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Public transport funding: moving away from sticking-plaster solutions

06 April 2022

ICE Trustee Jonathan Spruce makes the case for urgent decisions on the future of public transport due to the impact of Covid-19, and to move away from short-term emergency funding.

Public transport funding: moving away from sticking-plaster solutions
The scaling back of transport services in the north of England has sparked debate on the government’s real commitment to levelling up. Image credit: AlanMorris/Shutterstock

Last summer, the ICE published a paper considering the opportunities for public transport funding in a post-Covid-19 world. It asked the question: how much do we value our public transport systems if we are serious about achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Nine months on, it seems appropriate to revisit that question in line with an updated paper on funding public transport that aims to start a debate on what is – or even whether there is – a long-term sustainable funding model for public transport in a world where travel patterns have changed for good.

Demand is still not there

As of March 2022, public transport in the UK is seeing approximately 70% to 80% of use compared to equivalent dates in 2019 and early 2020.

Overall, demand for public transport has generally risen since March 2020, but at no point has it reached pre-pandemic levels. Public transport operators are clear that usage may not reach pre-pandemic levels for some time, if at all.

This is not a UK-only phenomenon – in Australia, data from November 2021 showed that passenger journeys remained close to 20% below pre-pandemic levels, with Sydney seeing a 33% decrease in trips.

But how we currently fund public transport in the UK is different to other countries, leading to the structural problem now faced by funding models that focus on transport systems covering their operating costs.

Do we risk services being cut?

The UK government stepped in with a final package of emergency funding of £150 million for local bus services at the start of March this year.

Until then, many areas were facing significant cuts to the network as previous funding packages were due to be withdrawn at the start of April, but with passenger journeys still at least 20% down on pre-pandemic levels.

In several metropolitan areas, newspaper reports of towns being left without any early morning or evening bus services were commonplace, potentially forcing people towards more private car use or transport poverty.

While the announcement of the continued funding until October was welcome, details of its allocation were delayed, requiring some bus companies to proceed with their plans for service reductions.

Even where significant cuts were averted, these may just have been postponed until the autumn.

In the rail industry, proposals for May 2022 timetable changes in the north of England, which would see some early morning services scaled back due to lack of passengers, have started to become a topic of debate as to the government’s real commitment to levelling up.

Why we need long-term solutions to funding public transport

Lower levels and more variable patterns of commuting, particularly fewer peak-time journeys, will impact on revenue and service provision.

This will require some resetting of our public transport networks, but a careful balance must be sought.

Lower public transport use can bring about poor outcomes where service reductions or withdrawals make the service less appealing to the public, who in turn look for other transport options.

A deterioration in the quality of transport networks would impact directly on economic performance and significantly reduce the ability to deliver on long-term objectives such as net zero.

The time is now

Nine months ago, ICE’s paper was timely – now it is urgent.

Public transport systems are a significant enabler of economic, environmental, and social prosperity. Their continual development requires strong stewardship, ensuring the correct interventions are made at the right time for the public benefit.

With the enormous impacts on public transport fare revenue resulting from Covid-19, the question should perhaps not be whether support should continue, but what structure and shape that support should take.

We can no longer keep treating the problem with a sticking plaster – there needs to be a proper operation to fix it for the long-term.

We want to hear from you

The ICE wants to hear views from across the sector when it comes to funding public transport post-pandemic.

Using the ICE Infrastructure Blog as the platform for debate, we are keen to hear opinions and thoughts on the main issues policymakers should be considering and addressing.

The briefing paper launched recently provides an initial starting point for this discussion, which will culminate in an online panel debate providing an honest look at options for what policymakers need to do next.

Please contact the policy team if you are interested in writing a guest blog on this topic or attending the panel debate.

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If you're interested in writing for the Infrastructure Blog, please email [email protected]. The ICE reserves the right not to publish articles that have been submitted.

  • Jonathan Spruce, Trustee, Policy & External Affairs at Institution of Civil Engineers