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Implementing the new national bus strategy: Know your evidence base

England’s new national bus strategy, Bus Back Better, sets out to revitalise bus services, placing expectations on Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) to come up with initiatives that will make travelling by bus appealing to more people.

At its core, it seeks to grow bus ridership as part of the solution to free communities from congestion and make meaningful steps towards reducing carbon emissions at a national level. 

While the Net Zero goal isn’t new, the pandemic has thrown the public transportation sector into a new uncertainty, making it harder to know what to expect. Bus Back Better therefore presents a significant challenge for LTAs, but one that comes at exactly the right time.

Public transportation has been hit hard by lockdowns and people’s reluctance to travel in close proximity to others. The UK has witnessed a significant shift from public transport to private cars.  Bus journeys, in particular, are still at about 60 percent of their pre-pandemic levels outside London. 

With limited budgets and time to introduce changes across their bus networks, LTAs may feel they are facing an impossible task to grow bus ridership quickly. 

Where to start?
Put simply, the Bus Back Better strategy aims to grow bus ridership. But, depending on the size of the population, the geography, and the current state of their bus network, each LTA will have different needs, and should therefore define their success factors to fit their circumstances.

“The key thing to begin with is a sound evidence base that allows you to understand what your starting point is and what your options may be,” commented WSP’s Mike Holmes. “In order for your strategy to be deliverable, it has to be credible.

“For metropolitan areas, relieving congestion and ensuring 24-hour bus timetable coverage may be the key goals. For some rural areas, on the other hand, ensuring better accessibility is the starting point. Having one bus per hour may be the right measure of success initially.”

Teralytics’ Matthew Bragg commented: “The LTAs and bus operators have a lot of questions at the moment. Even outside the expectations of the national bus strategy, the effects of the pandemic are still unfolding. Knowing which routes may start to see changes in traffic volumes, shifts across modes of transport, or changes in peak travel times – are all critical insights needed to make bus services more accessible, better integrated and overall, more profitable.”

Potential solutions may be obvious – for example, provide more radial routes to city centres or extend timetable coverage, but where does one start? 

“The reason our customers are turning to our digital platform to analyse mobility insights from mobile network data is the need to understand what mobility looks like right now, rather than some time ago,” said Bragg.

“At the time of the 2011 Census, before the one just completed, there was no Uber, no iPad, no ticketing systems running on phones. Technology has shaped what’s possible in transportation, and new solutions are enabling authorities to understand what works for them and identify viable new business cases.”

Holmes added: “It is indisputable that intelligence driven systems, such as that of Teralytics, speed up the ability to act on demand. Unimaginable previously.

“There is a tangible sense of pressure with the approaching October deadline to submit plans and to have everything lined up by April 2022. The formation of the evidence base is critical for this process to be meaningful. In our work with clients, we must understand what is the current situation, how it may differ from the past, and where we want to be in the future.

“It’s important not to attempt to tackle all the goals outlined in the Strategy, rather to start with what can realistically drive change given the resources at hand.

“Target those areas that you know, based on your evidence base, are going to grow patronage, influence sustainability, and grow  revenue over time. While best practice examples are available, success will most likely be derived from a set of measures unique to your situation,” concluded Holmes.

Holmes and Bragg agree that LTAs should think of next April as a starting line. The Department of Transport has already made it clear that they will expect LTAs to iterate on their plans year-on-year. Make sure you’re off to the best start you can have by knowing what mobility needs your bus network can realistically cater to. 

  • Are the bus stops placed at a convenient distance from home and work locations?
  • Is your bus network taking into account where people shop and spend their leisure time?
  • Are you leaving city outskirts and rural areas behind?

Knowing the answers to these questions now will help you shape the optimal bus strategy for your area.