It is clear that the bus sector is facing some very strong challenges as a result of changing societal trends and continued growth in car ownership outside London. These trends are likely to continue to create a drag on bus patronage, increasing pressure on commercial and public accounts.
The magnitude of the changes needed to 'move the dial' from 'patronage decline' to 'patronage growth' should not be understated but there are measures that can be implemented in both the near and longer term to significantly strengthen the customer proposition.
In the near term the changes will likely involve:
- Continued focus on improving end-to-end journey experience and affordability for customers.
- Investment in infrastructure and traffic management measures to support the reduction of highway congestion.
- Stronger alliances between transport authorities, operators and technology firms.
Looking further ahead, changes may involve:
- More efficient use of resources through shared use of assets and cost-reflective user charges to encourage use of the 'right mode for the journey'.
- Greater use of technology, micro-transit and demand responsive services to 'aggregate' demand on key routes and play to the strengths of bus services in their efficient use of road capacity.
- Improved coordination of land-use and transport planning.
The last point is particularly important in the context of the UK's housing crisis. The general consensus is that we need to build around 300,000 new homes per year to the mid-2020s. If these new homes are to contribute to desirable social outcomes, they need to be sited where occupants can easily access economic and social activities in a way that minimises adverse impacts on the environment.
In all but a few instances, those responsible for planning housing and those responsible for transport planning work in silos. They use different methodologies to appraise value for money from government investment. Unless transport investment schemes unlock land for development, transport appraisal generally does not consider the interaction between transport and housing, and similarly the appraisal of housing schemes don't always consider the impact of housing on the performance of transport networks.
This may not matter much for small housing developments but when a number of small developments are taken in aggregate, the wider economic, social and environmental impacts are likely to be significant.
We need to reconsider the way we appraise new housing developments to reflect the role of sustainable transport in delivering the best outcomes from new housing. In the current environment, this is likely to be hugely significant for the bus sector itself, as the compound impact of 300,000 new transit-orientated rather than car-dependent homes per year will make a real difference.