Dial a bus?

posted 27 Mar 2015, 05:26 by Roy McDonald   [ updated 26 Jul 2015, 03:44 ]

Has the local bus had it’s day?

Clumsy and cumbersome, rumbustious,
Though you're a slow coach you're OK for us.
No need to hurry: there's no call to worry,
We couldn't care less what the time may be.
Grunting and chuntering, cantankerous,
You're rusty and you're dusty.
But no other bus would be good enough for us.

(with humble apologies to the late, great Jake Thackray – Country Bus)

When the bus is good, it can be very, very good. Clearly, there remains a role for the mass market people mover public transport service that the bus can be, when it addresses its strengths. Done properly, high frequency, high quality bus services operating on main corridors are unbeatable – especially where they are given the roadspace and priority to operate reliably.

However, once we get off the main roads, the service begins to fall down. Too often we find local bus services meandering around housing estates and back roads, whose primary purpose is largely to fill gaps and colour lines in on the network map. These routes are likely to be financially supported by the local transport authority and operated, at low frequencies, often by a motley collection of small operators, rather than the principal providers of the core corridor services.

Now I am not criticising the LTA’s or the operators for this. The situation is largely a product of the deregulated environment we are all operating in, and the desire of the LTA’s to maximise accessibility to the transport network within tightly constrained budgets.

Leaving aside all the debates about reregulation, quality partnerships, devolution and localism, is it time for a fundamental rethink of our urban bus networks ?

Transport for London’s surface transport managing director, Leon Daniels spoke about “disruptive technology“ at the recent UK Bus Summit. Alan Millar’s comment piece in this month’s Buses magazine (April 2015) picked up this theme, which struck a chord with me. Technology is rapidly changing the way we run our lives and each generation becomes much more tech-savvy than the last. OFCOM reports that 93% of adults in the UK now personally own/use a mobile phone (Q1 2014), of whom 61% use a Smartphone (up 10% from the previous year).

Imagine, if you will, that instead of these low frequency, wandering bus routes, we had a blanket Demand Responsive Transport coverage, provided by a fleet of third-party owned vehicles, operating under a single, umbrella brand, from a single call centre? We could summon a bus to our local stop by the simple press of a button on our Smartphone! Taxi applications like Uber have already shown that this can be done for door-to-door personalised transport, so why not something similar for a shared ride taxibus system?

It might not work in rural areas (and definitely not on Jake Thackray's Country Bus!) and clearly, there would have to be some restrictions in area coverage and in-vehicle travel time, but for local journeys centred around a town, could such a system offer a vision for the future of urban public transport?