Travelling by bus may not be top of the agenda when it comes to planning for a smart future, but to overlook its potential is short-sighted, says Campaign for Better Transport chief executive, Darren Shirley
The UK’s most-used form of public transport is beset with problems. We’ve heard for the past decade how reductions in central and local government funding for buses have led to a degradation in service or the curtailment or withdrawal of routes altogether.
The effects of such cuts include disconnected communities, social exclusion and loneliness, as well as increased car traffic on our roads. The millions who rely on buses deserve solutions fit for the future.
Buses are sometimes neglected in discussions on smart transport in favour of newer modes and all the options of micro-mobility, new technology and lift sharing.
This is short-sighted; not only are buses crucial to cleaning up the dirty air in cities and achieving net zero carbon emissions, but they are also central to solving transport problems for many communities and, therefore, an opportunity for the smart transport sector.
Smart transport can improve bus services for communities across the country via four main strands:
- Information to encourage choice
- Smart ticketing to ease use
- New forms of delivery to improve provision
- Transition to zero emission vehicles to reduce impact on communities and the environment
Better quality information would allow people to plan their journeys more effectively and remove a barrier to the use of bus services.
Better journey planning and data availability is the responsibility of the industry, with the Bus Services Act 2017 requiring operators to publish data on services and fares digitally, but it should also be a requirement of local authorities to ensure that adequate information is provided in their areas on the buses serving communities, including the integration with other modes of transport so connections are clear.
Public provision of local bus information varies considerably across the country, and where online journey planning works well it is transforming how people’s transport choices are made.
But, taking that a step further, there needs to be integrated journey planning available across the country, so people can choose how to travel in the way that suits their needs and use different modes.
The smart transport sector could make progress on this by working with the major cities and towns in improving the availability of journey-planning tools and information in their areas, and starting to more widely utilise recent innovations such as voice technology, integrated mobile ticketing and real-time passenger information.
To ease and increase use, buses need to be a simple, straightforward option. Information is part of this, but just as important are smart ticketing solutions such as multi-modal ticketing and contactless payment that have the power to make bus travel smooth and effortless.
Smart ticketing for buses can open up more possibilities for targeted fare reductions for specific groups of passengers, like job seekers or students.
It is also crucial to improve integration between modes and allow more flexibility for passengers who have to change between operators. Currently, multi-operator and multi-mode tickets are not widespread, leaving passengers exposed to further costs from additional tickets and introducing friction in the journey that can decrease public transport’s attractiveness relative to the private car.
One opportunity opened up by smart ticketing is mobility credits: loaded onto a travel smart card, these could be used to encourage the shift to public transport.
Credits equivalent to 30 days’ free travel on public transport could be offered to people who scrap an older, polluting car and at key life moments, such as when people move home or start a new job.
Smarter models of delivery
Demand-responsive transport will form an important element of future solutions, especially in rural areas where it has the ability to meet requirements not previously met by conventional services.
On-demand transport, as opposed to pre-booked demand-responsive transport, is seen as a commercial opportunity for a number of providers, based on bookings via an app. Much of this development has been in response to the growth of transportation network companies such as Uber and other car-based services.
With the right technology, service coordination and effective marketing, ‘Uber-style’ buses could serve lower-density population areas where supported services are no longer viable in their current form.
Smarter vehicle tech choices
The UK has stringent greenhouse gas emission targets set in legislation, and a public health imperative to tackle air pollution in urban areas. Public transport will have to contribute to addressing both of these challenges, and should be an early mover. The days of diesel engine buses are over.
There will need to be a rapid deployment of zero emission technology and any barriers to uptake will have to be tackled, including capital costs and availability of charging infrastructure in the early years of a transition. A bus manufacturing sector deal should be developed to ensure the future viability and growth of UK bus manufacturers, increasing the supply of zero emission buses and reducing reliance on overseas technology.
The Government must set a clear path to zero emissions with a ban on new fossil fuelled buses entering service from 2025, and a deadline of 2035 for the entire bus fleet to be zero emissions. This will require a national programme of fleet and depot overhaul. Consideration will need to be given to wider requirements in a local area to ensure upgrades to the energy distribution network make most effective use of the capital and reduce duplication of spend across sectors.
The Government has announced it will produce a National Bus Strategy by March 2020, which follows years of work by Campaign for Better Transport and others. Such a strategy should focus on increasing the use of bus services across the country, better integration with other transport modes and a clear route to zero-emission buses. Crucially it must also lay out how the Government will encourage growth in the use of technology to improve services and increase ridership.
With the right interventions, buses have enormous potential to connect communities, boost local economies, clean up air pollution and tackle the loneliness crisis.
In cities, they can be one of the most efficient ways of moving large numbers of people: cheap, flexible and responsive. In rural areas, while some bus services have struggled in recent times, there are green shoots of recovery from places such as Cornwall, which is demonstrating a focus on improving connectivity for communities can reinvigorate local services; and with new tailored and innovative demand-responsive approaches there are more opportunities to create viable services that people want to use.
In order to fulfil their potential, buses need the right funding and policy interventions from Government, not just to stem cuts but to embrace technology and make bus travel a convenient, affordable, attractive choice.
The National Bus Strategy, along with a long-term funding framework for capital and revenue support, should encompass the four strands outlined above to steer the Great British bus on the road to a brighter, smarter future.