A new study finds having free bus passes encourages older people to be more physically active, which is known to benefit health, adding weight to the argument that proposals to scrap the scheme as a way for the government to save money could result in a false economy.

Passes (special ID cards for travelers) giving people aged 60 and over the right to ride on local buses free of charge after the commuter rush on weekdays and all day on weekends and public holidays, were introduced in England in 2006. The scheme, which costs £1.1 bn a year, is currently under threat from government proposals to scrap it, or for it to be means-tested.

Researchers from Imperial College London investigated physical activity linked to the use of the bus pass in the over-60s by analyzing four years of data from a national travel survey. They write about their findings in the 20 September online issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Senior author Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College, and colleagues, analyzed UK National Travel Survey data from 2005, the year before free bus passes came in, up to 2008. The data came from 16,911 survey respondents aged 60 or over in England.

Their results show that people with a bus pass are more likely to participate in “active travel”, which includes walking, cycling, and using public transport.

This was true across socio-economic groups, suggesting that all income groups are benefiting equally from the bus pass scheme.

The researchers also found that the biggest factor tied to not using active travel is having access to a car.

Among active travelers, those living in large urban areas are more likely to use public transport, while those living in rural areas or small towns are more likely to walk.

Policymakers in public health now believe that daily accumulation of a few minutes here and a few minutes there of “incidental” exercise, such as walking to and from bus stops, may be significant in keeping people fit.

In Britain, there is evidence that active travel alone is how 19% of adults get their recommended daily exercise.

Studies show that older people who are physically active are more likely to have better mental wellbeing, be more mobile, have greater muscle strength, experience fewer falls and fractures, and have lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to less physically active peers.

And some show that as little as 15 minutes of moderate exercise a day is linked to a 12% reduction in risk of death in people over 60.

Coronini-Cronberg says in a press statement:

“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.”

When the proposals for scrapping or changing the over-60s free bus to a means-tested scheme were first raised, there was a strong reaction, with many saying the scheme not only helps low income groups access travel, but it also reduces social exclusion in older people.

Now the authors suggest another factor, the benefits for public health, should also be taken into account.

Before the government looks at reforming the scheme, they should make sure we understand its value to society,” urges Coronini-Cronberg.

“We would welcome more research in this area, such as a detailed cost analysis to establish whether the scheme represents good value for money,” she adds.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD