There are a number of problems with bus transport, which often lead to an inefficient use of buses and subsidy. Routes, location of bus stops and timetables are often based on historic patterns with only the occasional incremental change being made when a fundamental recasting of services is what is needed.
Because different operators run different services, they often don’t join up well, whether in terms of timetables or physical distance between stops. Using different operators’ services, even on the same route can require different tickets. Gaps in services mean that public transport is not viable for many journeys - these can be gaps in time, such as a lack of an evening or weekend service, or in space, where there is no regular service for suburbs and villages.
‘Milkround’ or ‘wandering minstrel’ services are sometimes created to ensure that areas keep some form of bus service. Because they are far from direct, such services do not offer competitive journey times compared to cars, so they appeal only to a small proportion of the population who have no alternative. The lack of economies of scale they can require heavy subsidies. In rural areas there is an increasing shift to ‘Demand Responsive Transport’, which is often available to particular classes of people, such as local residents or those with disabilities. The result is often managed decline of an increasingly fractured public transport system that makes it harder to live without a car.
One ticket, one network
On the continent, a ‘one ticket, one network’ philosophy has transformed public transport. Of course this already exists in London but other countries have shown it can work in towns and even rural areas not just large cities.
What this means is one ticket, often with a simple to understand zonal fare system, can be used across different forms of public transport, whether train, bus, taxi-bus or even boat. Simplified network maps show how the different lines fit together, while services are recast into convenient interchange points and carefully designed timetables make it easy to change between different routes and forms of transport.
This approach recognises the need for cross-subsidisation - the more profitable routes at peak times subsidise services in evenings and those to more sparsely populated areas. This means better services are more viable and everyone benefits. Because many people have a weekly or monthly pass, public transport operators have a steady, guaranteed source of income to invest further with.
Securing a continental approach in England is not easy due to bus deregulation, which means that you will need to secure the buy-in of a range of commercial operators as well as local authorities, but it can be done. Three examples stand out.
The Lincolnshire Interconnect bus service is made up of regular Interconnect services between towns which are supplemented by Callconnect services. The Callconnect services have to be booked in advance and feed passengers into the main network as well as to places where there is not enough demand to justify a regular service.
The Network St Albans is a partnership to improve travel options, particularly bus services. Bringing together the local councils, public transport operators, the university, business groups and community groups, it has developed a zonal fare system and an integrated network of public transport services with simple maps using a ‘quality partnership’.
A £2.5m, a three year smart ticketing pilot scheme was launched in Norfolk in 2013. This covers all bus operators, including smaller rural operators and includes an E-Purse (a smart card you can charge up with cash), a Norfolk Dayrider pass and a youth (16-19) discount ticket. If successful, this could be rolled out nationally, possibly before the the pilot period ends.
Further national changes to bus subsidies are due and this means that it is difficult to plan ahead. So some local authorities may wish to wait to let other areas trial new ways of delivering bus services.