This guest blog was written by Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.
For the first time since 2008, the number of people using the world-famous London Underground – locally known as “the tube” – has fallen. After over two decades of long-term growth, passenger numbers are down 2%, from 1.38 billion in the financial year 2016-17, to 1.35 billion in 2017-18. Bus use also peaked in 2014, and has been falling steadily each year. Simply put, fewer people in London are using public transport – and this means fewer ticket sales. This has created a funding gap that puts plans for improvements and upgrades in serious jeopardy.
Since the national government cut its £700m a year grant, London’s transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), has been banking on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system. But this year, TfL has had to revise its income from tickets sales down by £240m.
This spells trouble for the agency, which plans for ticket sales to generate up to £6.2 billion, or 62%, of the £10.2 billion budget for 2022-23 – a step increase from today’s £4.6 billion, or 45% of this year’s budget. Since London Mayor Sadiq Khan is committed to freezing single fares, additional growth will need to come from more passengers.
This is, in some ways, a reasonable expectation: population and employment – the key drivers of transport demand – are still growing in London. TfL points towards economic factors, including the uncertainty of Brexit, to explain the downturn in demand for public transport. But this year’s lower passenger numbers point instead towards lifestyle changes, which are affecting when and how people choose to travel.
London’s missing passengers
Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20% from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9% drop in trips across all modes was recorded.
They may have a top speed of under 50 kilometres per hour, but driverless buses are moving into the fast lane of transport innovation. In recent months, cities around the world have been trialling automated bus services:
Driverless buses constructed by French technology firm Navya have started appearing on the roads of France, Switzerland, and Australia.
The “WePod”, developed by Delft Technical University has been carrying passengers to, from and around the campus of Wageningen University & Research centre in the Netherlands.
While Google have been grabbing most of the headlines to do with driverless vehicles, the French technology firm of Navya has been designing and producing autonomous cars since 2014. In October 2015, Navya launched its ARMA bus.
The ARMA does not require any driver or specific infrastructure, and has onboard sensors to avoid collisions. The electrically-powered vehicle is also environmentally friendly; its batteries can last from 5 to 13 hours, depending on the configuration and the traffic conditions.
The ARMA buses are not designed to replace mass-transit networks. With a capacity of no more than 15 passengers and speeds of no greater than 50 km per hour, the ARMA buses are designed to cover short distances, following distinct routes that avoid heavy traffic. However, they could prove ideal for locations such as airports and conference centres. Since the beginning of September, the ARMA buses have been carrying passengers on ten-minute journeys through the futuristic Confluence district of Lyon. And Navya shuttle buses are also ferrying workers and visitors around the EDF power plant in Civaux, The driverless service replaced a diesel bus, cutting waiting time down from 15 to 5 minutes. EDF estimates the time savings could result in as much as 3 million euros’ worth of extra productivity.
Driverless buses called “WePods” have taken to the public roads as part of a pilot project in the Dutch province of Gelderland.
The project managers see numerous possibilities for the autonomous vehicles, such as on-demand pick-up services, filling public transport gaps in rural areas and provision of garbage collections. Ultimately, driverless buses could help solve urban parking problems and increase road capacity. And because around 70% of public transport costs are due to personnel costs, the WEpods could also save transport authorities money.
Naturally, concerns have been raised about the safety of driverless vehicles. The truth is that no type of transport is 100% safe. Even though driverless vehicles have sensors, cameras, radar and lasers to prevent collisions, accidents caused by human-driven vehicles will still happen.
However, the designers of driverless vehicles are adopting a safety-first culture. In many of the vehicles, data is stored in the equivalent of an aircraft’s “black box”, enabling lessons to be learned from incidents taking place during the journey.
The trend towards driverless buses shows no sign of slowing down. In 2015, a self-driving bus took passengers on a 20-mile journey through the Chinese city of Zhengzhou. In Kista, north-west of Stockholm, members of the public were invited to test-ride driverless buses as part of the town’s April 2016 mobility week. And in August 2016, trials of automated buses took place in the Finnish capital of Helsinki.
With regard to automated transport, it seems that the stuff of science fiction is fast becoming a matter of fact.
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For many people the buses which run through rural towns and villages in the UK are a lifeline. However, with councils under increasing pressure to reduce costs and deal with significant budget cuts, some communities are being cut off by the loss of local services. A cycle of low passenger numbers, rising costs of running services and a reduction in the frequency of services is hitting rural communities the hardest.
Often, when rural buses are discussed, it is their role in enabling elderly people to remain active and involved in community life that is emphasised. However, younger people within rural communities are also increasingly feeling the impacts of cuts to services. Such restrictions can influence their social life and can limit their opportunities to find employment.
According to statistics, two-thirds of job-seekers in the UK have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive, meaning that they are reliant on public transport not only to find work but then to travel to and from work each day. But rising costs are putting some off even finding work in the first instance; and with some modern apprenticeships paying less than £130 a week, and the cost of transport being as much as £100 a week, it is not surprising to see why some don’t think it’s worth it.
Councils and members of the public will have to come to terms with the fact that there is just less to spend, and transport, in many instances, is not top of the spending agenda (despite generating £5 for every £1 invested for local economies). This is particularly the case when up to 70% of the councils’ already-reduced budget is pre-allocated to fund statutory services. This means that councils and communities have to be smarter with how they spend their money and look at alternative methods to fund and run bus services within rural communities. Potential strategies which have been considered by local authorities already are:
Focusing on key routes and securing funding for them
Putting routes out to tender for private firms to run (although they tend to only take on the most profitable routes, leaving people even more isolated – of the 56 million miles which have been lost in rural bus services, only 13 million miles of that has subsequently been taken up and run by private bus companies)
Increasing fares, which has its limitations due to the number of bus users who are exempt from paying fares through the use of a concessions card.
Providing an on demand mini bus service which only runs and stops when required
In addition to this, despite funding difficulties, advances in digital transportation technology are making rural routes more and more accessible and cheaper to run in the long term. The proposed roll out of contactless technology by 2020, described by the Transport Secretary as the “smart ticketing revolution”, is helping to build a modern, affordable transport network that provides better, more cost efficient journeys for bus users. It is possible that this can be used in rural areas to promote the remaining bus services, and increase their accessibility to all users. The long term savings made by going “contactless” could then be reinvested into routes.
Real-time passenger information provided by companies like Cloud Amber can be another particularly effective solution for increasing passenger usage in rural areas where buses are less frequent. This increases passenger confidence that a bus is on its way and therefore use increases, leading to a more robust service requiring fewer subsidies.
There is a recognition that bus services in rural communities can have a positive environmental and economic impact. Effective saving without cutting services may be possible, whether that is through: long term strategic or community based planning; flexible services, able to integrate digital technology to drive passenger use; or the development of services and routes which are robust enough to run on reduced funding.
The effect of transport cuts on rural communities shows us that transport is about more than vehicles and logistics; it is about connections: allowing people to form and maintain them; allowing communities to be sustainable and to grow; giving young people the chance to maximize potential; enabling older people to remain engaged and active, with a reduced risk of social isolation. Potential solutions are available and councils now faced with reduced funding will have to consider the best of these options for their local areas.
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Cloud Amber is a member of the Idox group of companies. Its smart solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network.