No change on the buses?

11 September 2020

Covid-19 seems to be super-charging existing long-term trends. The shift in attitudes to working from home is one example, as are moves across the retail sector away from cash towards contactless payments or online purchases. Transport is no exception.

Back in April we blogged about how some bus companies had stopped accepting cash on the bus, and some others had implemented an ‘exact fare only’ policy to reduce cash handling and the risk to their staff. In normal times these abrupt changes would clearly be passenger unfriendly moves that make buses less accessible to those that rely on them. Before Covid-19 our most recent Bus Passenger Survey found around one in five fare transactions still involved cash, showing there was still a sizable minority of passengers who use cash.

Has Covid-19 changed all this?

The feedback from bus passengers in our Transport User Community is that, in principle, they’re accepting of buses going ‘cashless’. They’ve become used to paying with contactless for most other services and anticipate benefits in quicker boarding and reduced journey times if fewer passengers are fumbling for coins.

On the other hand, there’s recognition too that a permanent shift to not accepting cash would be a big change and they’d expect the transition to be managed carefully. Some members of our community had a concern about how older passengers could adapt, though others pointed out many older passengers travel for free with a concessionary pass.

“It seems like the entire world is moving towards cashless in all aspects. The benefits would be that it’s faster to board and pay, and you can purchase in advance. But our elderly passengers may not be up to speed.”
Female, 44, East Midlands

“It’s all well and good but I don’t have a contactless card and I can’t download my bus app.”
Female, 31, South East

Our sister organisation London TravelWatch has valuable insight on how phasing out cash on buses can be managed effectively:

In London cash fares were gradually simplified and made significantly more expensive than those offered on Oyster, giving passengers the incentive to change. The development and expansion of Oyster and then the introduction of contactless bank cards further reduced cash use to below one per cent of transactions. By 2014 Transport for London was able to abolish cash transactions on buses altogether with virtually no adverse public reaction. London TravelWatch was instrumental in getting significant improvements to the proposals so that people in vulnerable situations were not disadvantaged. One of these was the ‘One More Journey’ facility where passengers with insufficient pay as you go credit could still travel, but effectively go into debit, until they had time to top up their card.

Buses in London and the TfL system is a very different proposition to bus travel in much of the rest of the country. While contactless is now more established than when London made the shift, not everyone has access to a contactless bank card, including under 18s and ‘unbanked’ adults, estimated to number more than a million in 2017. Use of cash can also be very localised, and in places like Liverpool and Glasgow is still the main means of paying on some bus routes.

The times may seem ripe for a decisive shift away from cash, but important questions remain about an adequate safety net to ensure buses still fulfil their vital role. The bus industry must be careful it doesn’t leave passengers behind.

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