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Study: London Seniors Thrive on Free Bus Travel


Free bus travel isn’t simply about getting from A to B: Many older citizens want to engage visibly in the public life of their community.

In the United Kingdom, adults aged 60 and up are entitled to free bus travel outside peak times.

Those residing in the boroughs of London have free access to all bus, tram and underground train services within the Greater London area with no time restriction. In addition, rail service is free at off-peak hours.

A recent study has found a wide cross-section of older Londoners rely on free bus travel for essential errands, social interaction and opportunities to actively participate in the life of their city.

The researchers reported their findings online in Ageing and Society on Nov. 6, 2012.

Benefits of free travel

The "freedom pass" got thumbs up from all the participants. Although the pass entitled users to free transport on a range of services, it was often simply called the bus pass, as this was the mode of transport used most often.

The study found older citizens used the pass for essential tasks such as shopping and getting to doctor’s appointments.

Free bus travel also had implications for physical well-being. Many said walking to and between bus stops provided exercise. Others traveled long distances to enjoy a day out.

"I very often take the bus to Banstead because that gets me out into the walking terrain, for footpaths . . . " said one participant. "I can walk for miles then into Surrey Hills."

Social interaction

Many older citizens stressed bus travel provided opportunities for meaningful social interaction.

"I get out every day because I get bored living alone in the flat," one participant said, "So I get out every day, catch the bus, sometimes two, three buses a day."

Others credited free travel with helping maintain long-established friendships: It meant friends could afford to go out more often.

One woman said: "So if we meet up somewhere and we use our freedom pass, we can even have a picnic lunch in the park and we can go there and we can do all the chatting and all the socializing we want and then go home."

The researchers found their bus journeys also provided currency for the stories they later shared with family, as well as opportunities to exchange views on how bus behaviour had changed over their lifetimes.

Many older citizens disliked mobile phones, eating on the buses and the general lack of civility. Yet most were tolerant of the downside of bus travel, and generally positive about young people’s behaviour.

Community visibility

For older citizens, a particularly important aspect of free bus travel was the ability to travel as part of the "general public," as opposed to transport reserved for seniors.

London has an extensive public transport network, and many Londoners choose the bus as their preferred mode of transport.

The freedom pass is indistinguishable from the card used by fare-paying travellers on the network. So riding the bus allowed older citizens to intermingle with a large cross-section of Londoners, including workers, school children and tourists. This made the freedom pass hugely popular with older people.

Indeed, these older citizens were proud of their ability to navigate the bus network and to tackle problems. For instance, they eased conflicts over space on buses by avoiding school hours or opting to use parts of the bus not used by children (downstairs on a double-decked bus or near the front).

"It doesn’t stop us," one senior said.