For anybody involved in the bus industry, the contribution that this mode of travel makes to people’s quality of life is plain to see. The bus is a gateway to opportunity for many people, especially the quarter of all households, and half of all those on the lowest incomes, without access to a car. Opportunity to work, play, learn and to stay healthy and happy.
Benefits of the bus for other sectors
In making these connections, the bus plays a key role in achieving a wide variety of policy goals that extend far beyond the bounds of the transport sector. It can help tackle unemployment, for example, by connecting areas of worklessness to areas of job growth. Combined with fares initiatives, travel advice and information provision for jobseekers, the impact can be significant – in one such PTE-led scheme, 80 per cent of people said they would otherwise have struggled to reach job opportunities.
The bus assists the health sector too. Missed outpatient appointments alone cost hospitals £600m a year. Just one new bus service, connecting disadvantaged communities in Wolverhampton to a specialist health centre, reduced non-attendance by 60 per cent. Social care is also a beneficiary. Bus services help older and disabled people retain their independence, enabling them to do their shopping, get to work and see friends and family without having to rely on others. Analysis shows that just one Ring and Ride service in the West Midlands saved the health sector at least £13.4m thanks to reduced need for care, home help and more costly transport options, such as taxis.
Towards Total Transport
The question is, how do we ensure that the vital and socially necessary role of the bus is maintained in light of cuts and spending restrictions that have hit the transport sector particularly hard? Our new report – ‘Total Transport – Working across sectors to achieve better outcomes’ – recommends that agencies across sectors with a stake in transport get together to pool their resources and expertise to deliver desired outcomes as efficiently as possible – a ‘Total Transport’ approach.
Perhaps one of the most tangible ways in which we can move towards a Total Transport approach is by encouraging a more cross-sector, joined-up approach towards the funding and delivery of social needs transport.
In most areas, alongside the mainstream bus network, there are also multiple fleets of vehicles running around performing various functions for different agencies. You have social services, education and patient transport fleets, for example, all with their own separate budgets and policies. Often these services overlap and duplicate one another in terms of their specification, clientele and route. They can also generate significant inefficiencies, with certain vehicles sitting underutilised in the garage for large parts of the day whilst elsewhere transport needs go unmet.
Bringing together vehicle fleets and budgets
With money tight and essential services under threat, these inefficiencies cannot be allowed to continue. An alternative, Total Transport approach would see these fleets brought together from across the various agencies and local authority departments into one shared pool under a single budget. The pool of vehicles would be coordinated and scheduled centrally, taking into account capacity on the mainstream network. Such a system would ensure the entire fleet is put to maximum use throughout the day and that the right vehicle is deployed for the right job. Experience from local authorities that have already moved towards an ‘Integrated Transport Unit’ suggests that efficiency benefits can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Developing such a system is, of course, unlikely to be a straightforward task. Administrative difficulties, harmonisation of different working practices and negotiation of contractual relationships are just some of the challenges that may be encountered. However, there are a range of models already in operation, both here and abroad that can be drawn upon. Also, it is not necessary to move towards a fully centralised system straightaway. Efficiency gains can also be made by identifying synergies at a smaller scale – for example, by utilising the downtime of school buses to provide shopper services during the day or by working with health providers to plan concentrated health assessment days around times when fleets of accessible vehicles are otherwise underutilised. It’s about working together to make the very best use of the assets we already have in order to maintain as full a service as possible for the customer. By doing so we can ensure that the bus continues to help tackle unemployment and promote independence and access to services without placing undue financial strain on any one policy area.
This article was first published in Coach and Bus Week