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The health benefits of bus passes

Added: 10 October 2012 | Updated: 11 October 2012

Two recent reports have highlighed the economic and health benefits of the bus pass.

Research published in the American Journal of Public Health has suggests that the UK’s free bus pass scheme “may offer value for money“, because of its associated health benefits, while a report by the National Pensioners Convention has shown that the bus pass enables pensioners to participate in their local economy and to volunteer.

The bus pass has been under attack in recent weeks. Conservative MP Nick Boles has proposed limiting bus passes to poorer pensioners, and at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hit out at “giving free bus passes ....to Alan Sugar and Peter Stringfellow“.

But researchers at Imperial College London have concluded that “public subsidies enabling free bus travel for older persons may confer significant population health benefits through increased incidental physical activity.” This effect was seen across socio-economic groups.

The researchers examined the travel patterns of 11,218 people with a free bus pass and 5,693 without a pass, from 2005 to 2008. They found that people with a bus pass were more likely to take part in active travel (walking, cycling or using public transport) three or more times a week. The public health benefits of regular physical activity are widely recognised.

Value for money

Coronini-Cronberg, who led the study, said:

“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.”

“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.“

Savings to the NHS

The scheme costs around £1.1billion in the UK, but research has shown that physical activity has benefits to mobility, mental wellbeing and muscle strength in older people, reducing the risk of falls and fractures and cardiovascular disease. Falls in the over 65s age category are estimated to cost the NHS £4.6million a day.

The study, which looked at travel behaviour before and after the introduction of bus passes, also suggested that “poor access” and “poor pedestrian access of neighbourhoods” may play a part in reducing physical activity.

Benefits to the local economy

Here in London, the Freedom Pass which gives free access to the Tube and some rail services as well as buses, is hugely appreciated by our members. It not only confers health and wellbeing benefits to individuals, but also enables people to stay active members of society, participating in civic life, volunteering and childcare, with huge benefits to society.

The National Pensioners Convention recently published a report, Sir Alan Sugar and the Missing Bus Pass, arguing that the economic contribution of pensioners to society, both in tax revenue and the socio-economic contribution of their unpaid work, vastly outweighs Government expenditure on the bus pass.

Dot Gibson, of the National Pensioners Convention, said: “The truth is that every year pensioners contribute £40bn to society in the form of taxes, voluntary work and unpaid caring. Removing the bus pass from everyone for example would raise just £1bn, but would lead to increased isolation and social exclusion amongst the elderly; ultimately costing more in the long run with higher demands on social services and the NHS.“

Using a survey of 3000 pensioners, the report shows that 45% of bus pass use enabled older people to contribute directly into their local economy through shopping, banking, eating out and visiting museums and other facilities. A further 25% of bus travel was used to carry out voluntary work and unpaid caring, whilst the remaining 30% of travel was used to stay healthy (visiting swimming baths/keep fit classes), avoid isolation and improve well-being (visiting friends and family). By doing so this was indirectly reducing the demand and cost on social care and support.