Groundbreaking research identifies factors behind high bus use

Press release
  • Research helps predict “good bus territory” and highlights 25 local areas which out-perform their predicted bus use and why

Groundbreaking new research has identified the underlying conditions that best predict levels of bus use in local areas, as well as additional factors which may explain why some areas exceed expectations with higher levels of bus use than predicted.

The research - by Transport for Quality of Life and published today by the Urban Transport Group – analysed a mass of data sets to identify six conditions which, when combined, can be used to define what the report calls the ‘Intrinsic Bus Potential’ (IBP) of a local authority area. IBP can be used to predict nearly 85% of the variation in bus use between local authorities and areas with a high IBP can be considered “good bus territory”.

In combination with each other, the six conditions are:

  • the proportion of households living in rental accommodation (the higher the proportion, the higher the bus use)
  • the Index of Multiple Deprivation (the higher the level of deprivation, the higher the bus use)
  • the proportion of students (the higher the proportion, the higher the bus use)
  • the proportion of the working population defined as lower middle class (the higher the proportion, the higher the bus use)
  • the proportion of the working population travelling between 2 and 20 kilometres to work (the higher the proportion, the higher the bus use)
  • rush-hour traffic travel times (the longer the journey times, the higher the bus use – see notes to editors [1])

The research goes on to identify 25 local authority areas (see notes to editors [2]) which significantly out-perform their IBP, highlighting other factors that may be responsible for this.

These include:

  • A pre-existing culture of bus use
  • High levels of bus provision
  • Bus regulation
  • A ‘pro-bus’ local context (in which operators or the local authority - or both - have invested resource, research and development and management focus to ensure the bus ‘product’ is well-matched to the local market)
  • Local factors (such as relatively poor rail connectivity)
  • A ‘halo effect’ (found in some rural areas that are close to cities which out-perform their IBP)

On the basis of this analysis, the report draws the following conclusions:

  • the factors that correlate with high potential for bus use are most often found in urban areas, suggesting it is urban areas where the biggest absolute gains could be made in patronage
  • transport authorities and bus operators have no, or limited, influence over the background factors that best predict bus use and four of the six background factors are socio-economic rather than related to transport
  • common themes can be found in those areas which do outperform their potential and some of those could be applied elsewhere, including long term nurturing of a culture of bus use
  • even the most successful areas are outperforming their intrinsic bus potential by relatively modest margins (particularly compared to historic levels of bus use) and although this extra bus patronage is valuable, it suggests that radical change on bus policy, and transport policy more widely, would be needed for more areas to do significantly better. In particular, without a better funding deal for buses by national government, it is difficult to see why bus use will not continue to decline.

Stephen Edwards, Chair of the Urban Transport Group and Executive Director of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said:

“In an industry with such low levels of research and development, much of the debate about what’s behind bus patronage change has been based on assertion and opinion. Our research programme has taken a more rigorous approach and this new, data-driven report shows for the first time the background factors that can best explain levels of bus use.

“The report makes for sobering reading as it shows that even in some areas which are doing better than background conditions would predict they are still experiencing significant patronage decline. These findings also demonstrate that without reformed and increased funding for services, it is highly likely that bus use will continue to fall and it will be difficult for areas to achieve - still less to exceed - their potential for bus use.”


Notes to editors

[1] Counter-intuitively, places with longer rush-hour travel times (i.e. more congestion) often have higher levels of bus use. This is partly because more congested areas also tend to be built to higher densities, with concentrated travel demand, and hence tend to support more bus services. In addition, journey time statistics are for general traffic speeds rather than for buses in particular, so do not take into account the availability or otherwise of bus priority schemes.

[2] The full list of the 25 ‘best performing’ local authority districts (LADS) in England is: Hillingdon; Croydon; Hounslow; Southwark; Hackney; Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Gateshead; Sunderland; Nottingham; Gedling; Broxtowe; Rushcliffe; Oxford; Vale of White Horse; Cherwell; West Oxfordshire; Brighton & Hove; Lewes; Birmingham; Liverpool; Leeds; Reading; Swindon; Crawley; and Oadby & Wigston. These LADs either had levels of commuter bus use that were more than 3%-points higher than predicted by their IBP, or were ‘best-in-group’ in terms of their bus commute mode share when the LADs were ranked in order of their IBP and divided into ten groups (deciles). 

The full report - What scope for boosting bus use? An analysis of the Intrinsic Bus Potential of local authority areas in England – can be downloaded here.

The report is part of the Urban Transport Group’s research programme What’s driving bus patronage demand? The programme includes a report on the existing evidence base for bus patronage decline and a report on how people respond to the experience of bus travel.

70% of all bus journeys in England are made in Urban Transport Group’s member areas.