Free bus journeys could be the key to regional post-covid ‘level up’


Citizens groups and transport experts in West Yorkshire say that free bus journeys will be central to ‘levelling up’ the region in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

The proposal comes just as the government announces that “The fragmented, fully commercialised market, which has operated outside London since 1986 will end.” 

The campaigners calculate that the cost of providing free buses would be more than offset by economic benefits, and would represent a significant step in helping English regions catch up economically with London and the South East.

The plans are laid out in a proposal document released tomorrow, Tuesday 16 March.

Paul Chatterton, Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Leeds and co-author of the proposals, said: “Making buses free would help the region recover from the coronavirus pandemic by giving everyone a fair chance to get to jobs, education and training and to enjoy their leisure time, no matter what their income is.”

Co-author Jeff Turner, a transport consultant, said: “The number of bus journeys in West Yorkshire dropped by over 65 million between 2010 and 2019 despite a rising population. By contrast London, which has kept public control over the bus system, has seen journeys leap by two-thirds over the same period. This lack of mobility for work, leisure and recreation puts a serious brake on regional economies, as well as undermining environmental and social objectives.”

Buses in West Yorkshire are currently run by private companies, but even before the pandemic nearly half the cost was already met by national and local government. Since the 2020 lockdown every bus service in the region has been fully funded by public money.

The additional cost of making bus journeys free permanently is approximately £90 million per year, but estimates suggest that introducing free travel for people over 60 produced £2 in economic benefits for every £1 it cost.

Fran Postlethwaite, a member of the Yorkshire & Humber Pensioners Convention and also a co-author of the proposals, said: “We support the principle of free bus travel because the climate emergency demands radical change. Pensioners also believe that the free transport we enjoy should be available to everyone.”

As part of the proposals, ownership of West Yorkshire’s buses would pass to a co-operative of passengers, bus drivers and other staff, and local councils.

The proposal is one of the first recommendations to come from Amplify West Yorkshire, the alternative manifesto process which has been hosted by Same Skies, a regional democracy think tank. Same Skies brings citizens and experts together to come up with new ideas for the first West Yorkshire Mayor, to be elected on May 7th.

Andrew Wilson of Same Skies said “This has been an amazing process bringing together people from across West Yorkshire. The combination of professional, academic and citizen expertise means we have been able to ask different questions and generate new ideas in a wide range of areas.”

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