Are Concessionary Fares Fair?

One of the key points of the 2013 Autumn Statement is that those in their 40s will now wait until they are 68 to receive their state pension and those in their 30s will wait until 69. At least, it’s a key point assuming that there is no further erosion of pension benefits over the next 25 years or so whilst those affected get on with aging over the course of their slightly longer working lives. Yet there’s another, related point that neither made the list nor was mentioned in the Autumn Statement itself. Therefore, few people in their 30s and 40s are likely to be aware that the same age definition applies to the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), otherwise known as the free bus pass.

Everyone of pensionable age is eligible for such a bus pass, which allows them to, at a minimum, travel for free on any local bus in the country between 9:30 and 23:00 on weekdays and any time on weekends. Many local areas offer even longer hours or more types of eligible public transport or other perks. None of this is means tested and the political implications of leaving the grey vote alone did not go unnoticed when, as part of austerity measures, child benefit became means tested and other ‘universal benefits’ like libraries and leisure centres were subject to cuts.

So is the ENCTS fair? Is it fair if someone who is wealthy, working and of pensionable age can travel for free, whilst other people cannot afford the fares, but are too young to receive assistance? If this benefit is about the cost of bus travel, then maybe it’s just another example of the good fortune the baby boomers enjoy whilst their children wait longer to get less. Yet, I believe this might be an oversimplified response.

Perhaps the ENCTS is not about affordability, but sustainability. The public transport network can’t afford for everyone to travel for free, but we want more people to use public transport, so let’s allow some people to travel for free. Such logic is not necessarily bad policy. However, why choose the elderly? Surely it would make more sense in terms of sustainable transport promotion if young people were given the free ride. Catch them before they get a car or even a license to drive; they might develop the habit to become fare-paying passengers later. Yet although there are concessionary fares schemes for young people in various places, this is not part of the national scheme.

However, there is one more possibility. Another group besides pensioners are eligible for free bus passes nationally: those with physical impairments or disabilities that usually prevent them from driving. So maybe the ENCTS is about neither affordability nor sustainability, but about health and accessibility. For those who cannot drive, bicycle and in some cases cannot walk any significant distance, a taxi, a friendly lift or public transport are the means available to reach shops, services and even employment. For those who cannot afford taxis or have no one to provide lifts, public (or charity) transport is the only option.

Many pensioners have as few if not fewer options than those with disabilities to move about our towns and cities. For most of us, with aging comes infirmity. Driving is not as safe, steps are not as steady. Partners and friends pass away, children move away. The isolation of the elderly is a recognised and growing problem. A free bus pass can offer an incentive and a lifeline to independence. And with the ability to move around can come improved health or at least slower degeneration.

Therefore, the ENCTS does fulfil a logical policy goal as well as politically pandering to a high-voting demographic. But if the ENCTS is about accessibility and health after all, it is a sensible move to increase the age of eligibility as people stay healthier for longer. Maybe those of us in our 30s and 40s should not be concerned about this hidden benefit change in the Autumn Statement after all.

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