We recently published our latest eBook, 'Beyond Covid: Building Back Better', an in-depth look at how Covid-19 has affected public transport around the world – and how industry leaders see opportunities to rebuild for a brighter future.
We explore the changes in our industry since the onset of the pandemic and examine which factors might influence the ‘new normal’ that we have all heard so much about. We also probe some positive outcomes from the crisis, such as the rapid and agile response of transport operators and their willingness to adopt radical new technologies. This trend has helped mitigate some of the consequences of Covid and promises to deliver significant customer service benefits as we emerge from lockdown for what will hopefully be the final time.
Public transport, like most segments of society, has been rocked by the pandemic, but it has risen to the challenge. The key will be whether the sector can be a beneficiary of the rapid changes we have witnessed over the last year. Are we about to witness a bright new beginning as governments and authorities around the world seek to ‘build back better’?
Here are five things you can learn from the eBook:
1. Transport operators need to work proactively to encourage passengers to return
Providing effective public transport to ensure key workers and the most vulnerable can access essential services has been key. It has also been imperative that transport operators supply sufficient capacity to not only ensure social distancing but also offer reassurance to passengers that transport links are being maintained.
In Canada, the city of Montreal chose to maintain service levels in 2020 at 2019 levels – despite the fact patronage was about 35% of what it was before Covid-19 hit. Luc Tremblay, Director General of Société de Transport de Montréal said that the city had made that choice to ensure services are available when riders decide to return. “It’s the key,” said Tremblay. “Build it and they will come.”
Meanwhile, the Toronto Transit Commission has initiated a policy of using passenger demand to guide service delivery on its bus network. The move aims to ensure that those who are most reliant on public transport are getting the best service possible.
In the UK, National Express Bus has deployed our SwiftMetrics bus network analysis platform across its entire network, helping the operator to boost service performance, and understand and anticipate changes in demand as coronavirus restrictions change from week-to-week.
The bus operator’s network has also actually expanded, despite patronage being 60% of what it was pre-Covid, in order to assist with social distancing and keeping key workers on the move. Today National Express Bus is running 103% of the service it did before the pandemic hit. It means the operator is well placed to offer sufficient capacity as soon as passengers return in growing numbers.
“It’s the key. Build it and they will come.”
2. But there’s still a long way to go to rebuild patronage
The transport sector was not in a position of strength before the pandemic. In many places, public transport held a low and static market share and faced stiff competition from the private car as the dominant, and in many cases default, mode of transport.
At CPT’s recent UK Bus & Coach Conference, Katy Taylor, Go-Ahead Group’s Chief Strategy & Customer Officer, reminded delegates that before the pandemic, the passenger transport industry was not shouting about how brilliant passenger numbers were.
“We weren’t going on about how buses were this amazing growth industry ... We were in an industry that was struggling,” she said. “We were struggling to attract people. We were struggling to get our voices heard ... And so let’s remember that when we talk about getting up to 70% or 80% [of pre-pandemic ridership], we actually need to get up to 120%, 140%. That’s actually where we need to be getting to.”
How long will it take for ridership to recover to pre-pandemic levels? Will it ever recover, given the increased propensity of people to work from home and do their shopping online? How hard will it be to reverse the strong, authoritarian ‘avoid public transport’ message?
“Let’s remember that when we talk about getting up to 70% or 80%, we actually need to get up to 120%, 140%.”
3. A new era for the ‘agile’ bus operator
Trends that were already evident before the pandemic may in many cases accelerate. Employers of all shapes and sizes have discovered that it is perfectly possible for their employees to effectively and efficiently work from home and have reported steep gains in productivity. According to a survey conducted for CCS Insights, 60% of business leaders in Western Europe and North America expect at least 25% of their workforce, and in some cases, all of their staff, to work at least partly from home post-Covid.
Coupled with the dramatic rise of online shopping, this obviously has implications for transport operators. Many will find their traditional ‘bread and butter’ markets evaporating – we may even see the demise of the traditional morning and evening ‘rush hour’ peaks.
We were already living through a period of great demographic change with many major city regions expecting to see population growth over the next decade. This will also now no doubt be boosted by economic measures aimed at revitalising local economies.
Agile bus operators reacting to this landscape can expect to reap the benefits. It is therefore imperative that both operators and local transport authorities work together to avoid short-termism in the immediate post-Covid era.
At the recent CPT UK Bus & Coach Conference, David Bradford, MD of National Express West Midlands, urged the industry to avoid a “Beeching moment”. He argued that operators should avoid slashing and burning routes and mileage as, like the Beeching railway cuts of the 1960s, there would be no going back. Instead, he called for subsidies to be directed at passengers in order to drive growth in the economy.
He continued: "Give it to people who need jobs or are retraining, give it to people who need new skills or new work. Let’s help people by buying them bus passes ... Let’s make it a passenger-led recovery that helps people build back habits of public transport use."
“Let’s make it a passenger-led recovery that helps people build back habits of public transport use.”
4. Buses will play a big part in the post-pandemic recovery and efforts to decarbonise local transport.
Even before Covid struck, buses found themselves higher up the political agenda than ever before.
In the United States, Pete Buttigieg, the new Secretary of Transportation, knows the power of public transport. In a previous role as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he worked closely with the South Bend Public Transportation Corporation during his two terms to role out a 'complete streets' approach that favoured greener transport. As a 2020 Presidential candidate, he also outlined an infrastructure plan centred on a ‘Vision Zero’ policy and the need to tackle the backlog of investment in public transport.
Some industry figures in North America believe that it is not too fanciful for the bus industry to aspire to a new era of growth. With the car dominant and public transport maintaining a low and, in many cases, diminishing market share, a shake-up of established norms could therefore benefit the industry.
Writing in the 2020 Annual Report for the American Public Transportation Association, APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said: “Our industry has a long history of reinventing itself and of re-emerging stronger from such crises as the 1918 pandemic, the Great Depression, and the recurrence of social upheavals. We have been tested again this past year. Staying united as an industry and staying dedicated to a common good will carry us through this uncertain time and bring us to a stronger place.”
In the UK, just days after becoming the Prime Minister in July 2019, Boris Johnson declared local bus services to be amongst his government’s domestic priorities. He made a pledge to improve services so “people don’t have to drive” which saw plans for a National Bus Strategy announced by Transport Minister Baroness Vere just before Covid hit. She promised a “transformational year” for buses in England.
Even amid all the gloom as bus patronage collapsed in late March 2020, the Department for Transport published a Decarbonising Transport document that placed modal shift to public transport at the centre of its vision to decarbonise transport. In the foreword, transport secretary Grant Shapps wrote: “We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”
“We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”
5. Transport operators have learnt the value of the latest cutting-edge technology
No-one will ever again claim that it takes weeks to rework a timetable or add new functionality to an app or website. As we have already seen, Covid forced the industry to be at its most agile and that has seen the adoption of new working practices and technologies at a pace never before seen in the industry. Indeed, in the space of 10 weeks, National Express West Midlands conducted six full reschedules of its entire network during England’s first national lockdown.
Our team at Cityswift have witnessed this adoption of innovative techniques and technologies at close quarters. We worked with bus operators like National Express and the Go-Ahead Group to deploy new technological solutions that have helped them to enhance service performance, understand and anticipate changes in demand as well as create new tools to help passengers plan socially distanced journeys.
“When Covid first hit and the lockdowns started and we saw passenger demand fall, the one thing that surprised me was how quick the response was,” our CEO Brian O’Rourke said during a panel discussion at last year’s Joe Wood Scheduler of the Year Award. “The speed that changes were able to be made, schedules were done and the innovations that went alongside it. I think it was massive and really important to see that the industry … can be nimble.”
Speaking at CPT’s UK Bus & Coach Conference, Katy Taylor said that the pandemic had sped up the industry’s adoption of digital channels and tools that were already being used pre-pandemic. “They’ve become more essential and more important,” she observed.
Taylor said that schedulers have “never been more important”, and pointed out that they are using new tools and technologies to review and revise networks, Technology is also providing better information for front line staff, enabling them to keep their passengers informed.
“The one thing that surprised me was how quick the response was.”
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