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.

Getting beyond the MaaS hysteria

MaaS Movement cover social size

I don’t know about you but I’ve seen more than enough Power Points by now explaining with breathless excitement what Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is – as if no-one had ever heard about it before. And as if frequent repetition of the phrase in itself has alchemic properties which render immaterial base considerations as economics. So in the report we recently published on MaaS, we’ve tried to get beyond the MaaS hysteria and delve deeper into the real issues on turning the considerable potential of the concept into reality on the ground.

However, first it’s worth acknowledging how understanding of what people mean when they say Mobility as a Service has shifted in recent years. When this clumsy technocratic phrase (which unfortunately we are all now stuck with) first emerged it was commonly understood to mean the purchasing of packages for access to public transport combined with different forms of vehicle hire and sometimes bikes. It has since morphed to include portals for access to information and purchase of individual trips, and further evolved into the potential for the creation of ‘walled gardens’ where international corporations seek to ensure that you always go to them for transport information and payment (thus seeking to reproduce the monopoly platform model that has ultimately proved so profitable for Airbnb, Amazon, Google et al).

So far, despite all the fervour and theology about MaaS, what’s been achieved on the ground so far is rather less clear cut. At scale take up of MaaS (as originally defined as packages of mobility) is difficult to find. Indeed, we are at a point where the future of MaaS is still to be determined. It could be a system that steers people towards greater use of cars or away from them. It could make travelling easier for all, no matter their income, disability or location, or it could make mobility easier for tech-savvy, city centre dwellers and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalised. It could be a great concept that takes off at scale or one that people don’t need or want in practice.

Our report identified three factors that will determine the future of MaaS. The first is the topic that nobody seems to want to talk about when it comes to MaaS – which is money. The challenge for MaaS (where this means packages of mobility) is how you price the package at a rate where all the different providers involved make a return at a price the punters are willing to pay. Not easy unless either the public sector or the private sector is prepared to take a hit to ensure that cost is kept low.

A purely private sector-led MaaS could be prepared to burn cash in the short term in the hope of establishing a profitable monopoly in the long term. A purely public sector-led MaaS may be willing to do the same because the outcomes are worth the costs.

And then there’s the awkward question of how many people want to buy a package of mobility in the first place, rather than pay as they go – and who are they? Not clear yet. However, I always remember speaking to the person who runs the MaaS offer in a German city where the transport authority has been doing what is now described as MaaS for years and he said he thought it was good to be able to offer it, but it’s a niche product. He said most people will get a taxi when they want one rather than pay up front for access to taxis they may not use. One radical viewpoint on the economics of MaaS is that the real breakthrough would be to fuse MaaS with the pricing of road use to put paying to use your own car on contested and congested road space on the same app and pricing framework as for public transport, taxis and car hire.

The second make or break for MaaS is access to data. This factor is much more commonly covered in the debate on MaaS – so I won’t go into detail here. But with data now commonly seen as the earth’s most valuable commodity there are some big questions around how you get to the point of ‘if I show you mine will you show me yours?’

The third determinant is around the extent to which wider environmental, transport and social goals are encoded into the objectives of MaaS schemes. So, alongside the consumer benefits of a MaaS scheme to what extent does it relate to the wider goals that cities have to become healthier, greener, fairer and more prosperous places? For example, will MaaS schemes encourage people to make more short journeys on foot or by bike (good for public health and for reducing road congestion) or will they subtly promote the use of modes which can be more readily monetised for profit (such as taxis). The same risk is there for public transport if MaaS schemes promote taxi and hire car use at the expense of buses in particular.

Another big question is the extent to which MaaS schemes will also enable everyone in a city region to access opportunity or whether they default to targeting wealthier, city centre living early adopters?

If MaaS is about more than just those who already have the luxury of choice on transport (and much else besides), how could it be adapted to provide affordable options to low income groups?

Or how could it be used to precisely target information about transport options that work best given the nature of a person’s particular disabilities?

And in relation to this to what extent could MaaS dovetail with the concept of Total Transport to also incorporate currently silo-ed provision of social services, education and non emergency patient transport services to provide a more efficient service overall?

How MaaS evolves may also vary between the very largest city regions in the world and the rest. The world cities are those where the impacts of the big tech ‘platforms’ are being most widely felt. The world cities also have the most clout and resources to assert themselves if they so wish. At a time when housing costs are already the number one public concern in many of these cities, Airbnb is turning precious private and public housing stock into quasi-legal flop houses and pouring more petrol onto the flames of extreme financialisation of housing in the process. Meanwhile, on transport there is evidence that Uber and equivalents can eat into mass transit use (particularly in the US). And now there is the potential (depending on how MaaS develops) for Californian corporations to usurp the city’s role as trusted and impartial provider of transport information and access in the process, they are potentially also extending their control into cities’ transport planning role. In short, the world cities have some big decisions to make about the big tech platforms.

In the UK the role that second tier city regions play on MaaS may also be a product of their different circumstances and aspirations as they may well be hemmed in by their, as yet, limited influence over the core of any MaaS offer – public transport. This role could also be hampered by the hollowing out of local government by recent national administrations which means the resources that even some of the larger city regions have at their disposal to engage with issues like MaaS are highly constrained. However, we still suggest ‘five tests for good MaaS’ in our report that could be a useful frame for any urban area to think about MaaS:

  1. Does it incentivise public transport use?
  2. Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
  3. Is there a culture of openness/data sharing?
  4. Is it socially inclusive?
  5. Does it encourage active lifestyles?

Whether we are on the verge of a MaaS movement, or experiencing MaaS delusion, is not yet clear. But what is clear is that city regions will have a key role to play in determining whether MaaS is fool’s gold or the real thing.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

Sociable housing meets public transport – 10 things I learned in Eindhoven

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The UK has a housing crisis. Not enough of the right kind of homes in the right formats in the right places and at the right price. We can and must do better and part of this means making better connections between transport and housing (and professionals working in these two sectors) in order to get more of the right kind of homes in the right places, especially more homes which are readily accessible by public transport, cycling and walking. In pursuit of this aim, this summer I took part in the Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress (in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands) on the theme of affordable housing.

You can download a full report on the ten things I learnt at the event here – including how you may soon be able to print your own house; why social housing is back in the UK and why this could mean more opportunities for infill transit orientated development could happen; where in the world the most revered cities are on housing (spoiler alert – they are also great on public transport!); and how tired conventions around what a house should be are set for some overdue disruption.

My biggest takeaway? On housing, every country is, to some extent, a prisoner of its past and in the UK that past has put us in a difficult and moribund place. However, at the same time, change is here. The political damage and popular dissatisfaction that extreme financialisation of housing is causing is also now placing limits on further commodification. This has also helped contribute to the comeback of public, social and sociable housing. All of which means there are big opportunities out there to do everything at the same time to create great places to live, which are both environmentally and sociably sustainable. And of course, transit oriented.

Read the full report.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group