Bus Back Better, a Rural Analysis

Bus Back Better ruralIn March, the Department for Transport issued Bus Back Better. This emerged from the Better Deal for Bus Users where the DfT committed to produce the new National Bus Strategy. 

This national strategy sets out the vision and opportunity to deliver better bus services for passengers across England, through ambitious and far-reaching reforms of how services are planned and delivered. 

Rural Techs have evaluated the document to identify the changes and opportunities that the strategy can deliver within the rural mobility space. Overall, these proposals have a significant potential effect on the marketplace with dangers and opportunities. 

Key Dangers for Rural Areas

The Strategy and specifically Chapter 2 The Buses We Want, sets out a range of positive potential solutions. But it covers both urban and rural areas often as if they are interchangeable. This creates dangers of perception such as urban can be replicated in rural or a mono-focus on a single transport solution rather than integrated services. We’d suggest improvements such as:

  • A rural multi-modal ticketing / travel system needs to be more than bus, train, tram or light rail. It needs to be able to scale to all forms of travel and variety of purpose.
  • Benefit to cost ratios need to be analysed for all transport methodologies i.e. include car share/hire, buses, taxis, e-bikes, etc.
  • Solutions mustn’t fixate on the “bus” issue, but must fixate on the population need. If the best solution isn’t a bus, that the best sustainable solution should be used.

Creation of Local Transport Authorities. 

Local Transport Authorities (LTA) will take over from Transport Commissioners. This is a practical step. It removes a service delivery issues where it is more practical in rural areas to have a service available than to hit specific performance metrics built on arrival times (regardless of passenger need).

LTAs will be amalgamations of public and private sectors, and related interested parties. Evidence from Rural Techs work shows the importance of such cross-user stakeholder models.

There are 2 LTA models for service creation: Enhanced Partnerships and Franchise Model. The strategy is heavily weighted to the former. There are significant issues on the practicalities of the proposed timings. These are:

  • June 2021 Local Transport Authorities to commit to form Enhanced Partnerships.
  • October 2021 An expectation all LTAs will publish a local Bus Service Improvement Plan, detailing how they propose to use their powers to improve services.
  • April 2022 “We expect actual delivery of Enhanced Partnerships by April 2022”

“A key element of the National Bus Strategy will be ensuring the right skills, knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit is available within Local Transport Authorities”. This will vary widely. Some will be unable to make the radical choices necessary for real change and tight timescales don’t help.

LTA Challenges 

Bus services have at least a 30-year spiral of decline outside of London. From the examples given in the document, many will start from a dire place. It is notable also that the examples are urban. 

On p21 the rural challenge is given: “In rural areas, more dispersed, lower density populations make it challenging to deliver widespread timetabled services run by traditional buses. Services often take long and indirect routes, to serve as many people as possible, but they become an unattractive alternative for passengers with access to a car. Services invariably need funding from LTAs and, when money is tight, funding for bus services is deprioritised. Services get cut, and people are even more likely to buy a car, reducing the potential demand for buses even further.” 

Yet within their areas, Bus Passenger Charters will be created with targets on journey times and reliability improvements. Local actions will be included in service improvement plans on passenger growth and customer satisfaction. We are not sure how it is possible to create something practical and different from what has gone before in the timescales available and the realities of covid working.

A big rural danger is that reporting will be on LTA as a whole and specifically for large cities and towns. There is a risk that rural districts are neither an LTA or are or have a large city or town. Thus, poor rural performance can be hidden by excellent urban data

Subsidy Funding Good News

The strategy proposes a fundamental overhaul of the subsidies upon which many bus services are built. The bus service operators grant currently focuses on a funding per mile travelled. The strategy states that this will be reformed by:

  • moving the main element from fuel consumption to a distance rate which would address the current problem where base grant is not paid to electric vehicles;
  • updating the low carbon incentive to better meet environmental objectives.
  • an additional amount for rural bus services;
  • new incentives for demand responsive transport to encourage the delivery of services and bus use, in rural areas;
  • making the reformed grant available only to LTAs and operators in an Enhanced Partnership, or where franchising is being actively pursued.

Conclusion

Overall, the greatest challenge is time to deliver effectively a significantly different approach to bus travel in the different ecosystems of rural and urban in ways that integrate effectively with other shared and active travel solutions for the flexible transport needed in the modern world. The opportunity is to seize this moment to effect real change for people.