Researchers have called for improvements to bus services, including franchising, after new research found that unaffordable and unreliable local public transport is preventing people in low-income areas find work.
With many low-income families unable to afford cars, a lack of reliable local bus services, particularly in the wake of drastic austerity-led cuts, risks creating new ‘cut-off commuter zones’ where people are unable to consistently guarantee punctuality when travelling longer distances for work, the research found.
The study, conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) by Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, looked at transport issues facing out-of-work residents in four areas of the Greater Manchester and Leeds city regions.
Transport was consistently highlighted as a significant barrier to work ‘once the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport; and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered’, researchers said.
Ed Ferrari, director of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University said: ‘Buses are the backbone of local public transport in Britain and the key to employment and training opportunities for many. But problems with high fares, poor coordination between different providers and services, and lack of reliability seriously hamper the ability of low-income groups to commute to more distant jobs.
‘Fundamental weaknesses in the way that bus services are regulated and subsidised are effectively locking the poorest out of the opportunities within the modern economy. Policy makers in Britain need to see investment in high quality local transport systems as an investment in national productivity and tackling inequality.’
The research found that where public transport links are available, the likelihood of delays and missed connections means that, even for residents who live close to city centres, changing services may not be a viable option.
The JRF called on the Government, combined and local authorities, transport bodies and others to ensure that:
- New bus franchising powers are used to improve the availability, affordability and reliability of services, to make it easier for people on low incomes to access employment
- Planning processes are improved to make sure that new housing and employment developments are well served by public transport
- Transport and employment policy are better integrated, so employment support providers can help clients to understand travel choices available to them.
While Greater Manchester, which has an elected mayor, is considering bringing in bus franchising, under the Bus Services Act Leeds City Council or the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) would need permission from ministers to do so.
Cllr Kim Groves, chair of the WYCA said: ‘The affordability and availability of public transport has a massive impact in linking people with job and training opportunities.
‘We spend over £17m each year to ensure that essential journeys the bus companies consider non-profitable are provided. However, with local government under continued funding pressure, we will need to ensure this money is targeted at those who need it most. We need more flexible transport services that reflect the changing nature and location of employment.’