Our fragmented network of rural bus services provides around 267 million journeys each year, connecting those in the most isolated of areas with local hubs. Buses are arguably the UK’s most integrated transport network. However, while this is true, our rural services are increasingly underfunded with a reduction in spending of £107 million from 2011 to 2017. With most rural services being underused outside of commuter hours, they rely on these government subsidies to function. These rural bus services are now disappearing at an alarming rate, with a report in 2018 stating 3,000 services had been cut since 2010. This is leaving many people, young and old, without proper connectivity.
With the arrival of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown millions of elderly and vulnerable people throughout the country have been isolating in their homes. Of the 11.4 million people in the UK living in rural areas, 51% of these are in a high-risk age bracket. Additionally, the number of 45 – 64-year-olds living alone has increased by 50% in the last 20 years. This group of people can find themselves struggling from a lack of a familial or local support networks to provide them with the basic necessities they need to live in their own homes. In rural areas, with a shortage of local shops and supermarkets, this requires vulnerable people to travel on the bus services – against government advice to reach the nearest shop. This comes at a great detriment to their own health and wellbeing.
How Bus+ can help
Bus+ is a proposal that seeks to utilise the connective aspects of the bus services to deliver goods and services to those vulnerable and elderly people who would otherwise find it extremely difficult to acquire them. The current underfunded and underused bus services would be used to create an integrated fleet of vehicles capable of delivering people and produce to isolated areas. A large majority of the services are unused outside of commuter hours, leaving ample opportunity to harness the vehicles for other purposes, supporting wider areas of the community. At first, the scheme would work as follows:
- Buses running along a prescribed route would be reorganised to include the delivery of goods to local hubs in the rural areas.
- The local hubs would run under a community-based initiative, connecting the goods to isolated individuals who are unable to travel long distances.
- The scheme could run on a subscription basis where, for example, local grocery businesses and restaurants, would supply goods which could be delivered out to vulnerable people.
- Packages could include fresh ingredients and easily-followed recipes to limit waste, delivering healthy, sustainable and locally-sourced food, providing the user with a complete service.
- This would massively benefit the vulnerable population in isolation and would make optimum use out of struggling bus services and while supporting local businesses that have struggled over the course of the pandemic.
Bus+ operates on a similar structure to that seen in the Border Courier service in Scotland. This was a service which ran along an agreed route, that enabled medical supplies to be transported between hospitals and surgeries while also transporting passengers to destinations along the route. While this proposal demonstrates an ability to utilise existing infrastructure to serve another area of the community, it lacks flexibility.
A single service running along a rigid system makes it difficult to employ other functions into the service, limiting possibilities to expand into a wider proposal for public development. Bus+ implementing a nationally integrated scheme would mean a network of services would participate in communal economies of scale. Potentially harnessing the network of multiple routes and vehicles to increase outreach, or even begin to innovate in the new era of home delivery.
A Community Scheme
Community bus services are already in use where there is low availability of funding. The Bus+ network would harness community support through volunteering programmes, keeping costs as low as possible. For example,
- Volunteers could be encouraged from the thousands of students currently residing at home and idle in between semesters.
- Use of the DofE expedition, a major scheme aiming to involve younger people in their locality, could become an easier source of voluntary work, and would help support children living in isolated areas, they themselves completing their award.
While the physical effects of the pandemic have deeply impacted the elderly, the mental implication of anyone isolating for such a period of time have also become clear. Having little to no interaction with others for this extended period has had an extreme impact on the large population of vulnerable people across the country, especially those living alone.
Bus services assisting a community led programme like Bus+ could also reconnect these people and give them the social interaction they need, establishing a services to run as lockdown restrictions ease. This could be implemented in a number of ways, such as:
- Local book and puzzle swaps could be introduced along the services producing a book club between participants who can exchange details and discuss over the phone.
- Elderly users could be connected with volunteer participants to create much-needed social interaction. This has been successfully achieved in other schemes such as the Good Neighbour Scheme set up in Winsford, connecting vulnerable residents with those willing and able to help.
- Eventually the common bus stop could be reimagined, itself becoming a social hub in the local area, creating a location to connect people in the most isolated areas of the countryside.
The benefits beyond lockdown
Moving forward with the easing of lockdown restrictions does not necessarily mean everyone is safe. Vulnerable people are expecting to endure extended periods of isolation as a precaution for those with various illnesses or ailments attributed to aging. Alternatively, areas of the UK are still facing large COVID-19 infections such as Leicester which has been faced with a counteractive extended lockdown period. This has caused many small villages to remain shut off, negatively impacting those already isolating when schemes set up to support them have already been reduced. Until a vaccine is found we are likely to live with a series of localised lockdowns for a long time to come. Establishing the infrastructure now will create more resilience for the future, both in terms of protecting vulnerable communities, but also the local businesses and bus services that are struggling as a result of the lockdown.
Providing an innovative new service throughout rural areas that benefits those in need is the first step in bringing a community together. Working alongside under-funded bus routes, Bus+ gives these services a strategic importance in the wider public infrastructure of the UK. Saving these bus services is instrumental in countering the perception that rural areas are separate from the urban narrative, and hence the wider national society. While this scheme aims to support those susceptible to the immediate issues arising from isolation, the principles outlined here are ones which would embed community in rural areas, and that is something that would last a lifetime.