Rural bus services at risk have hit a new low after losing funding after the pandemic, analysis for the councils has shown.
More than a quarter of routes in counties and rural areas of England have been lost over the past decade as passenger numbers have fallen sharply.
Local authority leaders have urged the government to review the funding it has made available post-Covid, saying the bulk of the £1.1billion ultimately granted under the national bus strategy went to cities and urban areas.
A report commissioned by the County Councils Network found that urban areas had received two-thirds of funding to improve bus services, despite the faster decline of rural routes.
The 37 largest county and rural authorities, representing almost half of England’s population, received just 10 per cent – £363m – of the bus service improvement plan funding they had bid for , with urban areas receiving £739m.
It is the latest in a series of calls from transport authorities and campaigners for the government to provide sustainable funding for buses. Operators have threatened to abandon more routes, with many cash-strapped councils withdrawing subsidies that had supported unprofitable but necessary services.
The councils said more investment was needed to make buses more punctual, green and reliable in parts of the county, and urged the government to make the £2 fare cap a permanent feature.
Between 2010 and 2022, the kilometers traveled by vehicles in rural municipalities fell by 26.5%, the decline accelerating during the pandemic. Last year, there were 44% fewer passenger journeys in rural or departmental areas than in 2010, going from 780 to 435 million per year.
The report calls on the government to launch a new round of funding for improvement plans and set clear criteria on how allocations are decided.
Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst, transport spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said: ‘Buses have long been a lifeline for many people in rural areas, particularly the elderly and the disadvantaged. . But too many services are patchy at best and non-existent at worst. The pandemic has accelerated the downward trend in usage and rides are now at an all-time low.
He said councils had had “high hopes” for the government’s National Bus Strategy, but many now felt disappointed.
The report came as the passenger watchdog unveiled research showing that more than a third of elderly and disabled concession bus pass holders have been using buses less since the pandemic.
According to 2,500 users surveyed by Transport Focus, the cost of living crisis and shopping street closures as well as the continued fear of Covid are factors for some, but route cuts and less reliable services are more cited.
David Sidebottom, a director of Transport Focus, said older and disabled people had spoken of feeling “trapped and isolated” as services were cut. “However, our research also indicated that where improvements were made to bus services, passengers noticed and started to use the buses more,” he added.