Interurbans survive and prosper

Not all bus services are in decline. Quality scheduled buses operating between major towns and some cities – call them interurban – are doing well. And their role, especially in providing connectivity for smaller and more remote places, is overlooked.

'Scheduled' might sound old-fashioned. What millennial is ever interested in timetables when the need to know is about the here and (right) now? The need to travel spurs an internet search, and if you know where to look, you'll know the next service available. Where that service fits into a timetable or what buses might come along later is of no concern. And a return journey will be 'planned' the same way.

Knowing where to look for information on interurban bus is a problem, however. The Traveline web-site may be the best known amongst transport professionals of a certain age (say over 35), but its locational precision is counter-productive: it won't tell you what's available just a short distance away. And neither will it give you information on fares, or tell you what car driving times would be. Google maps is the go-to option for the millennial cognoscenti.

Of course, if you know which company runs the bus route in question – and as a local, you might well do – you'll find that the bigger companies have good web-based information on times, stop locations, concessions, and fares. But if you're a visitor, there's no way of knowing easily who runs what services in the area. This might change following the Bus Services Act 2017, with its new open data obligations. You might even be lucky enough then to see a timetable, not just the next service. But do bus timetables matter? In the age of hire and share, surge pricing and fleet optimisation, aren't they going to fade away?

I think they do matter, and not just for those conditioned to planning their routines around a known schedule. They matter because they define the public transport accessibility of specific locations. When people come to make choices about where to live, or where to site a business, public transport service timetables are of great importance: can I live here and work there; can I get to the regional hospital if I needed to; what kind of catchment – for employees and customers – could my business draw upon if I chose a particular site?

The much-vaunted agglomeration effects of rail hubs such as at London's King's Cross/St Pancras, where, the timetable is taken for granted (for the Underground and bus lines, frequencies being so high, timetables are immaterial) drives wider economic benefits. So my question is this: can the same effect on a smaller scale be achieved with bus network hubs, or with bus-rail interchanges, where service frequencies will be lower, and so not 'turn up and go' but based on a timetable, say hourly?

If this can be made to work, it points a way forward for land use development that is not reliant on car use, and for the creation of service clusters where individual businesses and amenities can feed off each other; the high-street function, re-defined around public transport 'mini hubs'.

A related question is whether the provision of scheduled services provides an 'option value' that helps reinforce locational decisions ("From here, I could take the bus, if my car wasn't available" and "I don't know if or when I'll use it but I am happier just knowing it's there if I need it"). Analysts, you'll be pleased to know, have already put monetary values on such things.

Interurban bus is of particular relevance to places in the category of 'left behind', their raison d'être typically lost when the local industry closed, and communities struggling to survive local economic downturn. Places where, ahead, automation and robotics are forecast to hit hard (distribution and call centres); places often talked about as candidates for re-opening long-closed railway lines. But the costs involved are high and re-opening campaigns protracted: only some will come to fruition.

Meanwhile, as a new Greengauge 21 report Interurban Bus: Time to Raise the Profile to be published later this month will show, Interurban Bus is increasingly meeting the need already, but its value is often hidden in plain sight.

Interurban bus today often offers hourly frequencies and sometimes better, with fully accessible buses, free wi-fi; characteristics absent from most secondary rail lines. Services link many of the places where the rail network has gaps, and most have no subsidy whatsoever. True, interchange facilities with rail (often at either end of the route) can be poor, but putting that right comes with a much lower price tag than opening a new rail line. And these are the places where the mini-agglomeration hubs can be created, built on all-round accessibility. For the left-behind, interurban bus may be the answer.