The road to recovery – attracting bus passengers back

11 February 2021

With fewer people travelling and different working patterns likely to change transport demand for some time, how can bus services be supported as they recover from the pandemic?

In Greater Manchester, one possible approach is to consider bus franchising. Pre-Covid, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) mapped out plans for bus franchising in the region, which have just been consulted on again to gauge the impact of the pandemic. Our initial response to the plans concluded that franchising could benefit passengers by introducing simpler fares and ticketing, better information and by addressing barriers and aspirations.

Following the challenges of Covid-19, franchising could give more stability for passengers in an uncertain future by providing wider resources and sources of funding that offer a larger ‘safety net’. But alongside this, there needs to be a focus on something much simpler: trust.

Rebuilding trust must be at the heart of these plans and will be crucial in attracting people back to public transport when the time is right. Key passenger priorities need to be addressed, particularly improved reliability and punctuality. Our response highlights that plans for Greater Manchester still lack clarity on this and robust measures are needed. A lengthy transition to franchising also raises concerns about the prospect for network deterioration and how GMCA can make the most of funding and recovery partnerships to give the region the best opportunities.

Regardless of the exact approach taken, there are a few essential first steps that should underpin any recovery strategy. Key findings from our insight over the past year are highlighted in our latest report. This draws out some of the lessons that governments and transport operators can apply to help those that need to travel now feel more confident and help more people return to public transport when restrictions have eased.

So, where to start? There is significant work to do to ensure that public transport does not feel different to other activities and that social distancing and strong sanitation habits continue. Providing enough capacity with better information about how busy services are expected to be, more efforts to drive up compliance with face coverings and evidence of enhanced cleanliness will be important in boosting confidence and helping passengers to feel safe.

Further ahead, confidence can be rebuilt by reducing barriers and encouraging passengers to experience the benefits of travelling by public transport again. New fares and tickets are needed to suit different travel patterns and help rebuild passenger numbers and revenue when the time is right. Tackling perceptions of those who used to use public transport regularly will be vital. Positive communications and ‘word of mouth’ play a role, but the best way will be to draw people back onboard so they can see for themselves.

The next steps will be crucial and whatever forms of funding or transition we see, Transport Focus can help authorities and operators through those phases of recovery. The areas outlined above will make a good starting point for both short-term and long-term strategies.

We are also currently conducting a new piece of research to understand the experiences of bus passengers during the pandemic and what the industry can do to encourage lapsed passengers to return. We will be sharing the findings from that work in the next few months.

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