Fresh thinking can start a virtuous circle

Local Enterprise Partnerships have a big task on their hands. The last government gave them responsibility for distributing the Local Growth Fund, which brought together a number of funding streams from several Whitehall departments – much of it from transport – worth a cumulative £12bn by 2020.

LEPs were thus put in the position of deciding which of numerous competing proposals for investment should get the go-ahead.

The Transport Knowledge Hub, launched this week, was created at the instigation of LEPs themselves, because they felt the need for greater decision-making support.

The hub will provide guidance to best practice through the whole life of a project from inception to completion, with links to relevant government documents, as well as news and case studies, and it will provide a community for sharing best practice.

Focused on inclusive and sustainable growth, the hub's guidance should make sure all transport modes are treated even-handedly. This is important, because it helps to address the continuing concern in bus industry circles that bus projects tend to be last in the queue, or overlooked completely.

Regular readers will be aware that schemes such as bus priority measures often have extremely good benefit-cost ratios, and the Transport Knowledge Hub should help make sure such schemes get a fair hearing. It was an astute move by Greener Journeys, therefore, to take an active role in the development of the hub.

Investment in such things as bus priority and smart ticketing are among the main weapons in the battle with congestion, which is slowing bus services down and making them less attractive to passengers. There is also a need to introduce fresh thinking and new ways of providing transport services to less populated and rural areas. Arriva- Click, launched in Sittingbourne, Kent, at the beginning of March, is billed as the first fully demand responsive service to be launched by a national operator.

After downloading an app and creating an account, passengers can book a seat on a 12-seat minibus running between the town and Kent Science Park from an origin and destination and at a time of their choosing. Sophisticated scheduling software consolidates requests for similar journeys, to allow the buses to run with a continuous flow of passengers getting on and off. The software allows the service to be provided with fewer vehicles than have been needed for previous schemes of this sort.

The trial has been under way for just four weeks, so it is early days, but this is a promising example – using the latest technology – of the sort of fresh thinking needed to cope with cuts to bus subsidies.

Another large cloud on the horizon for bus services is new and disruptive technology and the rise of the so-called sharing economy. A vivid and worrying scenario has been painted of city streets clogged by private hire vehicles and internet delivery vans, with buses trapped in traffic proceeding at less than walking pace.

A new report from thinktank IPPR sounds a warning. The effects of Uber and Amazon, it says, are just the beginning. But there's also a positive message. As far as London is concerned, IPPR argues that the city is at a tipping point. New technology could hinder sustainable travel, leading to ever-worsening air quality and congestion. But given the right framework it could have a benign influence, encouraging sustainable travel in which public transport, walking and cycling play an effective part, creating a virtuous circle in which the quality of city life improves. IPPR cites the example of car clubs, which, where they have been introduced, have taken private cars off the road.

There is only a limited period in which to act, though, and the IPPR urges London mayor Sadiq Khan to take the message on board and incorporate a framework for putting digital technology to work in a positive way in the forthcoming Mayor's Transport Strategy. By contrast, it warns a failure to act could lead in the situation going downhill quickly.

Many challenges lie ahead for transport in general and bus services in particular and the towns and cities they serve. But innovative thinking is out there. Examples like these initiatives demonstrate exactly the type of approach needed to overcome those challenges.

Reference: Transport Times April 2017 Issue

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