Back in March, I had the privileged of giving evidence to the House of Lords' Built Environment Committee's inquiry into public transport in towns and cities. I was rather proud of this, and had sent the video link to a few friends and family. My sister Laura later told me that my nephew Tom had messaged her to say "Uncle Martin's in the room where all the naughty people go to get quizzed!"
The committee's report was published earlier in November and makes for interesting reading, although with few surprises. It was clear that adequate public transport provision is essential to economic prosperity and growth. However, the Committee found that continuing cuts to bus services, inefficient and wasteful bidding processes and poor transport planning procedures are standing in the way of delivering an acceptable standard of public transport in towns and cities outside London.
It all seems rather familiar. Of course it's complicated and of course we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis and looming government spending cuts will touch every one of us. But we have known what the issues are for years and have allowed them to become steadily worse. Over 60% of public transport journeys are by bus, but the end of pandemic support funding in March 2023 threatens already deteriorating services. The knock-on negative effects to hundreds of thousands of people will be significant.
As we all know, demand for public transport has changed as a result of the pandemic. Despite the high profile edicts from Elon Musk to his new acquisition, Twitter and David Solomon at Goldman Sachs demanding that staff return to their respective offices five days per week, new working patterns are embedded and peak commuter patterns have changed permanently. In fact, travel for leisure, at weekends and throughout the day has recovered more quickly than commuter travel. As many of us across the industry have been calling for consistently, we have to now focus on the customers – both human and freight (for rail). Transport service providers can make public transport a more attractive option by responding to the most often stated customer demands for public transport: convenience, reliability, punctuality, fair fares, safety (particularly for lone women) and frequency of services.
The Committee also highlighted the iniquity and wastefulness of local authorities bidding for central government funding. They found that the existing competitive process is costly and inefficient, tying up resources. The Committee asked the Government to look urgently into the feasibility of transitioning to a system of periodic block grants. Such a system would encourage more coherent and long-term transport delivery with spending priorities determined locally by those with a good understanding of the conditions prevailing in their regions.
Circumstantial evidence is everywhere to support the Committee's view that there has been insufficient integration between spatial and transport planning, resulting in much-needed housing developments being built with no access to public transport. That is not exactly helping the efforts to reduce single occupancy car use. It would seem a blindingly obvious step to ensure that there is a formal link between the productions of Local Transport Plans with Local Plans.
No one will be shocked to learn that ticketing likely plays a crucial role in making public transport more attractive to customers, and thus potentially more viable. Multimodal, multi-operator zonal fares in each large town or city would make the introduction of contactless ticketing that much easier. It's technically do-able and has been for years, but the commercial complexities that have grown in the decades since privatisation have hindered national efforts. It is gratifying to see Mayors like Andy Burnham taking more control of their regional bus services. As he said at the Labour party conference in Liverpool, why can't cities like Manchester and Liverpool have public transport systems as easy to understand, pay for and use as London's?
And lastly, the topic of data remains front and centre – it's use is fundamental to understanding customer demand and usage patterns, to planning services and to reducing maintenance and operational costs. Everybody recognises there are competitive constraints but we have been debating this for too long now. The Committee didn't go so far as to recommend it, but mandated data sharing would enable us to break down siloes and actually start using the petabytes of unused data currently held across the public and private sectors for public good. Data that would transform delivery of public and shared transport, and in turn maximise benefits across society.
Funding remains the key issue, of course. It always is. We can rationalise bus and shared mobility services based on analysed data and insight into real demand, but it is guaranteed that funding needs will outstrip availability in the coming years. So – as has been proposed before – let's work together more effectively as an industry and as stakeholders to identify the real priorities (which are in all our interests), and present the business cases to government that demonstrate the long term societal and economic benefits of investment.