How can the UK Successfully ‘Bus Back Better’?
In March, the UK Government published ‘Bus Back Better’ – its vision for the future of buses across the country.
This lengthy strategy document sets out their aim to make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to use, better coordinated and ultimately cheaper. Achieving these aims should make buses more attractive to travellers, which will reduce our dependence on car ownership and reduce congestion on the road network.
The government set out a different approach for urban and rural areas, with ambition and innovation at heart. Urban areas are expected to focus on bus priority schemes that ensure services are faster, more reliable and more attractive to travellers, whilst rural areas should tackle the lower density challenge with new forms of provision such as demand-responsive services with lower capacity vehicles.
Crucially, the local transport authorities (LTAs) will need to develop Bus Service Improvement Plans in collaboration with local bus operators, community transport bodies and local businesses, services and people, with clear targets monitored every six months.
Whilst complex, the BSIP will need to cover these key items:
- Cover the LTA’s full area, all local bus services within it, and the differing needs of any parts of that area (e.g. urban and rural elements)
- Consider how the network should serve the school, health, social care, employment and other services.
- Drive improvement in accessibility for all.
- Set targets for journey times and reliability improvements (for the LTA as a whole and in each of the largest cities and towns in its area) – to be reported against publicly at least every six months.
- Identify where bus priority measures are needed, including consideration of Bus Rapid Transit routes to transform key corridors and how traffic management can be improved to benefit buses.
- Demonstrate how bus services are integrated with other types of transport in their area, such as connectivity to train stations and cycling and walking schemes, complementing these forms of travel and not competing with them.
- Focus on delivering the bus network that LTAs (in consultation with operators) want to see, including how to address the under-provision and overprovision of bus services and buses integrating with other modes.
- Be updated annually and reflected in the authority’s Local Transport Plan*and in other relevant local plans such as Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs).
- Set out pressures on the road network, air quality issues and carbon reduction targets which improved bus services could address.
- Set targets for passenger growth and customer satisfaction.
- Set out plans and costs for fares, ticketing and modal integration. Ultimately the strategy aims to see multi-modal ticketing.
- Set out how they will achieve the objectives of the national strategy, including growing bus use, and include a detailed plan for delivery.
For this strategy and initial pilots to be successful, LTAs will ultimately need to achieve three things:
Ultimately, the success of these schemes will be based on whether the value was gained from the upfront investment.
For small scale pilots, this is often tricky as many benefits are felt when services operate at scale – but data and customer feedback can help us understand the ROI.
To give pilots the best chance of success, data-driven service planning is crucial.
Operators and LTAs must focus on the areas that stand to benefit the most – potentially they are currently underserved by public transportation or they have the right demographic mix to be attracted to a new service offering.
Data should be used to inform the initial business case and fleet service simulation tools used to model different scenarios.
Scale-up service from initial pilots
Once a pilot has been kicked off, you need to rapidly adapt the service parameters to keep improving the service and help you scale it up.
A demand responsive bus service may start with two buses serving a small sub-area, but we need to learn quickly how this can be upgraded to 100 buses (for example) across an entire city.
Again, this can only be achieved effectively using data and simulation to test the service across different areas – since every area will have a different network and demographic characteristics.
Integrate with a wider transport service network
A major part of the strategy focused on solution integration with other local services.
This involves physical infrastructure alignment, operational coordination, and institutional alliances. Unfortunately, none of these factors are straightforward.
The good news is that data and digital experimentation can prove the benefits of a joined-up network to all stakeholders. Simulating a ‘perfectly coordinated’ system can help guide the LTA and bus operators to an efficient final destination.
Investing in UK bus services is an important and timely opportunity. New technology can enable cleaner, smarter transportation for authorities around the country.
The ability to make good decisions about local investment in bus systems needs to be driven by data and modelling. Testing scenarios in the digital world can help prove the return on investment, identify future scale-up opportunities and support integration with the wider transport service network.
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