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Is pathetic public transport killing northern nightlife?

From uber-expensive taxis to scrapped night services, the UK is behind the curve when it comes to its after dark infrastructure. What’s really going on?

Kyle MacNeill
Written by
Kyle MacNeill

Long before the Dantean hangover or crushing comedown comes another conundrum after a night out: how the hell am I going to get home? For the lucky few living in enviable digs, the answer might be as easy as a swift stumble down the road from bar to bed. For most of us, though, we’re going to have to rely on a set of wheels. And unless you’re a Wish version of Bradley Wiggins giving it the big ’un on a Lime bike, you’re probably going to need someone else to help control said wheels. 

The journey back to our gaffs has never been more of a faff. Once the clock strikes double figures, a pre-planned route or some seriously thorough CityMapping is needed. The domino effect of these uprooted routes is fewer nights on the town – and it’s another nail in the coffers for late-night venues trying to stay open. 

And, even before midnight, public transport is properly mid – especially in cities outside of London. ‘After 11pm, businesses face a huge issue of dispersal,’ says Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA). ‘The night transport infrastructure in the majority of cities across the UK is very, very poor.’ The main nightmare? Councils across the UK threatening to stop night bus services.

Liverpool at night
Photograph: ShutterstockLiverpool at night

Over summer, Glasgow operator First Bus announced it was withdrawing its night buses due to there being ‘not enough appetite’ to justify running it. Luckily, thanks to pressure from local business owners, the NTIA and an agreement with McGill’s Buses, nine routes were reinstated – although three were still left on the scrapheapOther cities haven’t got over the hangover of the pandemic. In Liverpool, for example, the night bus service still hasn’t been reinstated, leading to a campaign for its return backed by 200 venues and MP Alison McGovern.

Leeds, meanwhile, is now the largest city in Western Europe without a mass transit system. ‘The buses are unusable for getting back from the clubs,’ says Robyn Gunn, social media manager for cult local nightclub Wire. ‘If I want to get from Wire to my house (3.2 miles apart) after an event ends, my only public transport option is a single, forty-minute bus at 1.22am, or else I have to wait for the next bus to leave at 5.00am,’ she says.

My only public transport option home is a single forty-minute bus at 1.22am, or else I have to wait for the next bus at 5.00am

A speedy train away in Manchester, the picture is a little brighter. Thanks to Andy Burnham’s new Bee Network, night buses run until late. No wonder local post-punk band Nightbus – named so because of singer Zac feeling like he lived on a constant loop while working at a Manchester club – rate it as ‘solid and cheap’. Of course – as ever – if you’re a lucky Londoner, with access to the (admittedly far from perfect) night tube and a total of 52 night bus services, you’re even better off. ‘If you live in the capital bubble you’re ahead of the game in terms of transport infrastructure,’ Kill says. ‘I think we’re somewhat spoiled by it.’ In 2018, Londoners enjoyed a £419 greater transport spend per head compared to Northerners – and while there isn’t any more recent comparable data, it feels like the divide that become even grimmer. The derailing of HS2, too, hasn’t exactly helped that image.

For those among us who love the serotonergic magic of the night bus – basking in the afterglow with fellow ravers – the death of the night bus deserves mourning. Nick Turpin, creator of underground photography project ‘On The Night Bus’, recognises the romance of those journeys. ‘It showed these very innocent, revealing moments where people were just being themselves and staring out of a window,’ he says. ‘There’s a camaraderie, almost a party spirit to them.’ 

A person in a night bus
Photograph: Nick Turpin

Night bus journeys are of course a two-way street, though. ‘Waiting around on the floor of a station then cracking a tinny on the first train home to see out the night can be a laugh if you have friends alongside you, and feeling pensive while listening to Burial on the night bus home is a classic,’ says Patrick Hinton, editor of ‘Mixmag’. ‘But falling asleep and waking up two hours from home in Milton Keynes or getting harassed are also possibilities.’

This lack of security is a major concern. ‘I personally avoid late-night public transportation whenever possible for safety,’ says the inimitably-named DJ Bus Replacement Service, who observed that night-time transport seemed a lot better in Berlin and Amsterdam. ‘I don’t know any female artists who would use it, and safeguarding of female, non-binary and trans artists needs to always be considered for gig logistics.’  Four of the top five most dangerous routes in London – based on how many times panic buttons are pressed – are night buses.

People are finding that Ubers don’t turn up and keep cancelling on them – that happening while you’re alone on a street corner at night is a risk

But what’s the sitch if you choose to swerve public transport? These days, Ubers are more expensive than ever due to demand outstripping supply, forcing punters to splurge cash on surge charges. There’s also a possibility that black cabs could also rise by 20 percent thanks to Uber pushing for minicab journeys to pay VAT, paving the way for even ranker prices at taxi ranks.

‘When Uber first came to Leeds, when I was still a student, it cost around a fiver to get to Wire from Hyde Park,’ says Gunn. ‘Now, that price has doubled.’ It’s a particular nightmare if you live anywhere more rural. Mainland rail services rarely run through the night, meaning punters going out in nearby cities and towns must face stomach-churning cab fares or a fight to keep their eyes open until 6am when trains restart. 

And while getting a cab might feel safer, it’s still not always fit for purpose. ‘Safety is definitely an issue,’ says Hinton. ‘People are regularly struggling to hire taxis, finding that Ubers don't turn up and keep cancelling on them. That happening while you’re alone on a street corner at night is a risk; people do suffer violence because of this.’ He points to a recent report showing that taxi shortages lead to fewer women feeling like they’re able to keep going clubbing.

A line of taxis
Photograph: Shutterstock

Many of us have also waved goodbye to weekend ravecations. Fancy going from Glasgow to London for a last-minute mega Saturday night at Drumsheds? That’ll cost you more than £100 even with a railcard (it’s actually cheaper by plane). For the majority of us, destination clubbing is now only for super special occasions – and even then there’s still a chance the only lights you’ll see are red ones while stuck stationary at Banbury.

All of this together means less money in the pockets of punters and a sickening ripple effect that’s running through nightlife like a dodgy pill. ‘It’s a perfect storm,’ Kill says. ‘We’re seeing the affordability to go out being limited and reducing the frequency of visits, which reduces the dwell time and spend. Transport is one component in driving this very difficult market.’ 

Staff can end up waiting in the venue for hours after we close for the taxi fares to drop to a reasonable price

It’s why many of us are choosing to spend time in rather than out. ‘Despite Leeds having a huge outer-city population, they have no way of getting home after a night out when the buses and trains stop before midnight,’ Gunn says, adding that the allure of the house party is growing. It’s been confirmed by student mag ‘The Tab’, who noted a trend of people hosting motives at home rather than heading out-out due to post-pandemic habits.

Sure, many partygoers will still club together to hop in a cab and take the hit. But for workers, the situation is even more dire. ‘Staff can end up waiting in the venue for hours after we close for the taxi fares to drop to a reasonable price,’ Gunn says. ‘If they manage to get a taxi but it costs more than £10, that’s an hour’s pay going on transport.’ Nightbus spin a similar story. ‘We’ve worked with people who spend £20 on an Uber just to get back from working at a gig. A lot of people just can’t face getting night buses home for varying reasons, so it’s a bit of a never ending spiral,’ they say.

A person in a night bus
Photograph: Nick Turpin

Should venues subsidise these? Unite’s Get Me Home Safely campaign is calling for employers to ensure safe transport for all their workers and to take some of the financial responsibility. ‘In an ideal world, employers would subsidise trensport or do some sort of deal with taxi companies for at least their more vulnerable staff to get home more safely,’ says DJ Bus Replacement Service.

But with many of the UK’s venues genuinely struggling to keep the lasers on – one report found that 31 percent of UK clubs were forced to permanently close their doors between June 2020 and June 2023, amounting to more than 100 independent venues – finding the cash to make this kind of change isn’t easy. It’s a vicious circle and is turning clubbing into an unnecessarily spenny hobby. ‘The cost of getting to a night out should never outweigh someone’s passion for supporting their local scene,’ says Gunn.

If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it will be thanks to punters and organisations like the NTIA pushing for local councils to reinstate night bus services, as demonstrated with their success in Glasgow. Otherwise, the city after dark will no longer be our Oyster – but a shell of what it once was.

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