The number of people travelling by bus in Birmingham and the West Midlands has risen for the first time in decades, reversing a decline which is continuing in other parts of the country.

Passenger transport authority Centro said passenger numbers rose by 5.1 million to 330.5 million in the year to the end of September 2008.

In the year ending March 2008, passengers fell by about 200,000.

The figures show that travelling by bus is more popular in the West Midlands than any of the other large conurbations outside of London.

Centro chief executive Geoff Inskip said the increase called into question a recent report by thinktank, the Centre for Cities, which claimed that passengers were abandoning buses because of a failure to provide good services at cheap prices. According to the Centre for Cities, West Midlands residents made an average 37 bus journeys a year in 1997 but only 32 journeys today.

Mr Inskip said multi-million pound investment in better buses was beginning to pay dividends.

He added: “While bus travel across the majority of England has been in decline over the past decade, as a result of partnership working involving Centro, local bus companies and the seven West Midlands councils, the bus network has had an increase in passengers of 5.1 million.”

A Centro spokesman said: “Compared with other passenger transport authorities, including Greater Manchester and Merseyside, we now have the highest bus usage per head of population.”

The latest figures are likely to hand ammunition to sceptics who wonder whether the very large sums of money needed for expansion of the Midland Metro tram network in Birmingham might be more usefully spent on delivering a better bus service.

City council transportation scrutiny committee chairman Martin Mullaney said it was unclear whether the growth in bus passenger numbers was anything more than a short-term reaction to higher petrol prices, with people leaving cars at home and using public transport instead.

Coun Mullaney (Lib Dem Moseley & Kings Heath) said the planned £180 million investment on extending the Metro from Snow Hill to Five Ways would “buy an awful lot of buses”.

He added: “We need to stop treating trams like little toys that can be shoe-horned in somewhere and start planning ahead for the next 20 years.

“If we want an integrated public transport system, this will involve a lot of unpopular and difficult decisions.

“We should be looking at trams along our high-volume corridors.

“But if you put trams along the Hagley Road you would have to widen the road and take land from gardens,” Coun Mullaney said.