Learning from past mistakes: how and why the bus sector should innovate
Nicolas Andine, co-CEO of Karhoo, explains why the bus sector needs to innovate and the importance of making sure that it does not follow the same track as the rail industry.
Even today, for many train users and rail commuters in our modern, dynamic country, the name of Dr Richard Beeching can still send a haunting shiver down spines.
In a bid to make British Railways profitable, the ‘good doctor’ slashed the network dramatically, by a third in fact, so much so that services were decimated, particularly in rural and isolated areas dependant on the train, over 2,000 stations closed, and 330,000 freight wagons scrapped.
In retrospect, Dr Beeching’s historic report and its subsequent implementation by government 50 years ago is regarded as sheer folly and yet, as in many things, there surely are lessons to be learnt from the past that can change the present and shape our future. Notably, single dimensional decisions – profit in this case – are rarely good decisions in transport.
As an almost mirror image of the railways back in the 1960’s, the bus industry is currently fighting to survive while rural outposts and routes are under threat.
The three ‘Es’
Increasingly, the industry is coming under scrutiny from local and national government concerned with what I would describe as the three ‘Es’: environmental factors; effectiveness; and efficiency.
It is widely accepted that environmental issues and the impact of motorised transport on the landscape must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Linked to this are effectiveness and efficiency. Do buses provide a reliable and regular service for customers? Are both parties happy with the arrangement and getting value for money? The answer to both would appear to be ‘No.’ There is an ongoing struggle in the industry to achieve a successful balance of customer satisfaction and an affordable, but profitable, service.
In short, the bus sector is under constant pressure and is perhaps beginning to feel the pinch.
Lessons learned from ride-hailing
My own vision for the bus sector’s progress belongs firmly in a future where buses embrace the digital revolution that has transformed not only society and the way we think and behave but has also increased and broadened our purchasing habits and expectations.
Technology really does work in attracting new passengers to transport, promoting safety and improving efficiency; bus companies can survive and flourish if they are prepared to be adaptable and inclusive in terms of the passenger relationship.
Ride-hailing apps have done so well because they meet the demands of modern living. People want more control over their journeys and passengers want choice and to know when and where their transport will arrive, and buses must adapt to that need.
How can buses embrace technology?
Fortunately, the technology is available to shift the mindset in bus transport from providing rigid routes and timetables to a much more flexible system that allows for demand responsive services.
Algorithms behind on-demand buses determine the best way to cluster and pool riders’ destinations together, giving them more accurate schedules and the fastest service. Passengers book seamlessly on a variety of platforms and can monitor their services throughout their journey. It also provides a better understanding of movement and analysis of passenger flow.
With maps displaying vehicles’ locations in real-time, drivers can alter or re-dispatch their routes in case of a delay without adversely impacting customers.
On-demand buses can open-up suburban and rural areas, bridging the gap between cities and their surroundings, and giving more people (including the elderly and disabled) the mobility they deserve.
The efficiency of on-demand buses helps our environment too. The decrease in the cost per kilometre per passenger means transport resources are used in a more rational way. This improvement isn’t just beneficial for the LTAs and passengers, it’s also going to reduce air and noise pollution, as well as decrease city congestion.
Globally the concept of on-demand buses and more modular journeys has already begun to capture the imagination of operators and passengers alike and that is why we strongly recommend trialling this new technology not just in the London area but across the country to ensure everyone is able to reap the rewards.
France: leading the way
Regular and reliable buses and routes spell value for passengers and operators. There are alternatives to cutting those routes and downsizing the fleet and there are good news stories to relate from the provinces and further afield.
In my native country of France the fightback has already begun in earnest and as such, cities there are very much at the forefront of these developments.
The City of Nice has embraced the power of on-demand technology, providing citizens with cheap and safe transport at night. Passengers can hail a ride from taxis and Uber vehicles from bus and tramway stations between 8.00pm and 2.30am for just six euros. The scheme not only benefits citizens, for whom bus travel at this time would otherwise not be available, but by subsidising the service as opposed to providing a fixed service at night the City of Nice is making major savings.
In addition, Gally Mauldre has just seen Ile de France Mobilités (France’s equivalent of TfL in the Parisienne region) accredit the first demand-responsive bus service that operates in the area, covering its eleven key cities and villages. The service only works in one direction during peak hours assuring maximum benefit for the environment and effectiveness and efficiency.
These encouraging success stories from France show the bus sector has good reason to be optimistic
Why buses need to adapt
Ignoring demand is hurting our environment, our air quality, and our attempts to heal the planet. With respect to public transport, while ‘green’ buses are certainly a step in the right direction, buses are at times out of touch with demand. So-called ‘ghost’ routes are the ultimate waste of fuel and cause damaging emissions and congestion, therefore reversing the progress made by congestion fees and fuel-efficient vehicles.
It is a fact that buses remain the most popular public transport in the UK as 60 per cent of journeys outside of London were taken by bus in 2016. It is therefore essential that action be taken to ensure their longevity.
Technology like ours would put an end to ghost routes and unnecessary journeys, which would enable drivers and operators to pinpoint exactly where and how many customers are waiting for a ride.
By its very nature, on-demand transport can only maximise efficiency and increase performance, as well as pleasing customers who can rightly feel that they have had a say in determining their journey.
We want to see a widespread uptake of this technology by bus companies and local authorities. We know from our work, however, in the ride-hailing space that a holistic approach is the pathway to success and that it is critical that the private sector, passengers, drivers, and local authorities work in harmony to achieve our mutual goal.
Lessons learned from Beeching
The rise of technology has enabled and empowered individuals and industries to do and achieve more.
Drawing a parallel with the railways – where we came in – the technology to prosper and evolve was not available to prevent the cuts that Dr Beeching proposed, ironically paving the way for buses to replace defunct rail services.
Unlike cars and buses, though, trains could not and can never be moved to meet demand, and thus are unfortunately unable to take advantage of this burgeoning technology.
Today, as bus companies face cutbacks in spending, funding, and ultimately routes and jobs, there is a solution in this digital age. If the industry chooses to ignore it, it does so at its peril.
I therefore propose the following dos and don’ts for the bus sector:
- Do work with local authorities as they understand the needs of their areas, especially with respect to what people want from their local transport.
- Do be open to and optimistic about the benefits on-demand technology can bring.
- Do think smarter. Long-term options deliver Smart Cities of the future.
- Don’t assume local services can’t integrate effective new technologies.
- Don’t measure your innovation by what your competitors are doing as that will slow you down.
- Don’t be concerned about the future, technology should empower rather than hinder.