Is it time to be more radical in rethinking rural buses?

I think the time is ripe for a really radical re-think of the way rural bus services operate, because of two new bits of technology that could be real game-changers. Let me set the scene first…

It’s not saying anything new or controversial to suggest that bus services in many rural areas are in a spiral of decline. Falling passenger numbers mean less revenue for the bus company, they cut back on the number of services, which makes the bus less attractive, passenger numbers fall further, and before long buses aren’t viable at all. The last service near me disappeared during Covid, never to return.

Of course with concerted effort some places are bucking the trend, and creating a virtuous spiral of increasing passenger numbers leading to improved services. A really good partnership between the local authority and the bus company is vital. Together they can put in bus priority measures at junctions so the bus is quicker than the car, provide attractive bus stops, offer integrated (often subsidised) fares, and invest in clean modern buses with wifi and phone charging. Doing all of these things, plus maybe using increased parking charges to subsidise buses, and setting up car clubs so more people can ditch a car altogether, can turn things around, and has in a few places.

But what if that’s just not enough? I’ve long had an idea for a more fundamental change, and a couple of things have come along that I think make it more likely to work – and definitely worth trying out as an experiment somewhere.

So, here’s my idea. Rural bus routes tend to go, literally, round the houses in order to serve multiple villages, feeding into the local town. This means they are much slower than driving, and infrequent (you’re lucky if a rural bus comes once per hour). What if, instead, the bus followed the main roads, bypassing the villages, allowing the same number of vehicles to deliver two or three services per hour, and completing the journey in a similar time to driving? Wouldn’t that be more likely to attract new passengers?

Well, yes, except how does anyone actually access the service? I have had this idea for many years now, and in the past I always thought it would be nice if people could access express buses like this by cycling to the bus stop – which works for me because I’m a keen cyclist. In fact, when I lived in Oxford this is what I would often do – express coaches go from Oxford to London several times per hour, and I would cycle to a coach stop and hop on (it was even possible to take my bike on the coach if I wanted). But as a wider solution it would clearly exclude the many people unwilling, or unable, to cycle to a bus stop.

So what’s changed? E-mobility, and apps, two things everyone is crazy about right now.

E-mobility puts the trip to the bus stop in everyone’s reach. Put a docking station for e-bikes and e-scooters in the centre of every village, with a quality, paved, off-road mixed-use path running out to the express bus-stop. At the bus stop itself, quality cycle parking, another docking station, and a drop-off area of car parking too (as a parent I’d rather drive my kids to a bus stop than the whole journey). And of course, an electronic sign giving a real-time readout of when the next bus will arrive.

The final piece of the puzzle, a travel planning app that can actually cope with multi-modal journeys. I use Google maps all the time – its cycling directions have got really good, and its public transport directions combine bus, train and walking perfectly. But it still can’t cope with the idea that I could cycle to a station or bus stop, often cutting journey time significantly. Create an app that lets you tell it you’re willing to cycle, or scoot, a certain distance to a bus stop, either on your own bike/scooter or hiring. Better still work with google to integrate this capability into their directions. And if possible include the ability to pay for the whole journey right inside the app, and just tap your phone at the docking stations and as you get on the bus. Please do let me know your thoughts in the comments, I love this idea but I’m not in the bus industry so I realise I may be naively missing something. And if you are in the business of planning bus services, and you want to give this a try somewhere, or you know of somewhere it has been

Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ to manage our transport systems?

When buses and trains were privatised in the UK, we stripped away old bureaucracies that were perceived to be slow-moving and inefficient. Now, decades later, most of the country has a mish-mash of different operators failing to provide a joined up service, and government is managing increasingly complex tendering arrangements. The one place where transport seems to be working is London – with a public bureaucracy, TfL, doing the planning.

Last week I had occasion to contemplate this issue at the Transport Policy Futures day, part of the launch on the new ‘transport innovation centre’ at the Transport Systems Catapult. One speaker was outlining his prescription for transport policy in cities, suggesting that a central authority like TfL is a necessary condition.

Now I’m no fan of privatisation, and I agree we need some sort of joined up planning for transport. But wouldn’t it be rather depressing if we ended up reinstating a bureaucracy we dismantled not that long ago, swapping the current problems for the old ones?

I have a friend who’s a big fan of the ‘lean’ start-up methodology, which encourages entrepreneurs to just get started with the ‘minimum viable product’ to see what happens. I wondered – could we apply some of the same thinking to managing transport? Could we establish a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

How do you come up with a better way to manage transport?

Perhaps rashly, I threw my new phrase into the debate, and it seemed to catch people’s imagination. So much so, that later in the day I found myself round a table with seven other people trying to establish what a ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ might look like, and how we could make it happen.

To be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud. After all, it’s a catchy phrase, but trying to slim down bureaucracy is something politicians have been grappling with for ever – a new sound-bite doesn’t address the fundamental problem. But on reflection, maybe, just maybe there is something in the idea.

First of all, we need a ‘lean’ approach to managing transport more than we used to, because the pace of change is faster. It’s not so much the infrastructure itself, roads and rails still take years to plan and build. But vehicles and fuels are changing rapidly, and the way we use them more rapidly still. The row between London’s black cabs and taxi app Uber, which TfL sits in the middle of, is just one example. Then there are car clubs, car-sharing, bike share schemes, and even driver-less cars a few years away.

Second, there are some examples of what it might look like. TfL has taken a pretty ‘lean’ approach to managing its data, and all the things that could be done with it. They’ve made the data open to anyone to use (anonymised of course), with a common API, and just let app developers be as creative as they like.

Another good example is the redevelopment of Times Square in New York. The transit authority (yes, a big bureaucracy) started by just spraying paint on the road, and putting out plastic chairs and planters. The idea was to quickly see how people might use the space, and it worked. More permanent alterations followed once they actually observed what happened. The same approach could be used for junctions, putting in temporary traffic lights, or a roundabout made of cones and spray-paint. And also for bus services – how about just running a new route with a couple of mini-buses, and seeing who uses it, or indeed creating a ‘bus on demand’ service, to see where that demand exists.

Of course, a lot of the existing examples are more about the services themselves than about the bureaucracy you need to manage and plan things. But even in this regard, there is perhaps a model. One of our discussion group explained that in Melbourne they have a system where the transport authority acts like a broker, receiving data on transport demand, even individual requests, and then receiving offers from various transport modes and providers to meet that demand.

So, is there any substance to the idea of a ‘minimum viable transport bureaucracy’, or is it just restating the old ideological battle of public vs private provision? To be honest, I don’t know. But our group at the Transport Policy Futures event did agree we’d like to see it tried. Specifically, we’d like to find a local authority with a vision for the transport service it would like to see, and then put them in a room for a couple of days with the people who run those ‘lean start-up’ weekends. The results could be really interesting.


More about the Transport Systems Catapult:

More about ‘lean start-up’:


The reality of self-driving cars is a lot closer than you think

Google got itself all over the media last week when it put up a video of people trying out its new self-driving car. It’s a great story, and the commentators who are into techy stuff waxed lyrical about how it could give mobility to the elderly or disabled, and just generally free up time for us all. But I’ll bet most people were thinking ‘yeah, but…’ – that’s years away, because who’s going to trust a computer to drive a car, given how often the ones on our desks crash?

What fewer people pointed out was that the driverless car won’t be a leap of faith, it’s a series of small steps – and we’ve already taken a lot of them.

Driver and smartphone

“Alright, you’re so smart, you drive!!”

Get on a motorway, and plenty of people put on cruise control. Increasingly that’s augmented by systems that warn you if you’re going out of your lane, and now systems that stop you getting too close to the car in front. A European Union-funded project is working on using similar technology to allow ‘platooning’ of lorries, i.e. allowing them to follow each other very closely, thus saving a large amount of fuel.

OK, so a motorway is a simple driving environment, but at the slower end, a number of cars will now park themselves for you. And several companies are working on systems that will take over the car to prevent collisions (Volvo being the main one, of course).

Software reliability is an issue, of course, but it’s one the automotive industry has been dealing with for years. The engine of every modern car is entirely reliant on computer hardware and software to run, and failures in that software could cause serious accidents, but it doesn’t. That’s because, let’s face it, you apply a very different set of criteria if a crash is, well, a crash, rather than if it’s just an inconvenience.

It won’t be long before a significant proportion of drivers have experienced vehicles that pretty much drive themselves, at least for some of the time. It’s not hard to envisage a time when motorway driving could mean hitting cruise control, and then getting out a good book. And urban driving will soon involve a super-satnav guiding you precisely around the streets, safe in the knowledge that if you don’t spot that cyclist, the car won’t let you hit her anyway.

As we drive down the current road, we’re just steadily handing more and more control over to the car. Eventually, the reality will be that the car looks like it does now, but the manual controls are really just there as a back-up, for us to take over if something does go wrong, or just if we feel like it. The biggest barrier to a lot of this, and particularly removing the steering wheel altogether (as in Google’s car), will be legal, given laws such as the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) which states that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles”.

However, our technology is getting better at an exponential rate, while human drivers… how to be charitable… are certainly not improving as fast. So whether the legal issues to allow self-driving cars take years, or more likely decades, to sort out, eventually the really tough question will be this. At what point will we view humans controlling cars as the really risky option?



Google’s YouTube video here:

Longer article exploring the legal issues here: