Public transport: lessons from our Nordic neighbours

Public transport is a vital element in the lives of many people. Commuters rely on bus, train, tram and metro services to get them to and from work. Public transport is also crucial for those without cars who need to access education, training, health and social care services.

The state of UK public transport

Recent research by the Urban Transport Group (UTG) has reported important trends in public transport England. Among the findings:

  • Buses remain the most used form of public transport, but service levels and usage have been in decline.
  • There has been rapid growth in rail passenger numbers over the last decade.
  • Patronage on Light Rail systems in England has seen an increase of 44% since 2007/08.

Elsewhere in the UK, there’s a mixed picture on the state of public transport:

  • New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government aims to halt the decline in bus use in Scotland, where passenger numbers fell by 10% over five years. Meanwhile, the rail regulator has demanded improvements to the punctuality of trains in Scotland.
  • Wales has seen a steady decline in bus usage in recent years, although over the same period passenger numbers on trains have increased.
  • Translink, which provides public transport in Northern Ireland has reported that trips by fare-paying passengers increased for the second year in a row, with rail passenger numbers reaching their highest level in 50 years.

Overall, rail passenger numbers in the UK are rising, although the recent disruption to services in the south east and the north of England following timetable changes underlined ongoing dissatisfaction with the standards of service from rail companies. Meanwhile, Britain’s bus network continues to shrink, especially on local routes.

Lessons from Scandinavia

When it comes to public transport, it’s often enlightening to look at how other countries manage. A recent UTG report explored how transport authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are using devolved powers to transform public transport for the better. The report, written by Professor Tom Rye, from the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, considered various aspects of public transport, including service levels, fares, technological innovations, environmental impact and franchising.

Service levels

The report found that, in comparison with the equivalent city regions in the UK (outside of London), service levels in the Nordic countries are higher, particularly during off-peak times. In rural and low-density suburban areas, a higher level of service is provided since there is an element of cross-subsidy between revenue-generating and loss-making routes. By contrast, in the UK bus deregulation does not allow for comparable levels of cross-subsidy.

Fares

In Scandinavia, as in many other parts of continental Europe, fares are zonal and multi-modal. Passengers can travel on the same ticket by rail, bus, light rail, and in some cities on urban ferries. Journeys are paid for on a stored value or season ticket smartcard. The research found that, in comparison to incomes, fares for frequent users in Scandinavian cities are similar to those in the UK, but season tickets often cover wider geographical areas.

Technological innovations

The report provides examples of significant innovation on vehicle technologies, including smart ticketing. In Norway fares are increasingly supplied as mobile tickets.

Environmental impact

The research found that the Scandinavian countries have ambitious plans for public transport’s role in reducing carbon and toxic emissions. These include low or zero emission bus fleets and modal shifts from other transport modes. Copenhagen’s metro and suburban rail services are a key part of the city’s plan to be the first in the world to be CO2 free by 2025. There will be no diesel-powered buses in Oslo by 2020, and in Sweden Skåne’s bus fleet will run on fossil-free fuel by the same year.

Franchising

Public transport strategies in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are aligned with wider national and sub-national goals for economic development, land use planning and social cohesion. Levels of revenue support for bus services underpin a high quality of service, and levels of public transport use are high (although in Denmark, heavy investment in cycling infrastructure means public transport usage is relatively low).

One of the key features of public transport in Scandinavia is that virtually all bus services have been franchised. Metro and tram services are also provided either through franchising or by the incumbent municipal operator.The report notes that the main impact of franchising of bus services in all three countries has been to reduce costs and increase quality. The authors note that:

“…franchising in these countries and regions gives public sector Passenger Transport Authorities the direct ability to improve aspects of service because they specify and purchase that service from private sector operators. Thus, if they have the resources and are willing to pay for improvements, these can be delivered rapidly, to deliver on policy ambitions.” 

The Scandinavian way

Even as local, devolved and national governments are trying to encourage greater use of public transport, the evidence suggests that in a significant number of British cities – including Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield, the number of people travelling by public transport is falling.

The UTG report suggests that the Nordic model provides a road map for improvement in the way that UK transport service providers currently deliver urban public transport:

“Scandinavian countries have taken this approach because there is a political and public consensus that public transport is a public service. A public service that has a key role to play in tackling road congestion, reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution. A public service that also spreads the benefits of economic growth and promotes social cohesion through ensuring better connectivity within and between communities – including linking peripheral areas with the main towns and cities that are driving the wider economy.”


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Why fewer Londoners are taking the tube: a transport researcher explains

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.

Passenger numbers and journey stages on London Underground. Travel in London Report 10/TfL, Author provided

Flexible and remote working practices are contributing to this trend: instead of commuting to work five days, the new normal for Londoners is now four. Over the past decade, commuting trips have dropped by 14.2%.

At the same time, the cost of travel has been increasing. While single fares on the bus and the tube cost approximately the same in real terms between 2000 and 2012, they have increased 5% and 3% respectively since then. The cost of season tickets is up even more; 8% on the bus and 6% on the London Underground in real terms since 2012.

Greater transport costs mean less disposable income, which partially explains why Londoners are making fewer leisure and shopping trips, instead opting to stay home and shop online. Meanwhile, London’s changing mix of traffic suggests that personal trips are being substituted with deliveries. This shifts the burden from the public transport network to the road network. Across London, light goods vans are making up a growing proportion of traffic: accounting for 14% of traffic in 2016, up from 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000.

Trouble for TFL

To avoid a major shortfall, TfL will need to look at new ways to fund transport. One solution might be to reform London’s congestion charge. Currently, the congestion charge covers less than 1.5% of the city, applies only between 7am and 6pm, consists of a simple, daily flat rate, and exempts private hire vehicles – your Uber drivers and minicabs.

Over the past four years, there has been a 75% increase in the number of registered private hire vehicles. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 cars flood the streets of Central London. With New York City set to introduce a surcharge for taxis and private hire vehicles (US$2.50 and US$2.75 respectively), London might also want to follow suit.

A more comprehensive road pricing strategy would be an effective tool to manage traffic and generate funds for the transport system. A reformed congestion charge alongside good public transport, cycling infrastructure and public space could encourage Londoners to shift away from their cars toward travelling by public transport, walking and cycling.

TfL predicts that most of its revenue growth – £3.2 billion over the next five years – will come from the new Elizabeth Line, which is set to start running in December 2018. By 2022-23, TfL expects passenger numbers on the Elizabeth Line to increase by 200m to 269m, and tickets sales to earn £913m. Over the same period, passenger numbers on the London Underground and bus network are forecast to rise by just 5% and 3% respectively.

The income from the Elizabeth Line is crucial to TfL balancing its books. As outgoing deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, warned, delays to the Elizabeth Line opening on time are TfL’s greatest revenue risk. So as engineering challenges threaten to push back the opening date, TfL’s money worries look set to worsen.

The funding conundrum

TfL is also seeking to earn from developments on some of the 300 acres of land it owns in the city. By 2022-23, the property partnerships agreed between TfL and thirteen large property development companies in 2016 are set to generate £3.4 billion of income to reinvest into London’s transport system. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for further sites to be unlocked, to generate more funds and meet his manifesto commitment to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze single fare tickets throughout his term is estimated to cost £640m. Arguably, reneging on that promise could return £640m to TfL’s purse. TfL points to national rail services where fares are higher and the reduction in passenger numbers has been greater, and argue that the fare freeze blunted the drop in passenger numbers.

If TfL fails to find new ways to fund its network, more cuts to upgrade and capital programmes are only a matter of time. The agency has already cut its funding for streets, cycling and public spaces in London’s boroughs, and suspended its roads renewal programme and underground capacity upgrades. TfL’s reliance on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. To ensure London continues to have a world-class transport system, both Khan and TfL must urgently find new sources of funding.


Nicole Badstuber is Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.