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Bus and Coach Registrations Reach Lowest Recorded Level as Continued Pandemic Causes Fall in Ridership

2021 recorded a year-on-year drop of 16.8% against 2020, with 3,649 vehicles hitting UK roads. Double-deck buses, in particular, fell by over a third (35.4%), cementing the overall decline. With the final quarter seeing a 31.6% drop, this marks the lowest number on record of registrations since registrations began in 1996, in statistics released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Sector Looking to Bus Back Better Government Fund and Levelling up Ambitions to See Recovery of Ridership Going Forward

The last quarter saw some fairly noticeable drops, with all sectors affected. Double-deck buses fell by 58.7% to record 88 registrations in the fourth quarter, single-deck buses saw a 33.1% drop to 237 units, and minibuses up to 3.5 tonnes recorded a 38% drop. The 558 units, however, helped the total volume of sales reach 883. For the final year haul, minibuses recorded a smaller drop of 17.1% (2,315 units), which constituted a total of 66.8%. Single-deck buses almost broke even with a mere 0.5% drop (751 units), and double-deck buses saw that 35.4% drop to end the year with 401 units registered. 

As the SMMT put it simply, this is the worst year since records began as ridership failed to pick up and return to pre-pandemic levels. 

There are a few significant factors for these figures. The ongoing Covid-19 restrictions is one element. In 2021 there was a 17% drop in ridership levels, which affected demand, even though demand was impacted heavily in 2020. To add further context, the figures have dropped around a quarter from 2019. As well as reduced demand, operators are facing significant financial constraints. With the emergency government funding to support routes during the pandemic scheduled to end in April, the short-term challenges for operators are significant.

Additionally, the Local Government Association recently suggested that up to a third of existing routes could be cut. Given the sector also faces the challenge of decarbonising its entire fleet as part of the plan to achieve net-zero, the need for government incentives to invest in new, greener vehicles is greater than ever.

With the recent publication of the Levelling Up White Paper, there is a move to bridge the gap between the extensive public transport in London compared with other parts of the UK. Payments from the Bus Back Better Fund will provide a conducive atmosphere for new investment to help safeguard the sector and meet new and ambitious green goals in the UK.

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, acknowledged the role of the pandemic, arguing that the figures are an alarm call. “The sector, and the millions of people who depend on it for essential mobility, is at a critical juncture, as Covid-19 has led to declining ridership which, in turn, has damaged demand for new fleet investments. We need the Bus Back Better programme to release funds to support the sector and for the investment to be made urgently. If we are to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions whilst keeping society and the economy moving, operator confidence and fleet renewal are essential.”

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