Page updated July 2015
Buses - an accessible, affordable, environmental travel option?
Buses are a crucial component of our public transport system, carrying three times as many passengers as trains. 2013 figures show 5.1 billion bus journeys a year compared to 1.5 billion by train. However, bus patronage has gone down around 30% since deregulation, although some areas have bucked the trend, in particular London with an increase of 99%. 
Some say the success of London’s buses is because Transport for London has more power to regulate its network than other regions. Other local authorities want this power back, but face opposition from the large bus companies. We chart the struggle over bus operation from pre-1968 Transport Act, through deregulation to the dominance of the ‘Big Five’ today below.
Buses also have huge potential for reducing carbon emissions if they replaced more journeys by car on well-used routes as we outlined on the 'Climate impact of transport' page. According to a report commissioned by industry lobby group Greener Journeys, the “best-used bus services in the major urban centres may well be reducing carbon emissions by 75% or more”. 
Below we look at how buses could increase their appeal, but first, what makes a greener bus?
Although buses only account for about 4% of UK road transport emissions and are generally seen as part of the solution to the climate crisis, there is still potential for environmental improvements.
The government runs a Green Bus Fund to encourage operators to buy Low Carbon Emission Buses (LCEBs), most of which are diesel-electric hybrids which cost about £100,000 more than a standard diesel bus. The fund is designed to support the industry until it reaches two points:
- firstly that manufacturers can achieve economies of scale, and
- secondly that more evidence emerges about fuel savings and reliability of hybrid buses and their batteries over time.
The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a public-private partnership to accelerate the shift, has an online map showing what type of LCEBs are used where and by which companies.
A LCEB is defined as having 30% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to a ‘Euro 3 standard’ diesel bus. However, some of the emission reductions measured in hybrid buses may be due to their using more advanced ‘Euro 6’ diesel engines, rather than their being hybrids. Euro 6 engines are also better for other toxic emissions (see our car guide).
Some say the fund encourages operators to stick to diesel buses as it doesn’t fund the associated infrastructure needed for other, potentially better, forms of power. For example, electric or hydrogen-powered buses should bring zero emissions in operation, but would need the building of new refuelling stations.
Of the approximately 2200 LCEBs currently in operation in the UK, almost 2000 are a form of diesel-electric hybrid, leaving just around 200 which are fossil-fuel free, running either on biomethane produced from decomposing organic materials (112) or electric battery (83). With buses travelling about 1.3 billion miles a year in England alone, imagine how many litres of fuel could be saved…
Alongside new technologies, traffic-management measures that improve flow can also green our buses by reducing the energy used to stop and start. Measures include priority at junctions, bus lanes or even forms of ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ (such as the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway), which are much cheaper to install than train or tram tracks. Energy can also be saved by training drivers in eco-driving techniques including gentler acceleration and deceleration, and reducing engine idling time.
Battling for Buses
Less profitable routes cut
The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) found that 2014/15 had been one of the worst years for cuts to bus services. Its report ‘Buses in Crisis’ stated that “Since 2010, local authorities have cut £44 million in funding and 2000 routes have been withdrawn.” 
About 20% of services overall are ‘supported’ by local authority funding, because they are not profitable enough to be purely commercial. In some rural areas this applies to almost 100% of services, and when they are cut, people can be left with no alternative transport.
According to a councillor in Hertfordshire, cuts made in May 2015 will leave 12 local villages with no bus services at all.  Over 50 areas now have local CBT groups defending services under threat, and the CBT are asking for people to submit details of cuts in their area. [5,6]
Authorities need the funding
With the government massively reducing funding to local authorities, several are looking at regaining more control over private operators and profitable routes in order to balance the books.
In October 2014 the Tyne and Wear regional authority voted for a new Quality Contract (QC) which would allow it to set and collect fares, and contract out the services. It is now being held back by strong challenges from Arriva, Go-Ahead and Stagecoach, who argue that a QC will lead to worse services and higher public costs.
The local Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) Nexus says “80% of the bus companies’ profits leave the region as payments to shareholders”, while under a QC more of that profit would be reinvested locally to protect services and keep fares down.
The Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), the body representing all the PTEs across the UK, is lobbying to make it easier to introduce QCs, and harder for operators to threaten expensive legal challenges. “Operators make high profits...so it is not surprising they oppose any change” said PTEG.8
FirstGroup have attempted to dodge the threat of a QC in West Yorkshire by offering an investment package dependent on an alternative partnership model. 
How the ‘Big Five’ got control
Before 1968 buses were run by a mixture of local authorities and private companies, with little coordination. Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) were created by Labour after the 1968 Transport Act to take over municipal bus operations for the main UK conurbations: West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyneside, Greater Glasgow, and later South and West Yorkshire. A London Transport Executive had already been in existence since 1948.
1968 also saw the creation of the National Bus Company (NBC) which ran bus services throughout England and Wales outside of large cities, alongside other independent operators.
Then came the 1980s with Thatcher and deregulation. Following the 1985 Transport Act, the NBC was split into 72 major subsidiaries to be sold off, and PTEs lost the ability to regulate fares and services, and had to sell their buses too.
Initially, all the PTEs and almost half the NBC sales went to teams of existing management and employees, but by the late 1990s most had been consolidated into the large bus groups we know today: FirstGroup, National Express, Stagecoach, Arriva and Go-Ahead. Wellglade is one of the two remaining independently-owned NBC management buyouts.
Although there are over 1200 bus operators in the UK, the ‘Big Five’ run over two-thirds of services. Where smaller operators have most market share is in local authority supported services, running just over 40%, while larger operators (PLC-owned or owning over 100 buses) provide 99% of London services and 90% of commercial services outside London. The UK public transport market is by far the most open in Europe, with about 95% outsourced compared to just a third across the continent. 
What choice do we have?
The Competition Commission 2011 report into the UK bus market (excluding Northern Ireland and London) found that only 1% of services were likely to face effective head-to-head competition. It estimated this led to reduced quality and higher costs in both fares and tendered contracts, at a likely cost to consumers and taxpayers of between £115-315 million a year.  From 1997 to 2013, bus and coach fares rose 103% – 35% above inflation. 
For many journeys you are unlikely to have a direct choice between operators, which is why we have not suggested a Best Buy in this report. If you do have a choice however, you may wish to use a smaller operator, rather than one of the ‘Big Five’ who all have directors paid over £1 million.
Boosting bus appeal
More ‘modal shift’
While buses themselves could be greener, with cars accounting for 60% of domestic transport emissions, shifting more journeys from car to bus would make a bigger impact on greenhouse gas reduction, congestion and local air pollution.
Greener Journeys (founded by Arriva, First, Go-Ahead and Stagecoach) has created a toolkit called ‘Driving modal shift from car to bus’. It gave away free trial bus tickets, targeting drivers at ‘moments of pain’ such as struggling to park. It was found that “over half (55%) of infrequent bus users made more trips in the weeks after their trial trip”. It also worked with young people to highlight the high costs of driving, one fifth of whom said they could “do better things with the money”. 
According to National Express, the biggest reasons for people shifting from the car are the costs and the desire to use mobile devices while travelling, with environmental impacts also a factor.
Many buses now have free Wi-Fi on board. Stagecoach has an online calculator for you to see how much carbon you’d save by switching15 and Arriva is part of the ‘Trade Your Transport’ scheme, giving out free regional travel passes if you scrap your car!16
Better bus information
Some say if you make bus travel an attractive option for young people, they are more likely to keep the ‘bus habit’. The industry body Confederation of Passenger Transport has created a website targeted at 16-25 year olds, which provides info on stops and services, and a comprehensive list of contacts for bus operators in each region (though you would have to look further to determine parent companies).
In 2014 Google included public transport information for the whole of Great Britain on Google Maps, using data from Traveline, which has offered info online or by phone since 2000. Given Google’s massive reach this is quite a breakthrough, presenting in a very accessible way timetables of “every single train, bus, tram and ferry”, from “nearly 1,500 different transport operators”, covering “more than 17,000 different routes”. Readers may be in a position to encourage others to use the bus by publicising public transport information to events or venues you are involved with.
One thing that’s hard to find before a journey, unless you manage to phone the actual operator(s), is information on fares. Multi-operator or group travel tickets may be available but details can be hard to find. Travelwatch Northwest, a Community Interest Company whose vision is to champion the views of public transport users, found in its 2014 Bus Fares report that in the 22 bus stations it visited, “Many were not able to provide information on fares at all”. 
Following the Oyster card introduced for London in 2003, which is accepted by over 80 companies running buses, tubes, trains and even some riverboats, other regions are moving towards multi-operator electronic ticketing. Apart from the simplicity of needing only one ticket for a range of journeys, cashless boarding shortens the time spent at stops, speeding up journeys and reducing congestion.
At least 84% of the 36,000 buses in England now have an accessibility certificate which means they have step-free access and space for at least one wheelchair.19 However, an appeal court said in December 2014 that wheelchair users need a change in the law to guarantee them access to that space. The announcement followed a case where a disabled man had been unable to board a FirstGroup bus as a woman had refused to move her pushchair. 
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is running a Talking Buses campaign for all buses to have audio-visual announcements. It says that not knowing where the bus is has led to 65% of blind and partially-sighted bus passengers missing their stop in the last six months.  In March 2015 the Department for Transport commissioned research into how a range of impairments affect access to transport, from vision and hearing, to learning difficulties, mental health problems and autism.
Better integration with other transport modes would also boost bus use. One interesting organisation we’ve come across is bikesonbuses.com who supply racks worldwide. Why can’t we have more in the UK?!
News on wages
In February 2015 London bus drivers went on strike for 24 hours to demand equal pay instead of 80 different pay rates from 18 operators.  In March, FirstGroup bus drivers in Yorkshire were considering strike action over the company threatening a pay freeze unless they accepted the ‘skinny driver’ system, where new starters would only get paid for time behind the wheel and not, for example, travelling to collect a bus.  Also in March, National Express committed to become the first private transport group to pay the Living Wage. 
Companies running catering services on UK trains are marked down for likely use of factory-farmed meat.
Arriva is the second biggest bus company in the UK, but has been owned by the German railway company Deutsche Bahn since 2010. Deutsche Bahn has scored worst for Climate Change as it is number three in the world for air freight (by tons) and ocean freight (by volume), and owns the DB Energy company, which deals in coal and nuclear energy (but is increasing its renewable energy).  The company also scored worst in Human Rights for its logistics operations in 21 countries considered by Ethical Consumer to be oppressive regimes at the time of writing. 
Centrebus is a smaller operator running around 350 buses mainly in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Luton, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The company states on its website: “We believe that bus travel should be affordable…We’ve had great success with our cycle scheme, with over a fifth of our bus drivers now cycling to work” and “Centrebus is proud to employ a diverse work force from a wide range of backgrounds”.
ComfortDelGro from Singapore operates more than 46,000 buses, taxis, and rental vehicles in seven countries: Singapore, China, the UK, Ireland, Australia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Two of the company’s subsidiaries also sell diesel fuel. Its main UK operations are Metroline in London, and Scottish Citylink and megabus, which are jointly operated with Stagecoach.
FirstGroup plc is a leading transport operator in the UK and North America, running approximately one in five of all local bus services in the UK, as well as trains. It was by far the most successful large UK group at acquiring former municipal bus companies when they were sold off in the 1990s, acquiring the fleets of four of the eight main conurbations. The company received a middle rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, having had criticisms reported in the Financial Times in 2013.
In September 2014 Go-Ahead became the first major listed company to be awarded the Fair Tax Mark. The company operates trains, and owns various bus companies in Oxford, the South East, Southern and North East England with their own brand names.
National Express is best known in the UK for its Intercity coaches, but also provides train services and buses in the West Midlands, Dundee, and London. It runs school bus services in North America, and buses in Spain and Bahrain. National Express scored worst in Anti-Social Finance as it was listed as having subsidiaries that Ethical Consumer considered to be at high risk of being used for tax avoidance.28 National Express was found to have made donations to both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the last five years.
RATP Dev is a French company, which is number two in European road passenger transport based on revenues. In the UK it runs Bath Bus company, Bournemouth Transport, and London United buses, and holds the contract to run the Metrolink light rail system in Manchester until 2017. All its buses in the US have bicycle racks on the front. The company has a mark against them for Human Rights due to its operations in four countries considered by Ethical Consumer to be oppressive regimes at the time of writing. 
Stagecoach provides bus, Megabus coaches and rail in the UK and North America transporting about 2.5 million passengers a day. It also operates light rail network Supertram in Sheffield, and owns a 49% share in Virgin Rail Group. Criticisms have been made in an article on the TransportXtra website that Scottish bus policy is shaped by donations to the ruling Scottish National Party from Stagecoach Group’s chairman Brian Souter.  The company scored worst in Political Activity for Souter’s donation of £1million in 2014. Adverts for UKIP were spotted on Stagecoach buses in Torbay, Devon, in the run up to the general election. 
Transdev, based in France, is number one in European public road passenger transport (based on revenues). Its UK bus operations cover much of West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and Lancashire. The company had a mark against it for Human Rights due to its operations in four countries considered by Ethical Consumer to be oppressive regimes at the time of writing. 
Wellglade formed in 1986 to buy Derby-based bus operator Trent Buses from the state-owned National Bus Company (NBC). It is entirely owned and managed by local people and is “fiercely independent”.34 Wellglade’s operations now include Trent Barton, Kinchbus in Loughborough and TM Travel in Sheffield. It also holds a 12.5% stake in Tramlink Nottingham.
8 Local Transport Today, Issue 660, November 2014. p5.
9 Local Transport Today, Issue 653, August 2014.