Free bus travel in South Yorkshire could pay for itself, says expert

Introducing free bus travel across South Yorkshire may sound like a fanciful idea, but experts believes it could work.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 30 May, 2019, 12:06

The South Yorkshire Freedom Riders claim making buses free to use would bring many benefits, including cutting pollution, boosting the economy and improving public health.

The campaign group’s proposal, made as part of a major bus review launched by Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis, has been welcomed by some but sceptics have asked where the funding would come from.

Buses in Sheffield

Experts at Sheffield Hallam University now say the idea is definitely worth exploring, with similar schemes both in mainland Europe and closer to home indicating how it might work.

Dr Stephen Parkes is a research associate at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), with experience in the fields of urban transport and sustainability.

He said that while there are many questions to be answered about how it would work, and free travel alone will not revive our ailing bus network, it definitely merits further further investigation.

Dr Stephen Parkes, research associate at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR)

Dunkirk in France and the Estonian capital Tallinn, he points out, have both introduced free bus travel, and both claim the initiative has proved a success.

In Wales, free travel has been introduced at weekends on the long-distance TrawsCymru bus network.

And in Nottingham, a levy on workplace parking spaces has helped fund extensions to the tram system, the revedelopment of Nottingham Station and the city’s community bus service.

Professor Ed Ferrari, director of Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR)

Dr Parkes said: “It’s an interesting proposal, which would certainly make bus travel more attractive to residents, and it’s worth exploring in more detail as part of the bus review.

“I would just be a bit cautious because there are so many factors which affect bus use. It’s not as simple as overnight making buses free to use.”

Professor Ed Ferrari, CRESR director, believes making buses free could pay for itself in the long term, thanks largely to the public health benefits, but that it would require a more holistic approach from central government.

MP Clive Betts launches the bus review (pic: Chris Etchells)

“I think there’s evidence from cities around Europe and in other parts of the world to show it can work in some circumstances,” he said.

“In the UK context, outside London, it comes down to funding. It’s a more philosophical question of the extent to which the Government sees public transport as a social good.

“It would require cross-departmental resolve because you need to consider the wider economic, social and environmental benefits beyond the closed realm of public transport itself.

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“You have to ask how seriously does the Government want to deliver the benefits to the enviroment of reducing congestion and improving air quality and to social inclusion of getting more people into work?

“If it works out what those benefits might be valued at, I suspect it would show you could cover the cost of operating a free bus system. But it would take long-term thinking because the savings to the NHS would come over generations….

“The evidence is fairly strong to my mind that if you leave bus services to run as private enterprises then the necessarily high fares, and the issues with frequency and reliability, mean you will see patronage continue to decline.”

A tourist tax could be one way of helping to fund free buses, he suggested, with visitors asked to pay a levy of one or two pounds per night.

Professor Ferrari also voiced his concern about the current trend of creating employment hubs off motorways, which he said would never be well served by public transport.

Dr Parkes suggested a parking levy like that in Nottingham might help fund free buses.

“On the whole, I think it’s proved fairly successful there, despite there being quite a lot of opposition initially from businesses, and it’s helped to raise vital funds for transport,” he said.

“It’s not been used much elsewhere yet but other cities similar to Sheffield have been looking into whether it would work there. It’s been a hot topic of conversation in Edinburgh.

“Whatever you do, you need to raise the money somehow if you’re going to provide free or low-cost bus fares, and that’s not going to be easy when public sector funds are so constrained.”

Dr Parkes said free travel would almost certainly lead to an initial increase in passenger numbers, reversing the long-term decline, but sustaining that might prove harder.

“If bus travel is made free I think you’d see a huge increase in the short term, not least because of the novelty. But you have to think about how to sustain that, because getting more people on buses isn’t just about lowering prices,” he said.

“Cost is important but you also need to think about reliability, comfort, safety and availability, especially for people doing shift work and needing to travel late at night or very early in the morning.

“If you don’t address those issues, you’re not going to get more people using buses.”

The South Yorkshire Freedom Riders claim bus franchising in the region, where various operators compete for customers, has ‘failed us all’.

They argue that a publicly run and funded bus network is the ‘only way services can be extended, made reliable and improved for the benefit of the population, the environment, local economies, personal finances and personal health’.

The group pointed out that before deregulation, a cheap fares scheme existed in South Yorkshire which was on course to make buses free by 1984, and it highlighted how Scottish Labour had announced it wants to make all buses there free to use.

Dr Parkes claimed it was hard to say what impact free bus travel might have on congestion and the economy but that anything which reduces people’s reliance on cars would make a difference.

“Congestion is a huge problem for the economy. If you can cut congestion in the city by reducing the number of cars on the road that’s certainly a positive,” he said.

“You could say people would be spending less on travelling by car so they’d have a bit more to spend elsewhere but that’s quite a leap.

“It’s also worth looking at how it links into ideas around active travel, which has an impact on public health, because you have to walk to and from the bus stop.”

Dan Jarvis is currently seeking people’s views on bus travel in South Yorkshire as part of his review, chaired by Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts, which was formally launched last Friday, May 24.