The publication of Bus Back Better, the long-awaited National Bus Strategy for England, has been welcomed by the bus industry.
James McCarthy, Head of Operations at CitySwift, gives us his thoughts of how the National Bus Strategy can be delivered, firstly through improving bus journey times and punctuality.
England's National Bus Strategy sets an ambitious vision for revolutionising the provision of local bus services. For the first time, there is a national strategy that commits public transport operators and Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) to working closely to foster a new environment that will elevate the bus to a new level.
This is the first of a series of articles that will examine different aspirations of the strategy and offer some thoughts on how it can be delivered – beginning with the challenge of improving bus journey times and punctuality.
Transport Focus survey work has consistently identified journey time and punctuality as two of the key drivers of bus user satisfaction. In 2020, Transport Focus published research on bus passengers’ priorities for improvement in England. Importantly, this research examined the views of non-bus-users as well as users. Punctuality was listed among the top five of more than 30 individual options for service improvement and was especially important to younger people.
Ever increasing traffic congestion in our towns and cities has been like quicksand for buses, making services run longer and less punctual (as well as making them less attractive and less economically viable). Published in 2016, Professor David Begg’s report on The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers highlighted a bus journey time increase of almost 50% over the last 50 years in congested urban areas. If this could have been avoided, he concluded there would “arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today”.
"If we had protected bus passengers from the growth in congestion, there would arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today."
In his foreword to Bus Back Better, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledges this problem. He writes: “As services get slower, they become more expensive to run and less attractive to passengers. It is a classic vicious circle, which we intend to break.”
“As services get slower, they become more expensive to run and less attractive to passengers. It is a classic vicious circle, which we intend to break.”
Bus Back Better aims to open the door to a new era of partnership working between England’s bus operators and Local Transport Authorities (LTAs). At its heart will be Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs), which will be jointly developed by bus operators and LTAs. BSIPs will focus on delivering the bus networks that LTAs want to see in their local area and set out how it will be achieved. Targets will be set for journey times and reliability improvements and LTAs will be required to report on their progress in working towards, or hopefully exceeding these targets every six months. BSIPs must also include a ‘passengers’ charter’, giving bus users the right to certain standards of service, including punctuality.
In the post-Covid world - and bearing in mind the prescriptive requirements of BSIPs - bus punctuality becomes ever more important. If we are to stimulate demand and get passengers back on the bus, it is important that operators offer a punctual service that will give passengers the confidence to use it, especially if we are to avoid them jumping into a car and further clogging up our streets.
With the continued requirement to maintain social distancing, we must work hard to avoid late buses and the bunching that is caused by late running. Bunching creates crowding as passenger numbers build up at stops, and crowding creates bunching.
Meanwhile, Covid has seen society as a whole change. Towns and cities have changed. Workplaces have changed. The way we learn, shop, relax and play has changed. Bus journey times will need to change to reflect that too. At CitySwift, we have already seen the impact of Covid and lockdowns on public transport. Trends that were already emerging in traffic and travel have been exacerbated by the pandemic. This data has the opportunity to feed into the BSIP process.
During lockdown, the bus industry kept its wheels turning, ensuring vital key workers could still get to where they needed to be. As buses kept moving, data continued to be fed into our bus data engine.
This means we now have a unique dataset that shows what bus journey times can look like when unfettered by traffic and congestion. In other words, we now possess the data that can be used to model or simulate what the world can look like with high levels of bus priority.
We now have a unique dataset that shows what bus journey times can look like when unfettered by traffic and congestion.
That offers a unique opportunity for bus operators and LTAs alike. We had already mastered the skills needed to improve the efficiency of bus schedules by reflecting real world traffic conditions. That data can now also be used to give an idea of how bus priority measures can dramatically affect bus journey times. We can also interrogate any given route and highlight where the congestion hotspots are – and model the sorts of improvements that can be expected if, for example, a bus lane is introduced.
And our skills in delivering efficient schedules for bus operators have other benefits in the new world post-Bus Back Better. Enhanced Partnerships will require bus operators, LTAs and other stakeholders to work closely to deliver bus networks. Optimising schedules using data derived from our bus data engine means that efficiencies can be realised, helping to ensure more marginal services can be maintained as part of a cohesive network.
Data tools can be the game-changer that helps us to improve journey times and punctuality – and break the vicious circle identified by Boris Johnson. Together we can make buses more punctual, faster, less expensive to run and more attractive to passengers. We can move to a classic virtuous circle.
James McCarthy is Head of Operations at CitySwift. Read the second part of his series on the National Bus Strategy here.