Initiatives to revolutionize the provision of local bus services around the world post-Covid have been welcomed by the bus industry.
James McCarthy, Head of Operations at CitySwift, gives us his thoughts of how such strategies can be delivered, firstly through improving bus journey times and punctuality.
Initiatives such as England's National Bus Strategy set an ambitious vision for revolutionizing the provision of local bus services. They commit public transit operators and agencies to working closely to foster a new environment that will elevate the bus to a new level.
This is the first of a series of articles that will examine the aspirations of these strategies and offer some thoughts on how they can be delivered – beginning with the challenge of improving bus journey times and punctuality.
Ever increasing traffic congestion in our towns and cities has been like quicksand for buses, making services run longer and less punctual (as well as making them less attractive and less economically viable). Published in 2016, Professor David Begg’s report on The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers highlighted a bus journey time increase of almost 50% over the last 50 years in congested urban areas. If this could have been avoided, he concluded there would “arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today”.
"If we had protected bus passengers from the growth in congestion, there would arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today."
As services get slower, they become more expensive to run and less attractive to riders – it's a classic vicious circle. So, if we are to stimulate demand and get riders back on the bus, it's important to offer punctual services that will give them the confidence to use it, especially if we are to avoid them jumping into a car and further clogging up our streets.
With the continued requirement to maintain social distancing, we must work hard to avoid late buses and the bunching that is caused by late running. Bunching creates crowding with more people waiting at stops, and crowding creates bunching.
Meanwhile, Covid has seen society as a whole change. Towns and cities have changed. Workplaces have changed. The way we learn, shop, relax and play has changed. Bus journey times will need to change to reflect that too. At CitySwift, we have already seen the impact of Covid and lockdowns on public transit. Trends that were already emerging in traffic and travel have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
During lockdown, the bus sector kept its wheels turning, ensuring vital key workers could still get to where they needed to be. As buses kept moving, data continued to be fed into our bus data engine. This means we now have a unique dataset that shows what bus journey times can look like when unfettered by traffic and congestion. In other words, we now possess the data that can be used to model or simulate what the world can look like with high levels of bus priority.
We now have a unique dataset that shows what bus journey times can look like when unfettered by traffic and congestion.
That offers a unique opportunity for bus operators and local agencies alike. We had already mastered the skills needed to improve the efficiency of bus schedules by reflecting real world traffic conditions. That data can now also be used to give an idea of how bus priority measures can dramatically affect bus journey times. We can also interrogate any given route and highlight where the congestion hotspots are – and model the sorts of improvements that can be expected if, for example, a bus lane is introduced.
And our skills in delivering efficient schedules for bus operators have other benefits in the new world. Bus operators, transit agencies and other stakeholders will need to work closely to deliver bus networks. Optimising schedules using data derived from our bus data engine means that efficiencies can be realised, helping to ensure more marginal services can be maintained as part of a cohesive network.
Data tools can be the game-changer that helps us to improve journey times and punctuality – and break the vicious circle. Together we can make buses more punctual, faster, less expensive to run and more attractive to riders. We can move to a classic virtuous circle.
James McCarthy is Head of Operations at CitySwift.