Buses – it isn’t all about congestion

Passengers paying a bus fare

I agree with Brian Souter. When he said at last year’s Scottish CPT event that the bus industry relied too much on gut instinct and not enough on research. The Stagecoach chairman went on: “How much have we put into research and development in the last five years? We’re getting worse, not better…

Indeed nothing better exemplifies this state of play than incumbent monopoly bus operators’ favourite ‘fact’ of all time. That buses can’t prosper unless traffic congestion is tackled. However, I’m going to suggest something shocking in a sector which holds this truth to be self evident. Which is that the evidence base does not support this assertion. The evidence base is telling a different story – which is that there are many other factors at play in determining whether bus use rises or falls in a particular area and some of these may carry greater weight than traffic congestion depending on the local circumstances.

If it were always true that bus use is intrinsically linked to journey speeds, and that this is the only thing that matters, then why is bus use falling in the only major city region where traffic speeds are rising (South Yorkshire)?

If it were always true that bus use is intrinsically linked to journey speeds, and that this is the only thing that matters, then why is bus use falling in the only major city region where traffic speeds are rising (South Yorkshire)? And when one looks at the top 10 places where bus use is high or growing, why are there so many places which are not the first locales you would think of in connection with the phrase ‘free flowing traffic’?

So in the top 10 for growth in bus use, or highest bus use per head (or both) are Bournemouth, Bristol and Reading which were respectively 8th, 10th and 12th in a survey of the most congested places in Britain in a Go Compare survey last year. It’s even possible that in certain contexts congested conditions could give the bus a competitive advantage over the car: as in you have to sit in traffic anyway then you might as well get the bus (where you can also do things you can’t do when driving – such as maintaining your smart device addiction). And that’s even before we start talking about bus decline in places, and at times of day, when congestion is irrelevant (because there isn’t any) such as many places in the evenings, in the off peak and in many rural areas all day every day.

In our recent report we sought to take a more objective, look at all the factors that are relevant when looking at what’s driving bus patronage change. I won’t go through them all here (and there are few surprises in the headings) but it’s interesting how the same factors can have different effects depending on the local market.

The state of the UK economy is one factor in driving demand for travel, but the ramifications can play out differently in different areas. So a growing economy could lead to more car ownership and less bus use in places where car ownership is currently low and bus use is high. Meanwhile, in London, the rate of growth of the London economy (and inward migration) has slowed, whilst at the same time incomes have not kept pace with living costs. One of the impacts of all this has been less discretionary travel in London which in turn has hit bus use. Elsewhere, buoyant city centre and retail economies have been good for the bus in some of the more prosperous top 10 areas where the bus is performing well.

Young people are another fascinating and complicated factor. Young people are moving away from car ownership at pace – although not necessarily towards the bus. However, where the circumstances or the fares offer are right (or both) then this can be great news for the bus. So the youthful demographic of the West Midlands looks like it’s a factor in recent better patronage news there. Bournemouth, being the second biggest centre outside London for English schools could well be giving a helping hand to bus use there. The location of new student living quarters in Bristol is a plus for the bus in the city. And then there’s the simple young peoples’ fares offer in Merseyside which has had such a transformational effect on ridership. Who would have guessed it? Simpler and cheaper fares can bring back passengers to the bus. More passengers in the National Express low fare zones in the West Midlands is a further example of this.

Whilst I’ve knocked the idea that congestion is the only thing that matters, my argument isn’t so simplistic to suggest that it is irrelevant – far from it. Making bus journey times faster, more consistent and more competitive with alternative modes should (all other things being equal) make bus services more attractive and should help drive patronage upwards. This is why back in 2014 we were the ones that initiated the joint work with CBT, CPT and Greener Journeys on making the case for bus priority schemes and setting up the bus priority works website. It was also instructive that, despite the rhetoric about the importance of bus priority at that time the industry was unable to furnish us with any evidence about the benefits of any schemes to them that we could highlight in the materials and on the website. Since then the evidence base is now in much better shape and as UTG we continue to support bus priority schemes.

However, supporting individual well thought through bus priority schemes (which often combine with wider street works to benefit local residents and retail as well as cyclists and pedestrians) is very different from the rhetorical open ended demands that urban congestion be eliminated for the bus – otherwise the bus has no future. This just isn’t going to happen because busy cities will continue to have busy streets. Streets which will also have less space for vehicles of any sort as more space is given over to space for people. Urban cycling is also going to grow, and better provision is going to be made for it. More people walking and cycling is a good thing overall . People are going to want to use taxis, and shops need deliveries.

Like the Rev. Awdry story about Henry the Green Engine refusing to come out of the tunnel because it was raining, some in the bus sector are refusing to come out of their tunnel because of all the horrid cars

Having said that the bus can and should get a better deal on the streets – but it isn’t suddenly going to get its own way everywhere, every day. And proponents of the absolutist arguments on congestion know all this anyway (hence the lack of detailed proposals). So the danger is that it becomes nothing more than an all purpose excuse and a cop out. Like the Rev. Awdry story about Henry the Green Engine refusing to come out of the tunnel because it was raining, some in the bus sector are refusing to come out of their tunnel because of all the horrid cars.

When there is so much in a deregulated, and mostly uncontested industry, which is entirely under your control (and which has worked elsewhere) it seems rather convenient that the one thing holding you back is out of your control. Plus if they really meant it about congestion then it would be nice if there was more industry support for poor old local government over taking on the powers to enforce yellow boxes and other moving traffic offences. This would be instantly good for bus reliability without the need for any time consuming new infrastructure.

In avoiding simplistic solutions our report put forward three factors which seem to be present (singly or in multiple) where bus use is high or growing. Firstly, where car use is expensive or difficult. Secondly, where car ownership is low and there is a strong culture of bus use. Thirdly, where significant and continuous research and development has been put into ensuring the nature of the service matches the needs of the local market. Hence growth has happened in some surprising places (including Jersey and the famous 36 on the Harrogate to Leeds corridor) as well as in some of the places on the top 10 buses list.

We intend to do more research to test these ideas further. Factors one and two are not always easy to replicate but factor three (the research and development) is applicable everywhere. We need more priority for buses on our roads. But this is an industry that also needs to give more priority to research and development and on getting under the skin (rather than concentrating on the spin) about what’s really driving patronage trends.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport. The PDF of the article can be downloaded here: Buses – it isn’t all about congestion‘.

Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here

The secret life of the street – and what we need to know to make future streets work

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For a couple of years now I have been banging on about the need for a debate on future streets (i.e. about how best to reconcile the complexities of all the different calls on street space – or more accurately the space between the buildings).  So I am pleased to see that this is an issue that has now caught fire with two projects under the ‘future streets’ banner (one from ITS Leeds and one from UCL) as well as a London conference on future streets that we are sponsoring.

On Tuesday I took part in a seminar at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) on the outcomes, so far, of the ITS project which will hopefully result in guidance for authorities.

I thought reconciling the different demands on road space was complex before I went into the room. However, I left the room realising it was even more so than I had initially thought. I went in thinking that streets need to accommodate the different needs of different types of vehicles – buses, taxis, bicycles, powered two wheelers, cars, freight and logistics, as well as the different types of users including people with disabilities, and different objectives such as clean air, crime reduction, thriving high streets, reduced carbon emissions, provision for electric vehicles, provision of connected and autonomous vehicles, healthier streets and more…

However, all these are in principle broad brush issues. What the seminar taught me was that there are so many other variables – for example dealing with the unusual (funeral corteges, removal vans, deliveries that take time such as beer to pubs, skips). There is also street furniture, the paraphernalia that shops and cafes put in front of their premises, street beautification (raised planters, etc.), and emergency services needs. And all these complex needs and variables play out differently on different streets and at different times of the day.

ITS had an A3 sheet with a closely typed list of factors to consider (which got longer by the end of the day) when looking at the street of today – never mind the streets of the future. All of which suggests firstly the need for a more sophisticated and holistic approach to street management (rather than single issue, for example ‘we need to get a lot of EV chargers in ASAP’). Secondly, there is a need for more people to observe how each busy street operates now, to think deeply about how to make it work better (what trade offs need to be made on the basis of what priorities) and then make it happen (not forgetting the need for on-going management, enforcement, maintenance and adjustment).

future streets long list (jonathan bray)

Here are five further thoughts from the day…

  1. Parking and loading regulation is shouty, complicated and often ambiguous (what happens if you park on a cycle lane? What is the status of the shop forecourt in front of the shop but behind the curb line?). This can lead to people going round what they see as the regulated parts of the road space (even free parking bays) and parking on what they see as sitting outside the regulated areas (including pavements). Bus lanes can often be something that people see as very clearly a regulated and enforced space – which leads to the phenomena of people not driving in bus lanes even when they are not in operation. Some drivers are perhaps pavement parking out of consideration for their fellow drivers (i.e. to make space for them to park or pass) without thinking about the impacts on pedestrians. All of which suggests there could be a need for more research into the deeper reasons behind what makes drivers do what they do (including etiquette, peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, etc.).
  2. A lot of British streetscapes are so ugly and dilapidated that drivers may be making the unconscious decision that some ugly parking behaviour isn’t going to make them any worse.
  3. Physical signs and lines to regulate the road space create clutter, are not always read or understood by drivers and are inflexible (i.e. it is difficult to change the use of space at different times of the day or to allow two or more different functions for the same space). Digitalising the allocation and regulation of road space (including through geo-fencing) would make sense in that it would be clearer, more flexible and less ugly. However, the extent of data sharing necessary (and the knock on concerns about data ownership and privacy) is daunting.
  4. The current limitations on taxi and PHV pick up and drop off are few and mostly unobserved. If taxis and PHVs grow further then the problems caused by dropping off and picking up anywhere will grow. And how will taxi share work in practice if multiple taxis are trying to pick up / drop off different people from the same area of curb space?
  5. The enforcement of parking and loading regulation is constantly demonised by the media and by some politicians. But then the case is rarely made for it in a positive and pro-active way, and its complexity, ambiguities and its officious language and branding isn’t helping. Is there a need for a comprehensive rethink about how parking and loading restrictions and enforcement is communicated to the public as something that is there to help streets thrive and keep moving in a safe way? This is something that might relate to further research into how drivers feel about the regulation of streets.

Roll on the Future Streets conference on February 12. This is a topic where we need to revel in exploring all its complexities before we can make progress.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group.

You can find out more information and register for the Future Streets conference here.