Published: 10 February 2022
Assessing the impact of free bus travel
Lack of access to transport can limit people’s access to local shops, services and education, as well as contributing to social isolation and reduced wellbeing. In 2005, Transport for London (TfL) introduced free bus travel for under 16 year olds with the intention of “helping young people to continue studying, improve employment prospects and promote the use of public transport”. The scheme was extended to include all young people under 18 years in 2006. The policy was part of a wider initiative to manage pollution and congestion in the city by replacing car journeys with bus travel.
While young people’s social inclusion was expected to improve with free travel, there were concerns that the policy could negatively affect other areas of their health, for example, through less exercise (active travel), and disrupt bus use for other age groups.
Measuring the effects of new policies designed to improve public health, such as this free bus travel scheme, provides useful evidence about their benefits and costs to help plan effective and affordable policies in the future. With funding from the NIHR Public Health Research Programme, a team of researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), University College London and the University of Leeds carried out a ‘natural experiment’ evaluation to assess the impact on public health of free bus travel for young people.
“There was a lot of controversy about whether free bus travel for young people was a good idea at a time of austerity. This was a perfect opportunity to not just inform policy decisions in London and elsewhere, but also to understand in more detail how public transport contributes to healthy cities.”
Professor Judith Green, lead researcher for the ‘On The Buses’ study.
Social benefits for young people
Led by Judith Green, Professor of Sociology and Health at LSHTM (and now at the University of Exeter), the ‘On The Buses’ natural experiment analysed TfL travel data, interviews with the public and observations of the transport system to understand the behaviour and perceptions of people eligible for free passes. These records were then used to evaluate the policy’s impact on factors known to be important to wellbeing and health, including young people’s active travel and travel-related risks, their access to education, training and social activities, and the effects of young people’s increased access to bus travel on older citizens.
After interviewing nearly 170 young and older people, they found that free travel for young people was associated with an increase in short bus journeys, with fewer trips made by car or bicycle. This was linked to fewer road accidents involving children (from 1.5 per 1000 young people before free bus travel to 0.9 per 1000, mainly as car passengers or cyclists), and a fall in hospital admission rates. There was no strong evidence that the free bus scheme contributed to an increase in assaults in young people.
The team also found that the number of short trips (under 1km) taken on foot made up around 80% of all journeys and this remained unchanged by free bus travel. Rather than reduce the amount of walking overall, the free travel encouraged young people to take more trips independently. Professor Green explained this unexpected outcome, saying: “Although the proportion of short journeys young people took by bus increased, it did not reduce the amount of walking they did overall because they were making extra trips and getting out and about more often.”
“If I didn’t have free travel . . . I wouldn’t be going places. I would be probably staying quite local and through using free travel it means I can go places that I’ve always wanted to go.”
Young Londoner, aged 15-18 years, interviewed about bus use
Although keeping fit was not the priority for most of the young interviewees, social interaction with friends and being able to manage risks, such as having a means to get home or catch a bus to avoid risky situations, were closely linked with improved social wellbeing. A major benefit of free bus travel for all young people was that there was no stigma attached to travelling by bus as it was considered ‘normal’ to use them in London, regardless of their financial situation.
Dr Anna Goodman, recipient of an NIHR-funded post-doctoral fellowship to contribute to this research, and currently Assistant Professor at LSHTM, commented: "One key factor was that free travel is universally available, rather than means tested. Not only did this ensure free travel was not stigmatised, but it also meant groups of friends could travel together without anyone being left out." Free bus travel therefore had a major impact on equity, largely removing travel poverty as a constraint for social inclusion.
The study also addressed concerns that free travel for young people may cause older people to avoid bus travel due to overcrowding or intimidation. Although they preferred to avoid busy school and commuter periods, older people said they had not been discouraged from travelling by bus.
Professor Green went on to explain the environmental advantages of encouraging bus use among young people, saying: “Free bus travel is also important to the goal of reducing the use of cars. Considering that all cities are facing increased congestion and rising levels of traffic pollution, the introduction of free bus travel for young people is an example of a policy that has made hopping on the bus the norm while easing problems on the roads.”
Based on the study’s evidence the free travel policy appeared to be high value for money, with the costs being outweighed by the resulting fall in road traffic casualties, increased bus travel and reduced car trips. The results from “On The Buses” have been widely published, including in the journals Mobilities and Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Informing UK and international public health guidance and policies
Commenting on the study’s contribution to understanding the impact of the scheme, Professor Green said: “Free bus travel for young people has a mix of benefits overall for the public health, including future impacts from a generation of citizens growing up familiar with public transport, and able to access all the benefits of their city regardless of their family’s income. This was reassuring for many public health professionals, who had been concerned about the negative effects.”
The research team discussed their findings widely with commissioners and providers of bus services around areas of the UK, and with local authority public health professionals. TfL consulted the team during the development of a new strategy, the 2014 Transport Action Plan, in which it outlined the transport-related measures undertaken in London and highlighted the study’s findings of the health and social benefits of free travel. Scotland recently introduced a free bus travel scheme for those under 22 years old that shares the aligned objectives of London’s free travel policy, including the promotion of social inclusion for young people.
The study’s findings were also included in reviews of the role of free bus travel for older people. For example, their results supported a 2015 government review on the future of the UK’s ageing population, which highlighted the importance of free bus travel for older people in tackling chronic loneliness. Their results were also referenced in the 2015 NICE evidence review of independence and mental wellbeing in older people.
‘On The Buses’ has influenced policy and research internationally, with a 2015 Australian policy progress report on active transport for children and young people citing the study. A recent review of European government approaches to older people’s transport needs and a Canadian study investigating the health benefits of discounted public transport programmes for students have also referred to the study’s findings, which supported the need for affordable transport systems.
More recently, findings have informed a summary for policy makers on Global Warming by the World Meteorological Organization in 2018 and the Cycling and Walking Plan for England Department for Transport 2020, in which it promotes active travel, including bus use, as a measure to help prevent obesity and encourage healthy weight.