the current £120m funding for buses in the 2024-25 budget offers some certainty for the industry. However, it’s not an increase in funding, and operators and local authorities still face tough decisions about sustaining services.
The director from CPT Cymru acknowledges that the funding provides much-needed certainty but emphasizes the ongoing challenges. With pressure on council budgets and the absence of additional investment, difficult decisions lie ahead for both operators and local authorities regarding the viability of routes.
Calls for a Total Change in Approach
As operators grapple with the immense challenge of maintaining services, there is a growing chorus, including the Welsh Government, advocating for a total overhaul of the system. The diverse issues faced by different regions in Wales underscore the need for tailored solutions to address the specific challenges in each locality.
In conclusion, the crisis in Welsh bus transport demands immediate attention and a comprehensive strategy. The decline in bus services, coupled with the complexities of funding and societal preferences, requires collaborative efforts from policymakers, operators, and local authorities. The commitment to current funding levels is a step forward, but a broader, innovative approach is needed to reshape the future of public transport in Welsh cities. As the conversation evolves, finding solutions that cater to the unique needs of different regions will be crucial in revitalizing the bus transport system and fostering a sustainable urban transport landscape in Wales.