More than 1mn people have started taking bus journeys across the UK since March and cycling levels have risen to double their typical average, in the first signs that consumers are seeking alternatives to driving as fuel prices rise sharply.
The cost of filling an average car fuel tank passed £100 this week, leading motoring groups to call for further government support for drivers to help alleviate the worst cost of living squeeze in decades.
Early data indicate that bus usage and cycling have both risen sharply since March, when fuel prices began to rise following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The increase is also leading to a rise in online interest in electric cars and second hand bikes, as commuters seek to avoid higher fuel costs.
Zeelo, which runs technology that underpins employee bus services by companies such as Amazon and Ocado, said it had received hundreds of new inquiries since March from businesses looking to offer cheaper transport to staff to avoid losing them.
“People are specifically mentioning it in inquiries, fuel hikes are a major driver,” co-founder Sam Ryan said. “Their employees are becoming increasingly noisy about the cost of getting to work.”
Data from Transport Focus, a watchdog, found that the percentage of people taking a bus journey at least once a week rose from 12 per cent in the first week of March to 15 per cent in the final week of May.
The increase represents more than 1mn extra people taking bus journeys, according to Graham Vidler, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus industry.
“There is good evidence that demand for bus travel is continuing to increase,” he said, but added: “It’s harder to pin it on a switch from cars as a specific reason.”
Go-Ahead, one of the UK’s largest bus operators with 6,000 vehicles, has seen demand rise more quickly since the start of the latest fuel increase, compared with the growth seen last year.
Passenger numbers during the week have risen from “about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the turn of the year, and going into the spring, they are now into the high 70s”, said Phil Southall, bus performance director.
Go-Ahead’s figures match a nationwide pick-up that has been recorded in the Department for Transport’s daily data, which also show there has been a significant increase in cycling since March.
Cycling levels, which stayed at around pre-pandemic levels during the past two years, have climbed steeply in the past three months. On some weekdays since March, it has reached 200 per cent of what it was.
But the rise has yet to lead to an increase in new bike sales, according to Steve Garidis, executive director at the Bicycle Association, which represents the industry.
However, online marketplace eBay recorded a 27 per cent rise in searches for bikes from March to May, compared with December to February.
About one in three people who currently cycle began in lockdown, according to findings from law firm Bott and Co, which carried out research for the She Can Ride cycling campaign.
The rise in fuel prices has also led to increased searches for electric cars, as consumers committed to motoring seek fuel-saving alternatives.
On Wednesday evening, when motoring groups warned of petrol prices approaching £2 a litre, more than one in five of all new car adverts viewed on the Auto Trader website was for an electric vehicle.
“The soaring cost of petrol and diesel in recent months had already driven rising interest in electric vehicles, but the new reality of £2 a litre has taken that to new levels,” said Ian Plummer, Auto Trader commercial director.