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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 transit.

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 ridership 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 transit.

Bus ridership 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.”

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 transit 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. However, at the same time, a long term mismatch between supply and demand is not sustainable.

Transport analyst Chris Cheek believes that the gap between current ridership 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 permanently, and bus around 8%.

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 sector 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 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 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. 

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 minimizes the impact on riders 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. We want to help operators make decisions on a firm basis that will allow them to grow when the time is right.

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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