I had occasion to take two buses in Lincoln the other day, a rare foray on out of London services. And on both occasions, with the exception of one person, I was the only fare paying customer. All the others were crusties using their passes, a benefit for which I will qualify in a few months time. Certainly, as the buses struggled through the Lincoln traffic, it is clear that taking the bus is a minority activity in the town.
Yet , the bus service seemed to be pretty good and relatively good value, though nearly £2 to get across town was by no means cheap. But my journeys did highlight the problems of operating buses in places like Lincoln which consist largely of estates of semi detached houses in what were once outlying villages but which have now become part of the town. They will never be profitable and, with the freedom passes available too pensioners, most are used almost exclusively by the over 60s. Therefore they are a subsidised mobility service for pensioners rather than, as in London, part of a mass transit system. Whether the huge amounts of subsidy which go into providing this service, both through bus contracts and support for the Freedom Pass can be justified is an issue that is not, now, even possible to debate. No political party would dare to take away the Freedom Pass at the risk of alienating the Grey Vote.
My instinct is that it is indeed money well spent, but niggling doubts remain. Subsidising buses uses up most of many local authorities’ transport budget left over after the roads have absorbed the bulk of it. At the very least, this spending should be appraised in terms of its benefit both to the local public and the environment. Or am I being too harsh?