Rethinking the way we design bus services for a sustainable, inclusive future

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 13th August 2020 by Sam Ryan.

Mass transport is vital not only for decarbonisation but also for an inclusive, congestion-free future. Without effective mass transport (alongside active travel), our towns and cities will grind to a halt and many people will become excluded from society – unable to reach work or education. Yet, our public transport systems face a crisis in passenger confidence and commercial viability. This week, we saw a second bailout of £256M for bus and light rail operators outside of London but the life support can’t go on forever; and indeed, should it?

Before Covid-19, nearly 15% of bus transport outside of London was subsidized and with bus subsidies falling by a third every 5 years, bus mileage dropped by 13.2% between 2005 and 2019 (DfT, 2019). With commuting and shopping trip volumes unlikely to ever return to their previous levels as we work more flexibly and shop more online, the public purse will come under increasing strain and more services will be cut. Whilst public transport shouldn’t be judged on commercial viability alone, we’ve all witnessed enough bus service cuts to understand the importance of balancing profitability with the need to ensure access and inclusivity for all.

We should also question how bus service design is performing with respect to access and inclusivity. Despite the subsidies provided, over 70% of people outside of London still choose to drive to work and as transport professionals, we are continuously wrangling with the issue that so many people remain isolated from public transport, unable to reach work or education.

Electrification is incredibly important for the decarbonisation agenda but we need more people using mass transport to amplify the impact. To achieve that, it’s time to think completely differently about how we design bus services for inclusivity and commercial viability. It’s time to throw out the old rulebook – it’s not working and it certainly won’t get us where we need to be.

First, services should be designed for the individual, not the masses. We seem to have forgotten that people use public transport for different purposes at different times. Frequent services operating on fixed routes throughout the day might work in large cities like London but for the majority of places, it results in empty buses, loss making routes and an inconvenient and non competitive service versus using a car. We often make these route planning decisions based on inclusivity and ensuring ‘access for all’ but what’s inclusive about routes being cut later because they lose too much money? And what’s inclusive about providing services that are so inconvenient that nobody wants to use them?

Instead, we should design flexible networks that focus on commuters and school children at peak times on specific direct routes and leisure and healthcare trips at other times of day. We have all the data, technology and business models to make this happen; to deliver more flexible networks that are designed around the needs of the individual. These more flexible services, delivered by express peak time routes and demand-responsive off-peak services will be more commercially viable, will reduce private car dependency and (despite the historic assumptions of transport planners) will deliver a more inclusive service.

That will improve occupancy levels and allow us to access new sources of funding; creating cost efficiencies and appealing to schools and employers who benefit greatly from more convenient transport options. Not only does it widen their pool of potential students or staff (who can now access the site), it reduces their need for car parking (which can be used for other purposes), supports their corporate sustainability goals and improves staff and student wellbeing and timeliness. This encourages these partners to support the service both financially and by providing incentives to staff and students to boost usage. Companies like Zeelo provide the technology and business model that allows public sector subsidies to be combined with farebox income and private sector support.

In fact, given these enormous incentives for companies, we should be enforcing their cooperation in sustainable commuting; whether it be mass transport, active travel or carpooling. Many countries already do this and cities like Nottingham have led with the workplace parking levy but it’s time we rolled this out nationwide.

Talking of incentives, people need to be rewarded for walking, cycling, scooting and using mass transport. At present, there is little incentive for car users to swap for a sustainable alternative. We are naive to rely on the altruism of individuals to take responsibility. Instead, we should invest in incentives to encourage sustainable modes (mobility credits, priority lanes etc) and make driving cars at peak times less convenient and more expensive (unless absolutely necessary).

To execute these changes effectively, we will need to combine the experience of the incumbent operators, planners and regulators with the innovation and agility of the private sector newcomers. DfT’s focus on decarbonising transport is timely – much of the technological and business model innovation is ready to harness and new habits present an opportunity for change; but meeting the ambitious targets will require bravery, not to just play the transport game. We need to change it for good.

About the Author

This post was written by Sam Ryan. Sam is the Co-Founder & CEO of Zeelo