Northern Ireland is getting ahead

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Of the four main constituent parts of the UK, only one of them saw bus use grow last year. It is the same one on track to having a smart and fully unified ticketing system across all forms of public transport, and which has also seen the use of its rail network double in 10 years. That’s Northern Ireland, where after decades of being sidelined as car dependency took hold, public transport is back.

The posterchild for the new found assertiveness and visibility of public transport in Northern Ireland is Belfast’s new Glider BRT system which spans the city east to west with a branch into the Titantic quarter of the city’s docklands. As a visitor to Belfast you can’t miss this striking new addition to Belfast city centre’s imposing street grid. Residents have taken to it too – it’s winning over passengers and raising the wider status of public transport in the process.

Glider works because it’s been thought through. It’s on-street and unguided but this format for BRT works in Belfast because of the specifics of the road network and the geographies served. These artics don’t get to give their rubbery midriffs much of a work out because the roads they serve are mostly straight, which makes the experience of using Glider feel more rapid transit. Some of Belfast’s roads are not just straight they are also wide enough to slot bus priority in without too much fuss (the city centre’s streets are also, helpfully, on a grid pattern). Where the roads narrow as they pass through inner city communities, getting bus priority in was trickier – however, rather than attempt to barrel bus lanes through for the benefit of suburbanites, the opportunity was taken to renew local streetscapes, giving local high streets a boost in the process.

If the overall concept has been thought through then so have the details. Stops were reduced and standardised to be more like tram stops. All ticketing is off-board. The vehicles themselves are no nonsense Belgian Van Hools which iron out the bumps in the road for passengers. The smoother ride gives more of a rapid transit feel. They also have air con. Because having big windows to gaze out of is lovely, but being trapped inside a rattly greenhouse – not so much.

The off-board ticketing also has some interesting beneficial side effects. Firstly, it makes dwell times shorter and more regular in duration, removing the background annoyance of the stop-start nature of conventional bus travel – making the experience more like rapid transit. It also means that passengers who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid the interaction anxiety which comes from having to negotiate with a driver in front of an audience. Yet, at the same time human interaction, in less theatrical form (unless you are fare dodging), is retained in the form of roving teams of jovial inspectors.

The well thought through concept and the well thought through details mean the whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. It’s what FirstGroup’s FTR should have been and wasn’t – despite the hype and sycophancy from the trade press, Department for Transport and so on that greeted its launch at the time. This isn’t plonking fancy new bendy buses on the streets, and walking away – it’s a whole new Belfast thing. People say they are getting the Glider rather than saying they are getting the bus. Suburban shopping centres are giving Glider the credit for higher footfall. Before it was implemented the media said all that bus priority would lead to is the shuttering up of local traders. Yet now look at Ballyhackamore – on a Glider route and voted one of the best places to live in the UK. And it’s also doing its bit for bringing communities together as some people from nationalist communities have been travelling on it across to unionist parts of town, and vice versa. Some of them for the first time in their lives.

If Glider stands out in the city centre, there’s something else that’s striking to those used to the messy, shouty state of play in many GB city centres (with all those different buses in different colour schemes proclaiming the merits of tickets you can only use on their services). It’s the calm and order in Belfast of the interlocking network of bus services which serve the city and Northern Ireland more widely. Metro for frequent urban Belfast services, a new high spec ‘Urby’ network for longer distance commuters, Ulsterbus for local services across Northern Ireland and then the Goldline coach network for fast services between towns and cities. It’s an easy to understand network which experienced overall growth in patronage last year.

All of this is possible because, firstly, the vast majority of public transport services in Northern Ireland are provided by Translink (a state-owned corporation). And, secondly, Translink is carrying out its remit, which is not to use a monopoly position to manage decline but to get out there and ensure that public transport plays its part in delivering the wider objectives Northern Ireland has for a thriving green economy based on healthy communities.

The end of decline management is also exemplified by the transformation of Northern Ireland’s rail network. In the sixties Northern Ireland was no more immune to the brutalising of its railway system than the rest of the UK – leaving some districts without any rail service at all. Until the early 2000s this residual rail service was the domain of veteran English Electric ‘thumper’ units which dolefully and noisily trundled their way around a bare minimum of trackwork. When, finally, approval was given for new trains it unleashed an astonishing growth in passengers – a doubling in 10 years.

Meanwhile, bringing the whole rail and bus shebang together are two major projects. The first is a rebuild of the current hub of both Northern Ireland’s rail and bus network at Great Victoria Street. It’s starting to feel its age and both the bus and rail terminals are struggling to cope with surging demand; so much so that some rail services can’t be squeezed into it – such as the Enterprise rail service to Dublin. Everything is going to change, including the name (it will be rebranded within a broader regeneration site known as Weavers Cross), when it becomes a new, more spacious interchange topped off with a significant commercial development.

The second major project is the modernisation of transport ticketing. There are already 28 million smartcard journeys annually and nearly half a million active smartcards. As the modernisation project is rolled out across more types of services and ticketing projects, Northern Ireland is one of the frontrunner territories in Europe for achieving smart, simple and fully integrated ticketing across its entire public transport network.

Finally, layered on top of everything is a marketing campaign that stresses the intrinsic advantages of public transport for both the individual traveller and Northern Ireland as a whole. The predominance of the car culture in Northern Ireland (and the consequent tendency of Belfast to gridlock) can be an advantage here – as you are starting from a clean slate with a fresh proposition. The aim is to make public transport a credible answer for policy makers looking at where best to invest in tackling wider social, environmental and economic goals and for individuals’ travel needs. ‘Get on board’ as the strapline has it.

Northern Ireland really isn’t so different from the rest of the UK to make it an invalid comparator or to make lessons untransferable and the rest of the UK really needs to start looking at what Northern Ireland is doing on public transport. Because whilst you weren’t looking – they got ahead of you.

Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

Health in All Policies – the transport connection

A few quick reflections on the thought provoking Health in All Policies conference we were a sponsor of on Wednesday and which our AD Rebecca Fuller spoke at (as part of our long term aim of getting better coordination across the health and transport sectors) 

– shamefully, health inequalities in this country are getting worse 

– all the focus in the public and media debate health is on clinical care (thus on transport the focus is air ambulances and free hospital parking) whereas the relative quality of clinical care is not the main factor in health outcomes. It’s wider economic, environmental and public health factors. The right transport policies can contribute to all these factors (such as promotion of active travel and healthy streets)

– having said that ‘social prescribing’ for some health problems is in vogue, as is a more place based approach to recent health reforms, which could help

– there’s a long way to go in getting the two sectors to understand what makes the other sector tick and although there is good guidance out there (including our transport and health hub on the UTG website) how do we get greater awareness of what’s our there?

Lots more to do then but with the CEO of NHS England now on record as saying the NHS has to reduce its environmental and transport impacts there’s some ways forward too. On which more soon!

 

What do we really feel about the bus?

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Most of the discourse on buses treats people as if they know what they are doing. It assumes that travellers are constantly making fully conscious rational economic trade-offs between cost and journey times and then making the logical choice as a result. And of course there is part of the brain that does this. This part of the brain likes to flatter itself that it’s in charge. But it’s not. The rational economic actor in our brains is in a little boat that is being constantly tossed around by a churning sea of emotions and instincts. A big part of us is prehistoric.

The gap in the evidence base around how people respond to the experience of bus travel at this gut level was something we identified in our recently published overarching report What’s driving bus patronage change? An analysis of the evidence base. So we asked Systra to analyse the research that was out there already. We are currently finalising the report and aim to publish soon.

I think it makes for an intriguing read and I won’t attempt to summarise it all here. However, lying beneath a lot of the literature review findings is something fundamental to human beings around the dynamic between control and vulnerability. We like to be in control (as the proven power of the ‘take back control’ slogan shows) and our prehistoric threat awareness instincts mean that we don’t like to be vulnerable. And we definitely don’t like to put ourselves in a position where vulnerability tips over into active humiliation.

If the car is at one end of the spectrum for engendering the feeling of being in control then there’s something about the unique nature of bus travel that puts it at the other end of the spectrum – in the zone of vulnerability and potential humiliation.

There are so many points in a bus journey where you can feel stressed and vulnerable. Am I at the right stop? Is the bus going to turn up? Is the bus driver going to see me and is the bus going to stop? Will the interaction with the bus driver go well (and if not will I have a whole room full of people watching whilst I hold up their journeys and have an unpleasant interaction)? Will I end up sitting next to someone who behaves in an anti-social way? Will I know where to get off? Will the bus driver stop where I want to get off?

On top of that if you are a wheelchair user or encumbered with prams and children there is the anxiety around whether or not there will be space for you and how accommodating the driver and your fellow passengers are going to be. The same applies in different ways for other disabilities. Attach a heart rate monitor and look for the spikes. You just don’t get such a long list of stress points on other forms of public transport.

Now let me turn up the stress and vulnerability dial a bit further. Because as well as the particular stress points in bus travel, in general the bus can feel like a far less supervised and controlled space than a train. On trains there are conductors and PA announcements and there are stations which in general feel more supervised than the average bus stop. It’s also easier to move seats if you feel uncomfortable about who is sitting near you. The research shows you can further turn up the volume on these anxieties around the unsupervised nature of buses and bus stops in relation to your personal security and space if you are a young person or a woman.

There’s also nothing like the public humiliation of a bus sailing past your stop whilst you hold out your hand. Other than at a few deep rural request stop stations, trains don’t do this. And then there’s the minor humiliation of sitting on a bus that’s crawling along, or standing at a stop for several minutes in silence, to make up time whilst cars and even pedestrians merrily speed past you.

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Now when a train stops at a signal in the middle of nowhere it is true that there won’t always be an announcement to tell you why – but over the course of a delayed journey there is usually some kind of communication. On a bus the reverse is true. I don’t even know if most modern buses have a PA system – because I’ve never, not once, heard one used (other than in London, which I will come back to).

Some of this may sound trivial but the problem is that the pre-historic brain is on the look out for threats and the way it reacts doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing them by a rational analysis of how serious they are. That’s why this stuff matters and why we need a way of relating to this very human condition.

Fortunately we do have someone on every bus who can do this. The driver. One way or another the driver can help ease all the stress points set out above and turn a space that feels worryingly unsupervised into one that feels safer and more under control. Transport for London has recognised this and has been putting a lot of focus on supporting drivers to better support their passengers. I’ve experienced this myself recently, where drivers in London used the PA system to explain why their bus was being held at a stop and how long the wait was going to be. It was amazing what a positive difference this made to how I felt about the journey compared with the prior norm of sitting there for an unknown period of time and feeling like a sucker for getting on board in the first place.

At Urban Transport Group one of the follow on things we are looking at is what we can share on how best to support drivers to support passengers. At the same time we recognise that drivers are only going to respect the content of a training course if they feel respected by their employer.

So far I’ve emphasised how the nature of the bus as a unique social space can work against the bus. But now I want to flip that to how it can work for the bus – because what’s more complex and contrary than human nature? People can enjoy travelling socially and communally in a bus as an antidote to increasingly atomised lives, especially when the journey purpose is more pleasurable than the daily commute.

Shared long tables in restaurants are part of this cautious return to greater sociability. Lounge areas and tables for four on buses further play into the positive aspects of the bus as a social space. The young are most affected by the climate crisis and the least interested in car ownership. The bus offers the opportunity to socialise with friends whilst being car free.

And the bus can also be the vessel where people can socialise in the partial and addictive format of online social media. You can’t drive to work and plug yourself in to the hive mind. You can on a bus. Indeed Translink’s new outer suburban high spec ‘Urby’ services go to the next level by having a clip device on seat backs which will hold a mobile screen in place as well as the USB charger and Wi-Fi.

The design of buses could be part of accentuating the positives of the bus as a physical or digital social space. As could making the bus better reflect the nature of the local social spaces it serves. Futurologists say that the future of the High Street is less about bland and blank chain store consumerism and more about locally authentic, more social experiences. The way buses look and feel can play into this. This is backed up by research which suggests that passengers cut more slack when things go wrong to bus companies whose identity reflects pride in the areas they serve and doubles down on demonstrating that through the quality of the service they offer.

The bus is a unique social space. If, through vehicle design and better support for drivers we can tackle the negatives, and accentuate the positives of this space, then the opportunity is there to win more hearts and minds (both conscious and sub-conscious) for the bus.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.