The bus as media cause celebre

The humble bus has recently become a media darling - will it last?

In the media’s chart of zeitgeist cuts, buses were in with a bullet this month following CBT’s launch of the Save Our Buses campaign. Indeed bus cuts were number two on the BBC website for a while. In times past buses only made the BBC website if a cat made a habit of travelling into town all by itself on the number six. But the BSOG campaign has given the media a taste for bus stories and once the media have a template for stories – they do like to use it. Question is will it last – or will libraries, forests and hospitals push buses down the cuts charts while transport correspondents get back to the familiar territory of the fascinating minutiae of whose up and whose down in the rail industry?

Whether buses will become the wider symbol of the cuts or not I don’t know – but I think the coverage of bus issues may last. This because of the scale of the cuts in some shires and counties, and because of the extreme social consequences for the old, the young and the poor who are about to be stranded. Which in turn gives it the stark human interest that journalists want.

Will the Met areas mirror the widespread cuts in the shires and counties?

Will the Met areas follow the more outré of shires and counties with their tendered bus networks?

I hope not – although until the levy settlements with the Districts are worked through we can’t be sure about what PTE budgets will look like. Buses in our areas are still a player in the transport market and in local politics. In some shires you get the sense that the rural bus is a troublesome elderly relative being given a generous and terminal dose of morphia after many years of sad decline. Unfortunately for them CBT has disobligingly pulled back the curtains just as the terminal dose is being administered.

So what happens next?

Well I wouldn’t be surprised if there a last ditch effort to push some more CT money through to rural areas to try to salvage something from the situation. It’s not exactly the most efficient funding mechanism for keeping buses trundling about but it’s hard to see Eric Pickles offering a buses hardship fund to local authorities and reopening the CSR decision on BSOG looks like a long shot. So further tweaks to CT funding is the easiest if least efficient way.

Cutting the older person's pass is one cut the Government can't make

Meanwhile older and disabled people will be made to feel guiltier and guiltier about their free passes as the cost of the pass eats up more of the funding pie, bus services are cut as a consequence and the young and the pre-retirement poor shell out more and more to travel. But despite the guilt tripping of our seniors, cutting the older persons’ pass is one spending cut the Government can’t make. And that’s because something else can’t be cut either – the TV footage in the prime ministerial debate of Cameron accusing Brown of being a liar for saying that he would get rid of it.

With the media warmed up to bus stories by the cuts in tendered services, the Competition Commission report will help move the story on by opening up the debate on how best buses should be run and funded. And how that unfolds is an unknown. Although there is a feeling right now that they might eschew comprehensive reforms (too hard) in favour of targeted interventions ‘to make the market work better’.

Making the money go further

Locally specified rural rail and buses would make public money go further

Meanwhile Secretary of State Hammond has been thinking aloud about why the state is subsidising rural local rail and local bus separately so that the two networks can then, er, compete with each other. And why it is that he is specifying rural rail frequencies instead of the local transport authorities? Good question. Especially when a locally specified rural rail and bus franchise would make all that precious public money go so much further – and allow all the cuddly big society volunteer driven minibuses to be layered in on top. If while you are at it you chuck in the budgets and vehicle fleets for heathcare, social services and education transport then the pot for providing a bigger and integrated network just got a whole lot bigger. All too difficult? Well it’s precisely what they’ve been doing in the big chunks of rural Netherlands for years – and they tend to be a pragmatic and sensible lot. Just a thought!

Jonathan Bray

This article was first published in Coach and Bus Week.

Banishing the dirty old bus

PTEs visited West Ham bus garage to find out more about TfL's hybrid bus trials

When we promote buses as a greener alternative to car travel, we are increasingly aware of the ageing, dirty bus lurking in the corner of the room, spluttering out toxic emissions and spewing particulate matter every which way – undermining our arguments at every turn.

We all agree that if we are to maintain the high ground over the car, these buses have to go, and they have to go as quickly as possible. The imperative is hastened by the fact that it’s intrinsically easier to green small light vehicles like cars than it is large heavy vehicles like buses and HGVs and that politicians of every stripe see plug-in cars as a relatively pain free way of going green without alienating the CBI or the voters.

The fact remains, however, that electric cars and the like may make driving kinder to the environment but they don’t require people to make the fundamental lifestyle adjustments that are required if we are serious about tackling climate change (living more locally, for example). They also do nothing to reduce congestion on our roads which costs nearly £11bn annually in our urban areas alone. In these areas the bus wins hands down and, with the phasing out of older models and greater use of new, greener technology, it has the opportunity to firmly cement its environmental credentials.

A hybrid bus ready for inspection

This is an opportunity that bus manufacturers and operators are increasingly taking up – from the high profile Greener Journeys campaign to the 56 hybrid buses taking part in the large scale London trials – but how are PTEs engaging with this agenda?

For starters, PTE areas have achieved considerable success in the two Green Bus Fund bidding rounds. As a result, our areas can expect to receive in excess of £19m from the fund for over 260 buses. A number of the winning bids were submitted by PTEs themselves, with GMPTE securing the largest number of vehicles (66) of all the bidders in the first round – all destined for use on their subsidised services. Indeed, overall Greater Manchester residents can expect to see almost 140 green buses in their midst.

PTEs are not new to the green bus fray and are by no means unprepared. Many have a wealth of experience of trialling innovative technologies, and have learnt the lessons from these, from the now defunct diesel-electric hybrid buses that formed the Quaylink service in Newcastle and Gateshead to Merseytravel’s 15 years trialling alternative fuels and 10 years investigating pure electric buses.

In addition, pteg has commissioned and published a number of studies to help PTEs make the best choices when it comes to greening urban bus fleets. The most recent additions to the evidence base include a report by Atkins which named improvement in bus fleet efficiency as one of seven top-scoring carbon emission reduction measures PTEs could take and a report by TTR into bus idling and emissions. The TTR report looked at the contribution of behavioural, network/infrastructure and technical factors to emissions from idling buses and recommended the best approaches to tackling these. It followed on from another pteg commissioned study from TTR assessing the costs and benefits of different fuels and technologies with the potential to reduce pollution and carbon emissions from our urban bus fleets. All of these reports are available to download from our website at http://www.pteg.net/Publications/Reports/Reports.htm.

PTE staff descended into the inspection pits to take a closer look at hybrid bus technology

More informal good practice sharing between the PTEs on green buses is also underway. Just this month, associate pteg member Transport for London played host to representatives from across the PTEs and beyond who took part in a visit to West Ham bus garage to experience first-hand some of the hybrid buses on trial in the capital.

 Equipped with nifty grey ‘bump hats’ and high vis jackets, we descended enthusiastically down the inspection pits to take a look at the technology beneath these vehicles and were very amused to be able to say that we’d stepped under a bus and lived to tell the tale! Our members were full of questions on the technical details of the vehicles as well as, crucially, the results of this extensive review of most known hybrid bus systems.

As green bus technology filters further into the mainstream, pteg is determined to continue to play a key role in its development and implementation and to banish the image of the dirty old bus for good. The future is bright, shiny and clean and we want to be part of it.

Rebecca Fuller

This article was originally published in Coach and Bus Week.

Total mobility – brave new world

I don’t go to that many general transport conferences these days as I fear I will feel like I’ve heard too much of it too many times before.

So it was a pleasure to go to an LSE Cities evening event last week on electric mobility. A get together of an eclectic and international mix of corporate strategists, sociologists, architects, academics and technologists which was full of insights and the satisfying intellectual click of ideas coming together that hadn’t come together before – or at least not in my head.

Here’s what I took from it…

In the future you will not own your means of transportation…

  • The future of transport is sharing / renting and not owning. You don’t own the bus or train you use now. In the future you won’t own your car either. The economics of electric cars work for leasing and renting not for ownership (the cost of vehicles and infrastructure is too expensive).
  • The future of transport is one mobile phone equals one transport system. Your mobile will give you easy access to cars, bikes and public transport.
  • The future is door-to-door and carbon free.
  • In young peoples’ heads the future is here now. Internationally young people are rapidly moving into a  post-ownership mentality. They can’t afford the baby boomers ownership model (houses, cars etc) and for cars why bother? Cars are universal, functional objects – the status and aspiration around car ownership is seeping away. The car is a commodity rather than a symbol of expression and why be lumbered with one type of car that you own– when you can have any vehicle you want – right now – for hire by the hour. Young people are also ‘post-privacy’ which also fits with a monitored and rented transport world rather than a private and owned one.
  • The car ‘club’ concept was uncool and now it’s not. Car clubs used to be resonant of drab, do-goodery – aspiring late 20th century individuals didn’t join this sort of club. But now the ‘club’ fits with the zeitgeist of joining groups on social media so it’s making a marketing come back.
  • DB’s biggest electric car users are 30-55 aged  family men with a geeky side and with no interest in public transport – but interestingly once they start using the electric cars they become converts to the rail service element of the total mobility offer.
  • Electric cars limited range is good news for public transport (as it can’t substitute for long distance public transport), they can also act as smart storage for electricity during the day as electric car use is highest during the electricity grid peak and station car parks make good charging points.

In the future public transport needs to be central to the total mobility offer

    • You are not in the public transport business anymore you are in the mobility business.

      Getting total mobility up and running will need big ideas

 

  • Big is beautiful in total mobility. You need to think big, spend big and act big to get significant total mobility offers up and running. Bikehire schemes for example don’t come cheap (look at London – look at any of the successful ones). German railways (DB) has set up an innovation unit and a separate subsidiary to drive this stuff forward. The subsidiary (with a staff of 800) is now working with entities like the  German post office, large German private companies, and the non-weaponised part of the German military on its fleet management / car sharing operation.
  • Not only do transport providers need to link up with each other they also need to link up to car manufacturers, telecoms companies and energy providers. It’s only at this scale that all the pieces of the low carbon, door-to-door jigsaw can be put together. And then there’s housing providers eg Housing Associations providing electric car sharing options.
  • The economics rarely stack up as purely commercial propositions. It works best in countries that accept you need a taxbase to spend on infrastructure for these schemes so…

Will the US and UK miss out?

  • If we can’t even integrate inter-bus ticketing in UK cities (except London) how on earth will we ever be able to offer wider total mobility packages?

    The electric car could go rogue without an attractive public realm

  • If the electric car isn’t put in the context of an attractive public realm (for walking and cycling) and integrated, attractive public transport then the electric car could go rogue and lead to a transfer of short trips from public transport, walking and cycling to the car.
  • There is also a danger of the UK (outside London) ending up with weak, partial and over-lapping mobility offers by a range of private and public sector providers.
  • But then again which country did the biggest and boldest road user charging scheme on the planet? High land values = high parking charges. Coupled with tight historic street patterns this might make cities like London naturals for total mobility.
  • Meanwhile, state-side no one wants to pay for transit infrastructure anymore and car-based urban sprawl has largely triumphed.  The bus, the bike, pedestrianisation on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis offers some hope – which is the way some of NYC is going.

In the future when all’s well? The doubters speak…

  • Should we be turning our cities into blank canvasses for the consumption of mobility? In our rush to try to ensure that total mobility is as sustainable as possible will we sacrifice what we like about the urban (its unpredictability, walkability and diversity)? Shouldn’t we start with the urban realm rather than the facilitation of total mobility at any cost?
  • Total mobility offers (eg London hirebikes) often end up being city centre status symbols for all concerned, whereas really it’s the suburbs that they would come into their own – World City centres can look after themselves.

Want to know whether or not the future works? In a few years time the Northern European countries like Germany and Switzerland will give us a good idea…

Jonathan Bray