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Package of bold bus and coach policies urgently needed to meet net zero

A new WPI Economics report shows how major benefits could be reaped by levelling the playing field between private motoring and public transport.

This follows on from a study earlier this year which showed that attracting drivers to switch some journeys to bus or coach was necessary to meet net zero targets. This would produce significant economic, social and health benefits and be achievable given people’s support for tackling climate change.

With a 70 year decline in bus travel, the report makes clear focusing on one policy alone won’t get the job done. For example, it shows how increasing motoring costs in isolation would hit those who don’t have any other option to use their cars, particularly lower earners. Instead, making bus travel free would cost billions without having a significant impact on people’s travel choices.

The report calls for a realistic, fair and politically achievable package of policies to encourage people to switch two car journeys a month to bus or coach. This will ensure a reduction in England alone of 10m tons of CO2 – equivalent to the entire annual transport emissions of the East Midlands.

As well as keeping us on the path to net zero, moving more people onto bus and coach unlocks huge benefits:

  • £18bn of benefits from reduced congestion – more than the annual GDP of Bristol
  • £9bn in health benefits – enough to build 20 NHS hospitals
  • 58,000 new jobs and £3.6bn additional GDP through better connectivity to job and services

Matthew Oakley, Research Director at WPI Economics said: “A holistic policy package combining an urgent range of sensible interventions will make buses and coaches the natural choice over cars.

 “Without a significant step change to government policy, current decarbonisation targets will not be met.”

Alison Edwards, Director of Policy at the Confederation of Passenger Transport which commissioned the report said: “Meeting the 2050 Net Zero deadline can only be achieved if there is long-term investment in the funding of services and infrastructure, so that bus and coach travel can become people’s preferred transport of choice.

“UK decision-makers should not park bus policy packages, but see them as fair and achievable measures to slash carbon, generate new tax revenue, create more jobs and make people healthier.”

To go the full distance of meeting decarbonisation targets, bus packages across England must cover three key policy areas, with license to adapt according to local needs:

  • Investment in bus services and infrastructure to increase attractiveness of the bus network, building on local authority plans to deliver the National Bus Strategy
  • Subsidising bus fares
  • Charging motorists to drive in congested urban areas

An example comprehensive policy ticket would be to combine £1bn per year investment in bus services with a £2 fare cap and a congestion charge in urban local authorities. This could get England three quarters of the way to its net zero goal – while making buses faster, cheaper and more convenient.

The urban congestion charge would raise sufficient revenue to pay for other elements of the package, provide targeted support to help motorists meet the cost and help government in moving away from a dependency on fuel duty.

If picked up by decision makers, these policies could reverse England’s 11% passenger decline per decade between 1980 and 2019, increasing bus patronage by 25% per decade up to 2050. 

Combining measures across the three policy areas could help British cities overtake their European counterparts in productivity. Their failure to do so is caused by severe congestion in urban areas from cars that costs the UK economy £23 billion a year.

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