Free bus passes keep the elderly fit and healthy
21st September 2012
There have been long-standing rumours that the coalition government plan to scrap free bus passes to the over-60s and the disabled in an attempt to save on the £1.1 billion each year that the scheme costs. The initiative was first introduced in 2006 and enables holders to cost-free local bus travel after 09.30am on weekdays and all day long during weekends and public holidays. It means those who are eligible for the passes can relax slightly in regards to money worries in the grip of the UK’s double-dip recession. As David Cameron faces pressure to curb public spending, the scheme may be wiped out altogether though or be restricted on a means-tested basis where the person’s wealth would be studies prior to acceptance. However researchers from The Imperial College London have hit back at these plans. They argue the free bus pass scheme for the over-60s should remain and that it may even be more cost effective to stick with it in the long-term, saying it is ‘value for money’ amongst older people. The researchers analysed information they had obtained from the National Travel Survey which dated back to 2005, a year prior to the free travel coming into play. Their data ran through for two years after the scheme had been operating, to 2008. They studied the travel diaries and habits of 11,218 people who possessed a bus pass, against 5,693 who did not have one. The percentage of respondents with a free bus pass soared from 56.8% to 74.7% between 2005 and 2008. It was discovered that those with the bus passes were nearly four times more likely to engage in journeys via ‘active’ travel during the week they kept their diary, and were additionally found to be 15% more likely to report walking three or more times each week. The active travel was defined as walking, cycling or using public transport. Researchers segregated the bus pass holders into various sub-categories and determined that women over 70 years old and living in London or in urban areas were considerably more inclined to use buses and walk three or more times in a single week in comparison to those without the passes. The data that they examined to find these conclusions included varying socio-economic groups, indicating that both poorer and wealthier people were fully taking advantage of the scheme, meaning it encourages older people to become more physically active regardless of how wealthy they are. Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, led the study, and argues that the scheme is advantageous in terms of public health and that the government should take this into account before deciding to overhaul it. She commented, “Although the costs of the scheme are considerable, it may offer value for money as it seems to promote physical activity among older people, thereby helping to reduce inactivity-related mortality and morbidity. Given the need to encourage older people to be physically active, it’s good news that the provision of free bus passes seems to be having a positive impact. Before the government looks at reforming the scheme, they should make sure we understand its value to society. We would welcome more research in this area, such as a detailed cost analysis to establish whether the scheme represents good value for money.”