'Levelling up'

‘Bus Back Better’ – Transport geographers are vital to its success

By John Austin, Managing Director of MobiHub

This article has been republished with permission from the Transport Geography Research Group. You can read the original article here.

The long-awaited National Bus Strategy for England was finally launched on March 15th, with the personal stamp of the Prime Minister: “I love buses” he writes in his Foreword.

It’s visionary, with a statement that ‘Buses are at the centre of the public transport network, making 4.07 billion journeys in England in 2019/20, more than twice as many as the railways’, leading its Introductory chapter. It’s also written with a desire for rapid progress. ‘Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport.      Better bus services can be delivered in months.’

Yet it’s also prescriptive, with the government offering the continuance of the discretionary public money that the industry needs as a result of the pandemic ONLY in return for a commitment to establish Enhanced Partnerships (or to begin the statutory process of Franchising) by each of the 81 English Local Transport Authorities (LTAs), together with the writing of a Bus Service Improvement Plan. This money is in the form of CBSSG (COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant): there to maintain local bus networks as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, with a continued lower level of bus patronage as we stay at home and as our commuting patterns reflect a permanent change from Covid-19’s legacy.

Those actions by LTAs are required very quickly: with the commitments as above required by the end of June this year, and the publication of a local Bus Service Improvement Plan (to be updated annually and reflected in the LTA’s Local Transport Plan) needed by the end of October. From April 2022 LTAs will only be able to access the new discretionary streams of funding available if by that date they have an Enhanced Partnership in place or are following the statutory process required to consider a franchising scheme.

That will require a lot of work, in order not only to deliver Agreements and Plans that tick the government’s boxes but, of course more importantly, also to ensure that they are both ‘fit for purpose’ and are the RIGHT ones. In his always-excellent Bus and Train User blog, referring to theNational Bus Strategy, Roger French writes ‘One of the few detailed funding commitments in the document is £25 million to give “LTAs the skills and people they need to deliver this strategy” in 2021/22. Frankly, there’s only one thing worse than remote based bus company management designing bus networks for local areas, and that’s even remoter based consultants advising unskilled local authorities what their local bus network should look like.”

To help avoid that potential disaster Local Authorities and operators would be very well-advised to have Geographers at the heart of the teams delivering this. The National Bus Strategy has ‘Geographic’ written all over it. People with interpretive geographic skills, an understanding of geospatial software, and the ability to quickly gain local knowledge, or possessing it already – a key skill of geographers – will be essential practitioners right at the heart of delivery of the strategy.

Geography generally is about seeing the relationships between different places, different communities and different objects and about drawing the implications; about identifying patterns in the data based on evidence; about seeing how and why some things pertaining to spatial relationships change over time and why others stay the same.

Economic geographers understand how and why these relationships impact on the economy – through their effects on individuals, on businesses, on institutions and on the economy generally. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists understand the minutiae, the benefits, and the pitfalls, of the software systems and processes used to model geographic behaviour and relationships. And transport geographers bring all these together with their analysis focussed on flows, movement, and transition.

What will the National Bus Strategy have to deliver if it is to succeed? Well, first of all, better performance. There will be no increase in bus service patronage, no making buses a mode of first choice rather than of last resort, no raising of the product quality, without bus priority to give better reliability. And the Strategy states that ‘There must be significant increases in bus priority’. That requires geospatial data on the details and the patterns of where buses are at different times of day and under different conditions; and it requires the bus operators, in partnership with the local transport authority, to have both the software and the trained, experienced control staff to enable a quick response to situations on the ground.

In the largest of the big cities – those with Mayoral Combined Authorities – Key Route Networks, with (the implication) key bus corridors – will need to be defined and controlled according to the Bus Service Improvement Plan. This will require an understanding of the relationships between different sections of route, and between different communities served by those corridors.

The National Bus Strategy places great emphasis on Networks and it recognises the importance of the relationship between services, places, times, and area features. It acknowledges that different areas need different types of networks (e.g. ‘Superbus networks for “intermediate” areas – neither fully urbanised nor deeply rural’). This requires geographic understanding. The link between areas is recognised in the Strategy through the desire for more through fares, easily available.

This link is also acknowledged in the desire to have integration of service patterns between modes: ‘Railway stations should be hubs for connecting services with high quality stops close to station entrances. Schemes that move buses further away from stations should not be allowed’. Bus network design and scheduling skills will be needed, with the ability to recognise and design flexible, attractive, demand responsive services, centred around hubs.

Place Design is also important to designing bus networks that are attractive. Geographical concepts of proximity, connectivity and links are all critical, and Local Transport Plans will be encouraged to recognise that, being centred on place-based strategies with a place-based approach to investment. At a more detailed level, local geospatial data is important, with a need to have accessibility data about bus stations and bus stops. The National Bus Strategy assures us that the government ‘will make sure that apps can provide passengers with accessibility data about bus stations and stops’.

This emphasis on both timeliness and accuracy is also shown in the Strategy’s call for up-to-date static and understandable passenger information, of which geospatial accuracy is a key part. ‘A number of apps and websites give inaccurate information when tested. Web searches for particular routes often also bring up old timetable PDFs which have since changed. Every town, city and rural area should have published, up to date maps.

All this is great – as long as the funding is there. In referring to the £3bn ‘new funding’ Roger French writes in his blog “Let’s not get too dewey eyed about an amount previously unheard of in bus sector financial support circles because it’s got to last for five full funding years. And not just five unprecedented years of an inevitable slow recovery from the Covid shock of plummeting demand and changed lifestyles and travel patterns but a five year period of funding unprecedented aspirational improvements for buses that this strategy promises.”

When the funding runs out there will be an inevitable danger that activity in the bus sector will be cut back sharply (as has happened on occasions in the past). So it is essential that in this period there are lessons learnt about what works and what doesn’t, and also a monitoring of how realistic the Bus Service Improvement Plans have proved to be. All these provide invaluable lessons for the future. This is where Research with a Transport Geography focus will come into its own as the spatial thinking involved in that will be essential to a full understanding.

In my view the research should be objective-driven and focused on one (or two or all) of three areas. Firstly, the commercial needs of partners: notably bus operators, but also any partner organisation providing services, infrastructure or facilities supporting bus networks. Secondly, of course, bus passengers and bus potential passengers. Thirdly, the policy and community objectives of partners involved in bus networks and of the groups they represent. This group of partners will be most notably local authorities and other relevant public sector bodies; but could also include community organisations and business entities.

There will be several key areas for research which involves spatial relationships and relies on geographic insight as a major element. One major one is sustainable business models to take us beyond the £3bn new funding. Another is research into principles and success factors for the design of networks, nodes and links which involve fast bus corridors and cost-effective demand-responsive services enabling connectivity into and out of the nodes. A third is research into the usability of and attitudes towards the maps and interchange features introduced as part of Bus Service Improvement Plans. There are many more.

If Geographers are not involved at the heart of rolling out and monitoring the National Bus Strategy then government, operators, their passengers, and the whole community will have lost out.

About the author: John Austin, CGeog (Econ), is Managing Director of MobiHub, a consultancy that applies geographical insights to develop transport strategy, and is the current Secretary of the Transport Geography Research Group. He is an economics graduate of the University of Cambridge, and started his transport career as a senior management trainee with the UK’s National Bus Company group. In 2000 he was awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to visit Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore to study rapid urban transit, the use of ITS in delivering passenger information for public transport users, and the linkages between land-use planning and transport planning. He has worked throughout the UK and Europe, and in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Israel, Kazakhstan and Turkey.

In 1996 he developed the early ‘UK Public Transport Information’ internet portal, and is a co-author of ‘Public Transport Information Websites – How to get it right – A Best Practice Guide’, with Susan Kenyon and Glenn Lyons, published in 2001. He also wrote the chapter on Technology and Social Media in the ‘Handbook on Transport and Urban Planning in the Developed World’ (published in 2016,edited by M C J Bliemer, C Mulley and C J Moutou).

In March 2021 he was awarded a Fellowship from the Foundation for Integrated Transport to develop a methodology to identify potential Mobility Hub locations in the South West region of England, using geographical modelling techniques and a wide range of datasets.

Suggested further reading

Gray, D., Shaw, J. & Farringdon, J. (2006). Community transport, social capital and social exclusion in rural areas. Area, 38, 89 – 98. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00662.x.

Docherty, I. (2002). Interrogating the ten-year transport plan. Area, 33, 321 – 328. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-4762.00035.

Shaw, J. & Hesse, M. (2010). Transport, geography and the ‘new’ mobilities. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 305 – 312. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00382.x

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