NAO signals a new direction for bus travel: are you ready?

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In a wide-ranging report published on 2nd October 2020, the National Audit Office provided a series of recommendations that signal a new direction of travel for bus operations in the UK.

The report echoes the widely held view that good quality bus services are vital for local economies, can help ease congestion, and support better connected communities. It also sees an important role for buses in addressing air quality issues and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, despite the best intentions of everyone involved in the delivery of bus services, the statistics from the last 10 years do not make good reading.  None of this will be a surprise to the bus community, but the scale of some of the trends are both eye catching and alarming.

  • 10% decline in bus patronage
  • 18% fare increase in real terms
  • 38% drop in financial support from local authorities
  • 54% drop in miles travelled on local authority supported services

The drop in financial support from local authorities is unsurprising, considering their budget reductions for non ring fenced services.  But it does mean the decline in bus travel has disproportionately impacted those routes which are important for rural or disadvantaged users.

To address the situation, the NAO makes recommendations that will chime with everyone who wants to see a brighter future for buses.

  • A new bus strategy that gives a clear, consistent vision of the future of bus travel
  • Support for local authorities to make long-term plans for their own local needs
  • Enough funding, for both local authorities and operators, to deliver the bus strategy
  • Reform of funding mechanisms to align with the objectives of the bus strategy
  • Good quality data to monitor progress and measure success
  • Collaboration and transparency to enhance accountability for improving buses

One thing is clear – change is coming, and it should be good news for buses!

Covid-19 has been painful for all sectors of society and has had a dramatic impact on the bus sector.  But it can also be a catalyst for the change that clearly was already needed, helping to sweep away fears and obstacles that have prevented progress in the past.

The government has demonstrated its commitment to the bus industry with financial support during the dark times and is promising significant additional investment in the industry over the coming years.  A first ‘National Bus Strategy’ will be published by the end of the year, along with £5 billion of funding for ‘buses, walking and cycling outside London’ over the next five years.

Whilst the long term trend of declining patronage is concerning, there are beacons of hope in areas that have already reversed this trend.  These present clear examples to learn from and follow.

All these pieces – a new vision, new funding and new ideas – provide a platform to build a better bus industry for passengers, operators, local authorities and government.

What does the future look like?

Local government and bus operators had to rapidly come together during the early stages of the pandemic, to identify and address the urgent needs of all concerned.  Despite facing unprecedented challenges and an uncertain future, the sector pulled together to find a way through.

It’s no coincidence that it’s this type of close collaboration that has enabled some areas to reverse the trend of declining bus patronage in recent years.  By working together, local authorities and bus operators benefit from the virtuous circle of reduced congestion, faster bus journeys, more attractive bus services and better economics for all concerned.

These kinds of new and effective working relationships, with greater collaboration between local transport authorities and bus operators, look sure to be a fundamental part of the future for bus operations.

And with increased public funding of bus services, along with government investment in the bus network, there will inevitably be a requirement for increased transparency and accountability to ensure the public purse achieves the best possible value.

Are you ready for the new direction?

Now is the time to seize the opportunity for change, whilst traffic congestion is low and demand is rebuilding in new ways.  But to make the most of this opportunity you need access to data on all aspects of bus operations, and you need tools to provide the critical insights from that data to ensure you make the right decisions.

Looking further forward, new collaborative ways of working will be essential to building a better future for bus services.  Achieving this will depend on having the right data and tools to provide insights and transparency.

EPM are experts in the field of management systems, data and analytics in the bus sector.  Our consultants will ensure your systems and data are ready for the future, drop me a line at nicolasbrookes@epmorris.co.uk if you’d like to arrange a meeting.

And if you’d like to read the full NAO report, you can find it here.