The third UK Bus Summit earlier this month wavered between optimism and pessimism. There was confidence that features such as free Wi-Fi, USB chargers, real-time information and better-appointed interiors, together with bus priority measures, have the potential to attract new passengers, and there are numerous well-rehearsed examples of areas where patronage is increasing, usually based on effective partnerships between operators and local authorities.
There was enthusiasm for the opportunities the Bus Services Bill will offer through its provisions for enhanced partnerships and opening up data – though the question of franchising remains divisive.
But for all the bright spots, the underlying trend in passenger numbers is still downwards. And hovering in the background throughout the proceedings was the spectre of congestion.
Like last year it topped a survey of delegates' concerns. Yet there was a feeling that a solution was no nearer now than 12 months ago. The problem remains intractable.
As TT's David Begg said, "The public thinks that it's other people's problem." Since Ken Livingstone was London's mayor, no politician has been brave enough to risk the ire of voters by introducing a road charging regime. And even in London the effectiveness of the congestion charge has been eroded. A reduction in road space and the lack of political will to increase the charge has allowed congestion to return to its former level.
Wi-Fi and real time information don't count for much if the bus is stuck in traffic. Bus speeds have been declining in London and the trend of rising patronage has gone into reverse – though there are competing explanations for this, as well as views on how permanent the effect is.
Prof Begg urged local authorities to set bus speed targets to prevent further decline, and there were calls for such targets to be enshrined in partnership agreements. Bus priority measures could then be triggered if targets were being missed – but with the constrained space in many UK towns and cities there is only so much bus priority can achieve.
Prof Begg's prognosis was would not be solved until a new, politically acceptable way of paying for road use could be found. And politicians would only accept something that left no one worse off.
Meanwhile, a betting person might have put money on the prediction that delegates' second most severe concern would have been the threat posed by personal transport/cab hailing technology such as Uber and Gett. In fact, this came lower down the rankings with a score of just 8%, behind cuts in government funding.
Funding cuts may be a more immediate concern, but Uber and its ilk are a threat on several fronts. Most obviously through their convenience they pose a direct threat to bus services. As a second order problem, an upsurge in the number of private hire vehicles adds to congestion, reducing bus speeds and adding another twist to the vicious circle of declining patronage once again.
Internet delivery vehicles are similarly adding to congestion, while the attraction of internet hopping means people are less likely to travel to the high street, affecting one of the bus's prime markets.
Regulation was not keeping up with the Uber phenomenon, said Transport for London managing director for surface transport Leon Daniels, and road space would become saturated before demand for such services did.
"This type of thing is really starting to eat into the public transport market and is coming at us very quickly," he said. Public transport had to adapt, "and we have to be in front of the trends".
The concern raised by our survey result is that far from being ahead of the trends, for a large part of the industry the magnitude of the threat from disruptive technology such as this is not yet fully appreciated.
If that is the case, the industry will need to catch up fast.
The public thinks that it's other people's problem that congestion.
Reference: Transport Times March 2017 Issue