Who makes use of free travel in practice – and to travel where? What are the health implications? What free travel are pensioners entitled to? How much does it cost to provide this? What are the pros and cons of this being a universal benefit rather than means tested?
Who makes use of free travel in practice – and to travel where?
Three quarters of over 60s in England had taken up concessionary fare passes by 2009 and 39% said they used a local bus at least once a week. That’s according to the House of Commons Select Transport Committee
The figure in Scotland was slightly higher, at over 80% according to the Scottish Government – with usage highest among those with low incomes (ie less than £10,000 pa).
Research commissioned by Age UK showed that the proportion of trips made by bus increased with age and that women were more likely than men to own a travel pass. It also showed that the main reasons for not owning a travel pass and for infrequent use of a pass were reasonably predictable ie owning a car, health problems and infrequent local bus services.
The sources already quoted suggest a similar picture across the UK ie free travel is used:
- For shopping (eg food and clothes)
- To visit family and friends and for days out/sightseeing
- For healthcare (to visit the GP or for hospital appointments)
- For education and work ( a smaller percentage)
What are the health implications?
Physical activity is important for older people, to reduce the risk of potentially serious health problems. That’s why some researchers have become interested in ‘incidental’ physical activity. Unlike conscious physical activity, like going swimming, this is physical activity as a bi product of some other purpose, like going to the shops or visiting friends. Public transport is a good example. Unless the bus stop is outside your front door you need to walk to it and then walk again at the other end, whereas driving a car may simply be a door to door experience. This was the focus of research at Imperial College London, published in 2019.
‘Older people who used public transport had reduced odds of being obese in 2008 compared with those who did not. The introduction of free bus travel for older residents in England appears to have increased public transport use and may have conferred a protective effect against obesity.’ That’s the conclusion from Imperial College’s research published in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
NHS Choices reviewed this research and found some limitations in the way it had been conducted. For example it provided a snapshot in time, showed an association but didn’t prove cause and effect, and relied on people self reporting their mode of travel. However, NHS Choices did note that this was a large study (nearly 17,000 people over a 4 year period) based on comprehensive, detailed data. It also commented, ‘Even a small amount of physical activity is known to reduce the risk of disability in older people. And while the national free bus pass scheme is estimated to cost taxpayers around £1 billion a year, the annual health costs associated with disability and physical inactivity far outweigh that at an estimated £10.7 billion.’
The evidence from Scotland is more mixed, with only a marginal increase in walking since free travel was introduced – although people surveyed believed the scheme had helped them develop a more active lifestyle.
There is also a possible psychological health benefit. Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published in 2014, reported, ‘For many, the Pass was also described as an indispensable aid to a healthy lifestyle, in that it provided an easy way to meet and chat with other people, and feel part of everyday life in the city. Because the bus pass is for everyone, and was seen by older people as having been ‘earned’, it was a way to defend against loneliness and engage in social life. Free bus travel was therefore seen by many older people as extremely important, for both their physical and their social well being.’
There are potential knock on effects from psychological to physical health. For example loneliness tends to predispose to illness, as does social exclusion. As Age UK comments ‘Disadvantage is not just about being poor; but also about being unable to access the things in life that most of society takes for granted. This includes having close friends and regular company, stimulating activity, and easy access to important services, such as GPs, shops and post offices. Being able to get out and about makes many of these activities possible.’
What free travel are pensioners entitled to?
In England this covers local bus travel between 9.30 am and 11.00 pm. Originally available to over 60’s this is in the process of being limited to the over 65s.
In London arrangements are more generous. Free, all day travel is available on buses, the Tube and trams (plus local trains after 9.30 am). Transport for London has also maintained this benefit from the age of 60 (on payment of a £10 administration fee for those aged 60 – 64).
In Scotland there is free local and (Scottish) long distance bus travel for all over 60’s (provided they apply for a National Entitlement Card). Similar free provision for over 60’s applies in Wales.
In Northern Ireland the 60+/Senior Smart Pass provides free travel on buses and trains.
How much does it cost to provide this?
In England the cost for older people and people with disabilities was £898 million in 2018. That’s according to the government’s Concessionary Travel Statistics. No breakdown is provided specifically for the cost for older people. However this is likely to be the majority of the figure quoted, as 92% of passes were issued to older people.
Equivalent figures for Scotland and Wales are £181 million (for 2008- 2009) and £68 million (for 2009 – 2010) respectively – according to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly. These figures are expected to rise as the population of older people grows.
That suggests a total cost of at least £1 billion across the UK to provide free travel for older people.
What are the pros and cons of this being a universal benefit rather than means tested?
In theory means testing could save government money, particularly with the number of older people set to rise over the coming years – either helping to reduce government borrowing or to free up resources for other areas of need.
For example Scotland’s former Auditor General, Robert Black, estimates that the concessionary travel scheme in Scotland alone could cost close to half a billion pounds by the 2020’s. However, this would be the cost of all concessionary travel (not just for older people) and it includes rising costs due to annual inflation. Also, to put the figure in context Mr Black estimates that the cost of health and social care for people over 65 in Scotland will rise to £3.6 billion pa by 2030 – so it would be important to consider the health implications of maintaining or removing free travel (considered earlier in this article).
In practice not all pensioners have travel passes. And those pensioners who have disabilities may well qualify for a pass on disability as opposed to age grounds.
Means testing would also cost money to administer, although no one seems to know how much.
There could also be unintended consequences of means testing. One could be an adverse effect on local businesses (one witness to the House of Commons Select Transport Committee noted that many local shops said business had really improved since the passes came in). Another could be an increase in car usage, resulting in more traffic congestion and pollution (as some of those who no longer have passes but have cars use them instead of buses). Social division and inequality could also be exacerbated (with bus travel increasingly perceived as being for the poor and thus the option of last resort). Bus services themselves could be reduced, leaving some older people more isolated or dependent on cars (as there would be less government reimbursement to bus companies for concessionary travel). Health and social care costs could also rise - as indicated earlier, initial evidence is limited and sometimes open to question but suggests that using public transport is beneficial to physical and mental health for older people.
In Wales for example, research for the Older People’s Commissioner suggests that if bus passes were not available just under half of the older people surveyed would pay to continue using the bus but they would make fewer visits to family and friends and have fewer days out/sightseeing. Around a third would switch to using cars.
- Some form of free travel is available to state pensioners across the UK, with London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making the most generous provision.
- This currently costs the taxpayer at least £1 billion in transport subsidies and costs are likely to rise as the population ages – so it is understandable that governments might wish to review arrangements.
- Those most likely to use concessionary travel tend to be older, female and poorer.
- Those least likely to use concessionary travel tend to be car owners, live in areas with poor local bus services or have health/mobility problems (although some of the latter may use free specialist transport).
- In principle means testing could save the government money – although no one currently knows how much, as means testing costs money to administer.
- More research is needed but initial indications are that universal concessionary travel for older people tends to encourage exercise and social inclusion, with beneficial effects for both mental and physical health.
- There also appear to be business, social and environmental benefits arising from concessionary travel – plus potential help in containing health and social care expenditure.
Michael Baber, Reviewed 2020