What is the scope for boosting bus use?

Double Decker Buses in Queens Lane, Oxford, UK

“How much have we as an industry put into research and development in the last five years? We’re getting worse, not better, and we have to change that.”

These were words from Brian Souter last year, emphasising that despite being the main form of public transport across the country, research and development in the bus sector remains relatively low. Much of the debate about what is driving bus use has instead been based on assertion and gut instinct. And lots of the money that should be spent on research and development is spent on spin instead.

Our new research programme, which we launched earlier this year, seeks to change that. The latest research from this programme (carried out by Transport for Quality of Life), has taken a rigorous approach by analysing a mass of data sets across England to find the combination that best predicts levels of bus use by local authority district.

The research finds that six underlying conditions, when combined, can be used to predict levels of bus use with 85% accuracy. This is what the report calls the ‘Intrinsic Bus Potential’ (IBP) of an area. Those areas with a high IBP could be considered “good bus territory”. So what are the six background factors that are driving bus use?

It’s no secret that buses are often a lifeline for the less well-off in society, and so the index of multiple deprivation is one factor. The proportion of households living in rental accommodation and the working population defined as ‘lower middle class’ are two other related ones. The number of students, the working population travelling between two and 20 kilometres to work, and rush-hour traffic travel times complete the six.

It’s important to note that individually these factors are not necessarily the most important determinants of bus use. However, when they are combined, they provide the best fit. Most, but not all, of the factors that combine to define good bus territory will not be a surprise to many in the industry – however the exact recipe for the secret sauce is still worth knowing. And a predictive power of 85% is impressive. The one factor of the six that is surprising, and somewhat counter-intuitive, is that places with longer rush-hour travel times (i.e. more congestion) are associated with higher levels of bus use. This rather undermines the frequent assertion from incumbent bus operators that the only thing wrong with bus services in the UK is congestion and lack of bus priority.

To be fair though it should be noted that longer journey times could well be a proxy for higher density urban areas and that the statistics are for traffic speeds in general (so do not take into account the existence of bus priority or not). However, even with that proviso the convenient obsession that the industry has with presenting the one thing not under their control, congestion, as the biggest determinant of bus use, isn’t supported by this data-driven analysis.

The report then goes further by looking at 25 areas where bus use is significantly higher than predicted by the six background factors. It’s striking that 18 of the 25 fall into five geographical clusters: London local authorities (five), Tyne & Wear districts (three), Nottingham and three neighbouring districts, Oxford and three neighbouring districts and Brighton and its neighbour Lewes. The other seven are Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Reading, Swindon, Crawley and Oadby and Wigston.

The research goes on to suggest some common reoccurring themes among these 25 areas which may have contributed to them outperforming their background conditions. These factors include higher levels of bus provision than the norm; a ‘pro-bus’ local context (defined as “where operators or the local authority (or both) have invested resource, research and development and management focus to ensure the bus ‘product’ is well-matched to the local market”). Other possible explainations are local factors, such as relatively low levels of commuter rail provision as well as a ‘halo effect’, in which some predominantly rural areas outperform their low intrinsic bus potential because they neighbour a city which is also out-performing. Examples here include the Vale of White Horse (which neighbours Oxford) and Lewes (which neighbours Brighton).

Bus regulation is a reoccurring theme, with a number of London boroughs outperforming their potential as London’s regulated system has allowed for high service frequencies, the introduction of a flat fare and the development of the Oyster card which speeded up bus boarding.

The final potential explainer is the maintenance of a culture of bus use. Nottingham is a good example of an area which has maintained the habit. In 1981 commuter share was among the highest in the UK for the bus (at 36%). In the last census it still recorded one of the highest bus commute mode shares outside London. Admittedly it was substantially down (at 21%) – but it was miles better than 9% in nearby Derby and 14% in Leicester. And take a look at Sheffield where the bus had a 41% share of rush hour trips in 1981. Now it’s just 15% in 2011.

Meanwhile, there are examples where a bus culture has been built more recently. For example, between 1991 and 2011, with bus regulation as the tool for service improvement, Hillingdon saw its rush hour bus market share increase. In short a bus culture is easy to lose, a job of work to maintain, and a major undertaking to build.

So what to make of all this? There are three headline findings.

Firstly, and disconcertingly, transport authorities and bus operators have no, or limited, influence over the background factors that best predict bus use, with four of the six factors being socio-economic rather than related to transport.

Secondly, the factors that correlate with high potential for bus use are most often found in urban areas, suggesting it is urban areas where the biggest absolute gains could be made in patronage.

Thirdly, there are common themes which can be found in those areas which outperform their potential. Some of these could be applied elsewhere, including a long term nurturing of a culture of bus use, something which is possible to build where it might currently be absent.

It is also somewhat scary that the research shows that even the most successful areas are only outperforming their intrinsic bus potential by relatively modest margins (valuable as that extra patronage is). And many of the outperforming areas are still experiencing absolute decline. So in other words even if every sinew is stretched to provide a quality bus service, the marginal difference you will make to what your geographical genetics dictate may well still not be enough to save you from continual patronage decline.

Or, to put it another way, the data is like a dead-eyed shark and it keeps coming at you. We are going to need a bigger funding boat! And for that to happen we are going to need to turn the recent welcome warm words on buses from our most senior politicians into a transformative new deal for the bus. That doesn’t mean tinkering at the margins, it means year-on-year simpler, enhanced and ring-fenced funding for bus. Otherwise the data shows that in too many areas the downward escalator on patronage will be going down faster than we can run up it.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

A city that works for children, works for everyone

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‘A city that works for children, works for everyone’ – this was a phrase repeated time and again at this year’s International Healthy Streets Summit, an event that the Urban Transport Group is proud to have sponsored for the second year running.

The host for this year’s event was Glasgow, a city with big plans for its wide, traditionally car-friendly streets, many of which are being transformed by the £150m ‘Avenues’ programme. Glasgow City Council has taken the bold step of saying that it is ‘prepared to put the private car last’ – something it sees as absolutely the right thing to do, particularly as less than half of Glasgow households own a car.

The Avenues scheme will be transformative, placing people and their health at the heart of streets. Streets will be designed for vehicle speeds of up to 15 mph, they will be tree-lined, pleasant and safe, with more space for pedestrians and cyclists and less for motor vehicles.

But the real test will be their suitability for the city’s smallest citizens.

95cm tall and full of beans

Helen Forman, West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Urban Design Manager, presented a thought-provoking challenge for delegates at the Summit. What do streets look and feel like from the height of a 95cm child, a child who is full of energy, curious about the world and looking for fun? What are the opportunities in the environment for that child? What are the restraints?

Can they run, jump, climb and explore? Are there trees, plants and wildlife to discover, water to splash in, interesting things to see, hear and smell?

Or is the environment designed in such a way that they must proceed directly from A to B with no diversions, hand held tight to an adult for safety? Are their tiny lungs and airways assaulted with fumes from passing cars as they walk in the wake of exhaust pipes that are low to the ground, just like them? Are they confronted with a sea of grey, dotted with high windows and closed doors?

Glasgow’s Avenues will certainly provide the former, rather than the latter experience, a goal that is increasingly being pursued by cities across the world. Whilst play equipment is undoubtedly valued, designing for children in a way that benefits everyone is about more than that. Children are skilled at finding opportunities to play anywhere.

street play

Playful anywhere

Travelling back from Glasgow on the train, I tried to think of the carriage from a child’s perspective. I saw large, low windows presenting an ever-changing view – animals, fields, the sea, houses, castle walls. I saw tray tables to flip up and down. Seats to hide under, aisles to run up and down. Buttons to push. People to meet. There was no play equipment but there were certainly opportunities to play.

When we think about streets in the same way it makes sense to restrict motor traffic to enable wide, safe spaces to walk and run, cycle and scoot. It makes sense to provide walls to balance on; stones to hop between; benches to rest on; sculptures that can be climbed on; water to splash in; trees to hide behind; flowers to smell; bees to spot; fruit and veg to pick; windows to look into. The list is endless. And the best thing is – these are features that everyone likes – whatever their age.

So let’s play and find joy together. And let’s not confine these opportunities to ‘destination’ places. Let’s spread them to the back streets and neighbourhoods – communities beyond the city centre – just as Glasgow is doing with its next phase of work – ‘Avenues Plus’. And to bring hearts and minds with us, let’s design with, rather than for, communities. Let’s not talk about ‘transport projects’ or ‘streetscape improvements’ but focus on what benefits these will bring to how people live their daily lives. How we will create what one speaker called ‘loveable’ neighbourhoods that people young and old can be proud of and, crucially, part of.

Becky Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group