Ridership of public transport is in freefall. In the UK, local bus passenger journeys outside London decreased by 63 million (2.9%) in 2018. And despite holding steadier numbers than the rest of the country, London is not immune to this downward trend. Statistics for bus journeys in the capital show a 5% decrease since the 2014-15 fiscal year. Likewise, the London Underground reported a drop of 19m, or 1.4% in the number of Tube journeys in 2018 compared to the previous year. The same is true in cities around the world, where the rise in on-demand services, changes in working patterns and wider demographic and economic shifts have drawn commuters away from public transit.
So what can transport networks do to win back the public? It won’t be easy, but as cities around the world finally push to improve urban air quality, it’s essential we act now to restore faith in local transport.
1. Convenience is king
The success of any civic amenity hangs on one simple reality, it’s all about convenience. The past ten years have seen a major increase in the number of private hire journeys precisely because they offer a simpler, more personalised service. Why would a commuter choose to walk to a bus stop, wait on a bus (often delayed), then disembark and walk yet further to their office, when they could hail a private vehicle to pick them up from their house and take them directly to their workplace, at a time of their choosing?
Public transport networks need to begin integrating features that emphasise the convenience of public transport over private commuting. Personalisation is key to making passengers feel like more than just another number. And what’s the key ingredient to personalisation?
2. Embrace new technologies
Take advantage of modern technologies to improve the passenger experience. mTicketing, for instance, does away with arbitrary ticket pricing and the need for cumbersome change (for drivers and passengers both). A mobile app with vehicle-tracking provides visibility to passengers waiting outside. If a service is delayed, commuters deserve to know in advance so they can make an informed decision about whether to wait. Similarly, if services have been re-routed or cancelled, a mobile app means commuters can be notified instantly through their personal devices.
Meanwhile, Passenger Information Systems (PIS) add clarity to new journeys, notifying passengers to upcoming stops. Integrating a PIS that offers both visual and audio information also makes transport more accessible to passengers with sight or hearing problems.
Adding onboard WiFi, meanwhile, opens up a new realm of connected entertainment for passengers. Now they can start their day before they even reach work, catch up on their social channels and unwind after a long day with their own content. These new technologies represent an opportunity some operators may not have considered. Onboard WiFi can incentivise commuters to swap the car for a relaxing bus journey, but it also offers an additional source of revenue through the promotion of partner businesses. This means operators can offset the cost of their WiFi connection and simultaneously develop connections with local businesses.
3. Incorporate data
Although it’s been used for decades, it’s only in the past few years that transport authorities have begun to truly harness the power of data. Fuelled by the rise in connected devices, metrics from open data initiatives are transforming the way we move around urban areas.
The value of data in gaining a detailed overview of highly complex transport infrastructure has made it an essential element of modern travel. In fact, the growth of MaaS models, where commuters can combine multiple modes of transport to reach their destination, hinges on the availability of accessible data (but more on that later).
Likewise, data can help reduce congestion and optimise journeys. Using city-wide data collection points, traffic lights can track buses and manage routes to reduce waiting times between stops. Coupled with a mobile app, this data can also be used to quickly and efficiently inform commuters about changes to services.
Of course, data doesn’t have to play a merely reactive role. It can also predict future requirements, providing local authorities with the quantitative foundations to develop new services. From these foundations, cities can begin to add features that respond to the changing nature of urban travel, including Passenger Information Systems and priority bus lanes. As Andrew Small said in a recent piece for CityLab, “When buses get priority, riders prioritize the bus.”
4. Increase intermodality
Despite the overall downward trend, several cities across the UK have reported an increase in public transport use. Every city has its own unique requirements, so pinning down exactly why some areas are bucking the trend isn’t easy. That being said, there are some common factors that could point to a solution, and chief among them is multimodal travel.
For the uninitiated, multimodal travel refers to the integration of multiple forms of transport to offer a more seamless travel experience. For a traveller arriving in a multimodal city by rail, their train ticket can also be used to board a metro service, ride the local bus, or even hire a bicycle.
For services to move to a manageable collaboration between the transit system and external organizations, there must be a mutual benefit. This presents a conundrum for public transport authorities, who cannot be seen to be favouring private transport companies. Transport authorities can remedy this by offering public tender contracts for the different transport modes. Similarly, apps like Citymapper are working to link public transport networks with local cab companies to cover first-mile/last-mile, with public transport making up the bulk of the journey. While this encourages commuters to leave the car at home, it still requires small-capacity private vehicles on the road.
But how do cities create a cohesive network that responds to the needs of every citizen? The solution can be found in cities already pioneering the multimodal model. Columbus, Ohio, was awarded the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart Cities challenge for its work in developing a connected travel solution for commuters. Through extensive research, the city identified residents’ requirements and drew up a proposal that encompassed the use of real-time integrated data, priority bus lanes and mobile apps to connect visitors and citizens.
5. Go green
The environmental benefits of public transport over private car travel are already well documented. A fully loaded bus has an 83% less environmental impact per passenger mile than a single-occupancy passenger vehicle. Simultaneously, increased sustainability is not only environmentally beneficial, it’s also an opportunity to lower operating costs.
With these savings, transport authorities can begin to invest in more energy efficient vehicles, while existing vehicles can be retrofitted with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) emission control units to reduce NOx and NO₂ outputs.
Even with these features, however, transport networks need to make drastic changes in their approach to environmental issues. The future lies in developing a sustainable network with the smallest carbon footprint possible, and that means introducing fully energy-efficient vehicles.
New vehicles, however, are only possible with increased investment, which is itself only possible if we can reverse the decline in passenger transport use. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the future of mass transit, right at the time when we need it most. To improve the environmental impact of our transport networks, cities must first establish new channels of revenue. To that end, cities must begin to expand Clean Air Zones (CAZ’s) and increase taxes on private vehicles in urban areas. Likewise, transport authorities can take advantage of government subsidies and innovation funding for projects that improve the local environment.
Of course, the issue of decreasing public transport usage goes beyond mere investment; after all, spending heavily rarely means spending wisely. But investment is essential to create a scalable, future-ready model that can adapt to the changing needs of citizens and the surrounding environment. Councils must be ready to invest not just in new vehicles, but in the entire infrastructure of their city. After all, if transport authorities really want to restore trust in public transport, they must be ready to prove that they have faith in it first.