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Tailoring bus networks for new travel patterns

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Tailoring bus networks for new travel patterns

We are beginning to get a clearer picture of how the pandemic has permanently changed patterns of demand for public transport.

It is perhaps inevitable that some changes will have to be made to address the mismatch between supply and demand. No one wants to cut services in a way that jeopardises further patronage recovery, but data can help operators. 

With the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 fading into memory and the world steadily returning to a form of normality, we are now getting a clearer picture of how the pandemic has shifted the demand for public transport.

Bus patronage has plateaued at around 70% of pre-pandemic levels but bus operators - with the help of emergency financial support from governments - continue to operate around 90% of their pre-Covid networks.

Many people are concerned about returning to buses, perhaps deterred by their own personal health concerns and strong “avoid public transport” messaging from governments at the height of the pandemic that has yet to be reversed. People are simply not willing to share an enclosed space with somebody who may not wear a face-covering but may have a persistent cough.

Others no longer need to make the bus journeys that they routinely did until March 2020. Many now work from home, a cultural shift that took hold during the pandemic and seems unlikely to be fully reversed, especially now many companies, some of them huge corporations, are looking at permanently introducing flexible working. Illustrating the problem, one former commuter told Transport Focus: “I need a good reason to want to spend £25 to go to work when the other option is spend nothing and work from home.”

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At the same time, many of us have become more accustomed to shopping online. The latest retail footfall statistics are 25% down compared with pre-Covid. This is a change that sees bus journeys replaced by delivery van journeys.

At some point, public transport networks will need to be reconfigured to take account of these societal changes. No one wants to prematurely assume that demand will not return and cut back networks in a way that ensures that it doesn’t. Transport for London commissioner Andy Byford fears that this kind of response risks public transport becoming caught in a “death spiral”. However, at the same time, a long term mismatch between supply and demand is not sustainable.

An analysis of Google mobility data undertaken by ING Research found that Covid has had a much greater impact on public transport in the UK than comparable countries in Europe. Public transport volumes (measured by trips to transit stations) over a seven-day period in August were only 4% below pre-Covid levels in France and Switzerland. They were 10% down in Germany, 11% down in Italy, 16% down in Belgium and 17% down in Spain – but 29% down in the UK. Only the Netherlands had a comparable result (25% down).

ING suggested that the reason for this is the service-focused nature of the British and Dutch economies, which makes it easier to work from home. Another explanation may be that nowhere in Europe has a commuter rail network as vast and dense as London and the South East.

Transport analyst Chris Cheek believes that the gap between current patronage and pre-Covid levels will reduce, but a large group of commuters will never return to their old working patterns. His own modelling suggests that rail will lose around 13% of commuters (14.5% in London) permanently, and bus around 8% (9.3% in London).

Speaking to the ITT Hub Lunch with Leon podcast last month, Cheek said that efforts to achieve net zero could boost bus use, but they may not offset the immediate impact of the pandemic.

“There will be a hope that the industry could become self-sustaining again with enough modal shift,” he said. “If you do the sums on what the Climate Change Committee wants in modal shift, then you’re talking about a doubling of bus patronage over the next 10 years.”

However, Chris predicts that the bus industry will require an ongoing support/subsidy mechanism over the next five years in order to maintain service levels.

“If we can get modal shift going, and if we can achieve growth in demand across the country resulting from that, then we could recover,” he said. “But the real worry is what damage has been done in the meantime.

“If we can get modal shift going, and if we can achieve growth in demand across the country resulting from that, then we could recover. But the real worry is what damage has been done in the meantime."

“It is very disturbing to see that car traffic levels went back to 100% straightway in April 2021, have stayed there, and are starting to creep above it.” 

The bus sector will have to work harder than ever to persuade their former passengers to return - but a Plan B is needed where they don’t. 

Emergency funding regimes for public transport are changing, forcing operators to adapt with them. In England, for example, the latest and “final” tranche of emergency funding for bus operators sees weekly payments to the industry reduce from £27.3m a week to around £7.5m a week - recognising that most (but not all) passengers will return over the coming months. This new regime has been running since September 1 and will end on March 31 next year. It provides a fixed subsidy based on key metrics, “ensuring the sector can begin to return to commerciality”. It is intended to give operators greater flexibility to adapt services to meet the new post-pandemic bus travel demand.

Big data can help with big decisions

CitySwift’s specialist bus data engine can help operators to adapt their service provision in line with changes in demand in a way that minimises the impact on passengers and revenues. It allows you to take a close look at demand on a trip-by-trip basis and examine where it is spread across a specific route at specific times of the day. If there are some trips that aren't as busy as they were pre-Covid - such as traditional morning peak services catering to office workers - then perhaps you can reduce frequencies.

The tech we have developed aims to empower bus operators to make these changes in a way that is both careful and considered. Harking back to those chilling words of Andy Byford, we want to absolutely ensure operators avoid the potential of slipping into a ‘death spiral’ and provide a firm basis that will allow them to grow when the time is right.

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At CitySwift our key goal is to ensure that ultimate care is taken in making those tough decisions. We want to partner with operators to ensure that no community finds it is missing those vital transport links that connect them with home, education, work and healthcare. 

At CitySwift our key goal is to ensure that ultimate care is taken in making those tough decisions. We want to partner with operators to ensure that no community finds it is missing those vital transport links that connect them with home, education, work and healthcare.

Learn more about CitySwift’s specialist bus data engine, request a demo or contact us to discover how CitySwift can help you.

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