Wales’ car dependency threatens Senedd’s green agenda

People in Wales are using less public transport than their British neighbours, according to data, as their Government plans for a future with less road-building.

BUS journeys in Wales fell by around a quarter in the decade leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This trend began in 2008 when the average person in Wales took 43 bus journeys a year. By 2019, this number had fallen to 29 journeys every year, the lowest in three decades.

The slump was further accelerated by the pandemic, with journeys dipping below 17 per person in 2021.

In the year to March 2022, the average Welsh person took fewer bus trips than their Scottish and English counterparts

This trend isn’t unique to Wales, with similar decreases in bus usage seen in Scotland and England. However, numbers are especially low in Wales, with the average person now making less than half the bus trips of their Scottish and English counterparts.

There’s a similar pattern when it comes to rail travel, even though British rail passenger numbers seem to be more resilient over time. The average Welsh person still takes less than half the local trips of a Scot or English person – a gap that only widens when you include cross-region train travel.

In 2022, the average Welsh person took just over three local train journeys, far fewer than the eight and 10 taken by the average Scot and English person, respectively.

In fact, the only areas of Britain that are more train-averse than the Welsh are in the similarly-decoupled east of England.

Lower usage of public transport means less ticket revenue which, in turn, means that it requires more investment to maintain levels of service. 

Lee Waters MS, the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, told the Senedd this year “We face a number of pressures at the moment. We have rising costs, reduced funding and clearly the public transport sector, both rail and bus, has not recovered from the pandemic. So, it is costing us more to run services.”

This greater cost burden has to either be passed on to the remaining bus riders or taken on by the companies. Fare prices have risen across Britain, albeit at a slower pace in Wales. While fares are 80-90% higher in Scotland and England, compared to 2005, they have only risen by 75% in Wales.

On the other hand, Welsh bus companies have had to significantly downsize in terms of staff. In 2022, there was one bus company employee for every 780 people in Wales, down from one for every 590 people in 2005. In Scotland, the 2022 ratio was around one to every 500, while in England it was one to every 640.

Wales has significantly fewer bus employees per person than Scotland and England

This trend doesn’t just pose an existential threat to Wales’ public transport sector; it also jeopardises the Welsh Government’s environmental goal of reducing the nation’s reliance on cars. As Mr Waters put it: “We know that, for generations, we’ve been favouring investment into road schemes while neglecting public transport, and we’ve seen usage decline.”

People in Wales drive more than those in England or Scotland, with the latest data showing that the average person in Wales drove more than 5,000 miles in 2021, whereas the average driver covered less than 4,500 miles in England and just under 5,000 miles in Scotland. This is a gap that has existed since at least 1993. 

Driving has increased over time. Before the pandemic, the average Welsh person was covering around 6,000 miles per year, which was a 27-year high among countries in Britain. 

Over the past 30 years, Wales has been consistently more dependent on cars than England or Scotland

The Welsh Government is trying to replace car use with greener alternatives like public transport or walking and cycling. It’s doing this through local policies like the proposed Cardiff clean air zone, and national ones like the national restriction on road building.

However, if the numbers are anything to go by, relatively-high car dependency could make this transition more painful for Wales than it will be for other areas of Britain.