Why are older people staying away?

Informed analysis backed by the use of real-world data and machine learning is going to become ever-increasingly important in accelerating the recovery of bus patronage.

In the second part of our series on how important passenger demand data is to operators, we look at a market segment that is proving more resistant to returning to public transport - older people. It’s one of many changes to passenger demand since the pandemic, but it’s also one of the most significant, and it’s vital to have the right data when responding to it.

Once lockdown restrictions were eased and lifted around the world and passenger demand for public transport returned, it soon became clear that one group of former users were missing. The elderly were shunning public transport.

It appears to be a global phenomenon, and a variety of potential explanations have been offered. 

In the UK, for example, bus travel is free for those aged 60 and over in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and from the State Pension age in the rest of England. However, these concessionary travelers have cut their bus use by around twice as much as their fare-paying counterparts.

Addressing the ALBUM Conference in Blackpool in April Graham Vidler, Chief Executive of the UK bus and coach trade association CPT, said: “I look at the demand figures every morning and they show you what demand looks like compared to pre-pandemic, and overall, across the country and all groups, it’s about 80% and has been for some time. That disguises a pretty big difference between 85% or so of fare paying passengers and 70% - less in some areas - for concessionary travelers. So, it’s a big issue that needs to be dealt with.”

Looking ahead, Vidler predicted that fare-paying passengers will reach 90% of pre-Covid numbers by October, when emergency Covid support will end in England, but only 75% for concessionary travelers.

Representing Britain’s small and medium-sized bus operators, Bill Hiron, chair of ALBUM and managing director of Stephensons of Essex, countered: “I’m a little bit more pessimistic ... I am very afraid that concessionary numbers might not go much above 65%, maybe 70%. And fare payers ... in some areas if we get higher than 80% I shall be pretty pleased.”

The predictions may differ but one thing was consistent - concessionary travelers will continue to lag behind for the foreseeable future.

A number of speakers speculated on the reason for the absence of older passengers.

“It seems to me that what’s happened is that discretionary travel has almost entirely stopped among that group,” said Vidler. “People are still going on the journeys they need to go on, to go shopping, to go to the doctor, to visit family, but the idea of taking a discretionary journey seems to have disappeared.”

Industry analyst Chris Cheek of Passenger Transport Monitor, added: “We are in a position where we’ve still got high infection levels and that more than anything, I think, is putting concessionary travelers like me off. There is still a fear of infection among elderly people, particularly those who have sheltered for two years and got away with it and now don’t want to catch it.”

Meanwhile, Alex Warner, Managing Director of Tracsis Transport Consultancy also addressed the event, and told bus operators that they had overlooked the needs of their older customers for too long and urged them to formulate strategies for winning them back.

In a subsequent column in Passenger Transport, he said: “Research is key. When did you last hear of a bus company doing a study into the needs of the elderly market, let alone on a segmented basis differentiating between types of concessionary fares customers? With older people, we just generalize, lumping them as one and rarely, if ever, surveying their needs. We’re no better than wider society which just thinks of them as wearing beige, grumbling a lot and being dinosaurs in their thinking.”

There is no doubt that an emphasis in more research is critical in order to resolve this issue. Changes in passenger demand, like the loss of travel by the elderly, present a huge challenge to bus operators. They need to be closely monitored and understood. It is therefore important to have the very latest industry-specific data technology to hand when planning bus networks.

CitySwift’s Mobility Intelligence as a Service platform is designed to give bus network managers the insights they need to adapt their networks and services to the rapidly evolving landscape of the post Covid-19 era. Integrating seamlessly with existing systems to avoid the potential pitfalls of creating potentially costly silos, CitySwift blends GPS, scheduling and ticketing data to create new insights into network movement and performance.

Data-rich insight is the tool that will mark the successful bus operator from the unsuccessful in this new era. So it’s time to get onboard.

Learn more about CitySwift’s Mobility Intelligence platform, request a demo or contact us to discover how CitySwift can help you run a network based on the most comprehensive picture of the latest passenger movements.