Why bus cuts hit women hardest

Women use buses more than men in most countries around the world. The journeys they make tend to be more complex too. Many are non-work related, and are often done with children or older people. Yet transport planning and infrastructure largely overlooks these needs.

In the UK, women make 30% more bus journeys than men each year. So when services are lost, women are disproportionately affected.

In the past 15 years, bus services have been cut by more than 80% in some areas, such as Broxtowe and Bridgwater. Urban bus services across England and Wales have decreased by 48% on average since 2008. Rural services have fared even worse.

The proposed changes to ticket offices at railway stations were rightly met with huge public outcry and a swift u-turn by the Government. In contrast the decimation of our bus services has been happening in the background for more than a decade with no concerted campaign to stop them. Local campaigners have occasionally been successful in opposing these cuts but often that relief can be temporary.

Mainstream media sometimes share heart wrenching stories of bus users feeling imprisoned in their homes or not being able to get to work because of the service cuts. There is a murmur of discontent, but it doesn’t seem to go much further.

Perhaps we as a nation have simply come to accept poor bus services? We even joke about it! Or maybe there would have been a bigger outcry if more men used and relied on buses? Or could it be because these cuts are happening under local control, which makes it harder for people to come together nationally?

Bus Back Better

In 2021, the Government published its national bus strategy for England, Bus Back Better.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister at the time, made promises about simpler and more affordable fares, more services, and priority schemes to make routes more efficient. Several Prime Ministers later and progress has been patchy. The most successful thing has been the introduction of £2 bus fares. Even this was done badly, with the fare being extended every few months, giving bus companies and users little confidence it was anything other than a short term gimmick. A simple, affordable fare has unsurprisingly proved popular with users. Its full benefit, however, has not been realised thanks to so many bus services being cut. Whatever the fare, people can’t use the bus if there aren’t any!

Another area where there has been some progress is with Bus Service Improvement Plans. These have enabled a number of local authorities to substantially improve bus services and introduce new and cheaper fares. However, it is unclear what will happen in a couple of years’ time when the funding runs out. Equally many local authorities had their hopes raised, only to be dashed after funding allocated for improvements was stolen by the Treasury for Covid support (something it didn’t do to motorists).

Some areas in the North and the Midlands are seeing more money available for transport due to money being reallocated from HS2. However, much of that money is being diverted into roads. Even the money being touted for improving road maintenance looks like it will be diverted into new roads.

Over time the Government has moved away from its ambitious promises from the Bus Back Better strategy. This was reinforced by the ‘Plan for Drivers’ in October 2023, which included measures to reduce operational hours of bus lanes.

Safety concerns

The reduction in services is not the only issue bus users face. Nearly half of women in Great Britain feel unsafe using public transport alone after dark.

In 2021, Laura Shoaf, Chief Executive of West Midlands Combined Authority, and Anne Shaw, Executive Director of Transport for West Midlands, were the UK’s first Violence Against Women and Girls on Transport Champions. They published a report which included recommendations on how transport can be made safer for women and girls. The recommendations included:

  • Deliver better training across the transport industry to help manage incidents that occur
  • Encourage more women to work in the transport industry (currently only 26% of workers are women)

Some action has been taken since the report, such as educational campaigns run by the Government, and recruitment drives to encourage more women to join the transport sector. However, much more needs to be done.

The problems don’t end here. Many bus stops do not have a shelter or seats to keep people dry and comfortable while they wait. Lighting can be poor or missing and some stops can feel isolated and vulnerable. Many, especially outside of cities, do not have live bus information. Then there is the huge issue of accessibility, with deaf and blind users rarely catered for outside of the big cities.

What the future holds

Buses in the UK are the most commonly used mode of public transport. Yet they seem way down the list of priorities for the current Government. This was illustrated by the announcement in the recent Budget slashing the Department for Transport revenue budget for next year. This could spell bad news for public transport which is typically supported from this money.

The good news is that the Labour Party have said that, if they win the General Election, they would put buses at the heart of their transport plan. Yet with the squeeze on finances we will have to wait and see what happens in reality.

Whoever is in charge, recognising women’s needs in transport is long overdue and needs to be a priority of the next Government.

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