Rural bus services are being hit hard by local government spending reductions. Many such services are used partly or primarily for leisure, some are supported by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks or other local authorities and make easy prey for budget cuts. Their supporters would point to their value: providing socially inclusive access to natural areas, promoting health and wellbeing, replacing car journeys, bringing spending to local rural economies and claim they offer exceptional value for money. Yet there is no standardised method of evaluating these benefits against the costs of providing the services.
This paper reports on an ESRC funded project to measure the benefits of individual services and the results of surveys in seven pilot areas in the season of 2010. The package developed includes a survey template and a programme to help input the data and produce instant reports on performance. The paper also presents the results of an exercise involving practitioners and policy makers (April 2011) to determine the relative value of benefits (converting apples, pears, bananas and raspberries into a common measure of ‘fruit’) and their views about alternative sources of funding for leisure buses such as tourism taxes and business levies. The next step in the project is to develop tools to extrapolate the survey findings to estimate the total benefits of the service for a year or season and compare them to the total costs.
Once developed, the tools will have application for most rural transport services and will allow comparative evaluations of the relative benefits and costs of bus, train and taxi services. The paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using such a framework and whether it can be trusted to give ‘the right answers’, especially in a time of changing values and priorities.
Summary With rural buses under threat, how can we decide which ones provide value for money? Our package (survey template, inputting and reporting programme) records the benefits (modal shift, social inclusion, health, local spending) of rural buses used for leisure trips. Thus benefits can be evaluated against costs for public transport and other services. We present the results and dilemmas of an exercise to determine the relative value of benefits and findings from seven pilot areas. Alternative sources of funding (eg tourism taxes, business levies) and the pros and cons of using the evaluation framework in political decisions are discussed.