Buses are the most widely-used form of public transport, providing what should be cheap and convenient local journeys as well as longer-distance travel.
That makes the finding that only 28% of households in the Strathclyde area are now within easy walking of a bus stop with a frequent service a particularly worrying one. The monitoring by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport covers such a large and diverse area that it is likely to reflect the situation over Scotland as a whole, a shocking indication that many people no longer have easy access to public transport.
In 2009, 44% of households were within quarter of a mile of a bus stop with a frequent service. This steep decline in the availability of bus services over the past three years coincides with an increase in the proportion of people in Scotland who do not leave their homes on a regular basis. Common sense suggests there is a link between the two.
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Bus operators have reduced services because their profitability has been squeezed by soaring fuel prices and cuts in Government subsidies. The result has been a downward spiral of reduced frequency followed by the cutting of routes which has now reached the stage of running fewer buses even on the more profitable urban routes. The result is that many people without access to a car or who have mobility problems are becoming increasingly isolated. This is a particular problem in rural areas where some form of transport is necessary to reach essential services such as shops, banks and doctors' surgeries. For older people or the disabled, it is an especially frustrating problem. They are entitled to free bus travel but that is of no use if the only bus is at 7.30am. Innovative local groups that have managed to secure funding to provide a service are a welcome reminder that community spirit is a valuable resource but these arrangements cannot fill the gap of a scheduled service. In urban areas there is still a problem with congestion and market forces did not provide the boost to bus travel that deregulation was supposed to provide.
Public transport is an essential service and there has long been an acceptance that subsidy is necessary to ensure connections in areas where population density makes an entirely commercial service uneconomic. However, there has been a 10% drop in bus mileage supported by local authorities. The Scottish Government has invested in a range of schemes to support bus travel but they do not appear to have produced the level of service required. It is time for a strategic review of bus services throughout Scotland.