RURAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT: does it have a future?

Red Bus

Having spent a gloriously warm sunny September day travelling around on rural bus services in Powys and Monmouthshire, I was reminded what a wonderful way it is to appreciate the beauty of the countryside. I was also reminded how much I was in a minority of actually paying a fare, surrounded by many older people enjoying the benefits of free travel. I hope the facility is still around when I reach that age!

Bus services have become irrelevant to large parts of the population. This is all the more so in rural areas, where circuitous routes and infrequent services are only tolerated by those who have absolutely no alternative or are enticed to take a ride because they can travel for free. 

Rural bus services are under threat, particularly as local authorities continue to cut their budgets for bus support. Indeed, in a future visioning exercise I was invited to participate in earlier this year, my prediction was that in 30 years’ time, rural bus services would not exist and that life-line subsidised Uber-type provision would be the only thing on offer.

Our lack of comprehension of what the future might hold means that we cling to what we know in the present. Therefore, communities want to retain their post office, library and bus service. But what of the future for rural public transport – can technology, apps and concepts of intelligent mobility offer a solution?

If we believe that the answer is to retain rural bus services in their current form, we need new policies to back this up. For example, if such services were free for everyone to use, levels of usage may become respectable and help overcome the politicians’ views that buses carry fresh air. Whilst subsidy levels might increase, subsidy per passenger might reduce and there might be fewer cars making their way into town.

Even so, do rural bus services offer travel opportunities around which people can build their lives? Probably not, so we will need to develop other solutions.

Given the limited and dispersed nature of any demand in rural areas, any transport solution is likely to be demand responsive in some way. With society’s affinity with cars and personal travel, I’m sure we will see more car clubs move out into rural locations. Equally, we may see more car sharing, although I suspect the emphasis will remain on informal arrangements with friends and family, rather than massive growth in the use of formal car sharing websites (although I may be proved wrong on this, as people’s ease with the sharing economy grows). 

Despite such developments, there will be people who remain ‘outsiders’ and want something more akin to ‘public transport.’ Current models of demand responsive public transport do offer solutions to meeting dispersed demands, but with their dedicated vehicles and call centres can still be quite expensive to provide and require significant subsidy.

So, could we get to the point where an Uber-type of service becomes the public transport solution in rural areas? As a purely commercial entity, possibly not. Dead mileage and journey distance would mean the fare would seem unacceptable (particularly to those used to travelling free by bus). Whilst people may be willing to pay higher fares for ‘special journeys’, such as travel to hospital for an appointment, or to an airport for a holiday, their view is likely to be different for a shopping trip. But with subsidy, perhaps the proposition could become more attractive.

It is mobile technology that could improve the viability of such services, channelling demands together to ensure vehicles are filled up and operating costs shared by several passengers. But how would it work, who takes the risk and how will fares be set? Let’s say 2 people book to travel from a village into town at 1030. The operator requires £30 for the trip, but the couple are unwilling to pay the equivalent of £15 each. If there was a virtual community who had registered an interest with the provider, a message could go out to them all to alert them to trip opportunities (i.e. where bookings had been taken), including the opportunity to travel at 1030. Anyone interested in joining the journey could then book via an app. As more people join, the fare for each would reduce.

The challenge of such an approach would be to build a profile of demand over time in order to gauge how much transport to make available at any given time to ensure vehicles run full (in the same way as low cost airlines). This means being connected to a large enough network of people in a locality that may be interested in using the service. And these people need to be users of mobile technology and smartphones.

Flexible types of public transport can work successfully. Back in the early 1990s I replaced an evening rural bus service in Bedfordshire with a taxibus service, called HomeHopper, which operated as required and was registered to use any road across parishes north of Bedford. Taxis left Bedford railway station at hourly intervals and continued to the main town centre bus stop. Passengers were divided up amongst the taxis according to the area they were travelling to; if necessary, additional taxis would be summonsed. Then off they went and delivered people to their homes.

HomeHopper was a registered local bus service, fares were in line with bus fares and concessionary travel passes could be used. Passengers could just turn up at the stops – no pre-booking was necessary. The service was very successful – it required half the subsidy of the bus service it replaced, offered more journey choice and carried twice as many people. It operated for about 15 years, and ultimately came to an end due to cutbacks in local authority support and the DfT’s requirements for flexible services that passengers must pre-book, for the service to be eligible for Bus Service Operator Grant. What this does show is how different types of services can be successful even in a low-tech form. So, coupled with modern technology can they be made to work even more successfully?

It may take some time for new types of rural public transport to come to fruition. However, when they do, the challenge will be bridging the gap of understanding, ensuring that people are aware of the proposition and what it offers, and have the ability to engage with it. Equally, policy makers may still have a role in supporting such initiatives, subsidising either the service provision or the users, at least in the period of transition. 

My fear at the moment is that no one is really thinking much about public transport in rural areas. It is in decline and gradually fading in some areas. There may be some additional resources for community transport in the short term to ease consciences that gaps will be filled. But it doesn’t feel very joined up or managed; more a hope for the best. However, it will increasingly marginalise some people in our rural communities. 

 

It is time for us to manage the situation and plan for the future, perhaps by diverting a small amount of the energy, thinking and resources that are currently going into grandiose transport schemes that just help already mobile, well connected people travel further faster.