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Back to school – all aboard the bus?

With all the recent focus on exam results it’s easy to forget that, in England and Wales, schools are due to open again in early September (those in Scotland have already done so). This can be a stressful experience for children and parents (and quite probably teachers too) but this year it will be especially so.

It also marks another milestone moment for public transport, especially for buses which traditionally cater for the bulk of the home to school travel market. A huge amount of work has been going on to help ensure that services are ready and can cope with the projected jump in demand. Students will have to get used to the new way of travelling, and existing passengers will have to get used to a sudden influx of new people. It will need a bit of give and take on both parts.

Transport Focus’s weekly Covid-19 tracker survey shows that bus use has been steadily increasing since lockdown restrictions were lifted, but demand is still considerably less than before. Figures released by Department for Transport show that demand is about 40-45 per cent of what it would normally be for this time of year outside London, and a bit higher in London (50-55 per cent).

In our most recent weekly survey we also asked when people think they will next make a journey involving a bus. Overall, just over a quarter expected to do so in the next month or sooner. The figures were higher for younger people (36 per cent of those in the 18-24 age group would travel in the next month) and for those without access to a car (56 per cent). This is a timely reminder of the vital role that bus plays for people who often have little choice in how they travel.

One of the interesting findings was that nearly a quarter of people did not know when they might next use a bus – even among those who used to be regular bus users there was still a sizeable number (16 per cent) who were either unsure of when they would or who said they would not be travelling. One of the possible reasons for this concerns peoples’ attitudes and perceptions about safety. Among those who used buses regularly before lockdown just under a third felt that using public transport was less safe than other places such as shops, restaurants and pubs.

To get a better understanding of these attitudes we asked our new, online bus community how they felt about travelling by bus. Many recognised the role of bus as a lifeline, providing a vital link to work, shops and appointments for those who have no other option. Bus was also seen as a reliable and reasonably safe way of travelling but there was still anxiety over the ability to maintain social distancing and the wearing of face coverings. These anxieties were higher in those who had yet to make a bus journey than in those currently travelling.

“I’d need to know how frequently the buses are running, how many people will be allowed on and if there’ll be a cap of passengers – and that everyone will be wearing face masks.” Female, 24, Yorks and Humber

“I’d need to see higher standards of cleanliness on buses before going back to them. I also think we’ll see radical changes to timetables with fewer buses on routes due to the financial impact of COVID.” Female, 63, Scotland

There is no silver bullet that can fix all this. It’s about reassuring people that buses are being cleaned and will arrive on time, that people wear face coverings (unless they are exempt from doing so), and people being sensible when it comes to social distancing. It’s also important that operators give passengers confidence that they are being proactive in addressing all these points – particularly around the wearing of face coverings and avoiding crowding. The back to school rush will provide the next big test of bus travel. If it passes, then it will send a positive message to all those still undecided about getting back on board.

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