Ideally, a bus should be a metaphor for a good society.
Winding along its route, picking up and depositing cheerful, chatty passengers of all ages, shapes, sizes, dispositions and ethnic groups, it should convey the message: "We're all in it together". Literally.
But that is no longer the case. The wheels on the bus may be going round and round still but the wheels appear to be coming off the Scottish Government's "concessionary" travel scheme.
Scottish bus companies are warning that the current scheme which provides, not concessionary, but completely free travel for older and disabled passengers, is unsustainable. This year's funding shortfall is expected to be £7 million. As demographic changes mean the numbers qualifying for free travel will continue to increase steadily, the situation can only get worse, especially as funding has been capped for the next three financial years.
In 2010 Audit Scotland warned that the annual cost of the scheme could balloon to £500m by 2025 without restrictions on eligibility. The only way operators say they can continue to offer entirely free travel to the over-60s and the disabled is by increasing fares for paying passengers and cutting routes.
Non-means tested benefits have some notable advantages. They eliminate stigma and reduce bureaucracy.
They also help to hold society together and can neutralise resentment about welfare spending.
Free bus travel is the subject of political bidding by the parties. Introduced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2006, the SNP felt obliged to retain it or face the wrath of the "grey vote" at the ballot box. (Pensioners, more than any other age group, can be relied on to vote in elections.)
But the world has changed in the last six years. A global recession has left governments struggling to pay off their debts.
Free bus travel now raises serious questions about fairness. For example, why should 60-year-old middle-class executives commute for free while young jobseekers living on less than £60 a week cannot afford bus fares to get to interviews? Many older people worry about the resentment caused by such anomalies. Buses are already pricing themselves out of the market, with a 6% slump in bus use in a single year.
The disabled should continue to travel free but in the current financial climate the qualifying age should be raised to 65. Many over-65s would not object to paying a small flat fare of, say £1, provided those qualifying for pension credit – the poorest pensioners – continue to travel free.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with subsidising public transport but under the current scheme, Transport Scotland is failing to get value for money for taxpayers. Fares fair.
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