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

Will electrification leave rural and small bus/coach operators behind?

It’s fair to say that city bus operators are leading the way in the UK (and elsewhere) in terms of vehicle electrification. It’s easy to see why – buses are providing a visible public service, and public opinion is firmly demanding cleaner air.

Plus, it’s always been the case that the newest buses are used first in cities, with older vehicles moved out to a second (and third, and fourth) life in more rural areas. This makes sense because city buses are used more intensively, so newer vehicles are preferred. It’s especially true for electric buses because (a) their higher capital cost can be more quickly recouped from their lower running cost, and (b) they save even more money where more polluting vehicles are subject to Low Emission Zone charges.

Bus in a field of wheat

There’s a similar picture with coaches. Large operators buy new vehicles to run the high mileage, profitable inter-city routes, while small operators, with only a handful of vehicles, are using coaches that are 10 or 15 years old to do school runs and day trips in villages and market towns.

So, will rural areas just have to wait for cleaner vehicles, and can we assume that as the current crop of electric buses (and a few coaches) will filter through the market over the next decade?

Well, maybe, but maybe not, and that has got smaller operators worried. At the excellent Zemo electric bus event with Abellio in London last week, I was chatting with Peter Bradley of the UK Coach Operators’ Association (UKCOA). We’d spent the morning hearing about the huge investments going into charging infrastructure for electric buses in London depots – very inspiring, but even if UKCOA members are able to buy a used electric coach in a few years’ time, how are they going to afford the infrastructure to charge it?

A couple of positive thoughts on this came out of the event. I chatted to Lucy Parkin of Kleanbus, who are taking old Optare Solo buses and repowering them with an electric drivetrain. Equipmake have just started to do the same for coaches. At the start of the electrification journey, taking an old vehicle and fitting it with an electric drivetrain was the only way to get electric versions of heavy vehicles. Once new electric trucks and buses started rolling off production lines, repowering was perhaps seen as a bit ‘Heath Robinson’, but now it’s having a resurgence in sectors where vehicles have a long life.

A burgeoning repower market may provide smaller/rural operators with a way to buy cheaper electric vehicles without waiting decades, but what about charging infrastructure? That’s going to be a tough nut to crack, and something rural councils need to address in their charging strategies. But one possible piece of the puzzle came out of chatting to Jon Eardley of Abellio. His depots are investing in dozens of high power chargers that buses will use overnight, but their depots are all but empty during the day. They are already in discussion with coach operators bringing day-trippers into London to offer their depots as parking locations, and potentially charging locations, during the day.

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’:


Who’d have thought running an electricity grid and running a railway would have so much in common?

I was at a transport industry networking event the other night, chatting to Peter White of the University of Westminster. He was outlining strategies for reducing emissions from rail travel, and I was explaining the potential role of electric vehicles in grid balancing, and we realised that both problems were surprisingly alike.

The problem with running a railway is that you have to invest in loads of rolling stock to meet rush hour demand, and then it sits there idle most of the day. Here’s the total number of passengers in and out of London stations, hour by hour, on average (DfT stats):

That’s a lot of unused capacity outside the rush hour. If we could just spread out that morning rush, by employers allowing (or even encouraging) employees to have staggered start and finish times, the railways would be a whole lot cheaper to run – and more pleasant to travel on.

Turns out, that’s just what happened during the Olympics. As well as encouraging businesses to promote home-working during the Olympics, the ODA and Transport for London asked them to stagger shifts.

One of the most striking successes was with City trading firms. They’d always maintained there was no way they could allow flexible working, because of trading times, but with the Olympic spirit behind them they tried out an ‘early’ and ‘late’ shift. Turns out it worked beautifully, because the early traders were clued up on the Eastern markets, and the late traders got to see how things played in the US. How many other types of business could benefit from this approach?

So how’s all this like running the electricity grid? Let’s say you’re National Grid, and you’re responsible for supplying us all with electricity. Your biggest problem is variable demand – everyone wants power at 5.30pm, and nobody wants it at 4am. Here’s the graph of demand on the UK grid through one day (1st January 2012 as it happens, data from National Grid):

So you have base-load generators, like coal and nuclear, which are cheap but hard to turn on and off, and you have peak-load generators (usually gas), which are only turned on when you need them, but which are therefore more expensive.

Just as with the railways, if we could spread demand more evenly, or store electricity, we could generate our power more efficiently. Grid operators call it ‘filling the bath-tub’. This is one reason why the electricity companies are so interested in electric cars – they all come with an energy storage device (i.e. the battery).

If we all went and bought electric cars tomorrow, and charged them overnight, it would allow for a much more even load on the grid. This would allow the energy companies to run more base load generation, and therefore provide cheaper electricity.  Of course, the opposite is also true – if everyone put their car on charge when they got home from work, we’d need even more peak capacity, making power more expensive.

Incidentally, price and greenhouse gas emissions are pretty closely linked here. If you buy an electric car in the UK right now, and charge it from midnight to 7am, you’ll be saving GHG compared to an equivalent petrol or diesel car. However, if you put your car on charge anytime from around midday to 10pm, you’ll be emitting around twice as much GHG as charging off-peak, and more than a petrol or diesel car.

Adding renewables like wind or solar to the mix is even more of a headache, because you don’t know when you’ll get the power. That’s when electric cars really come in handy – but more of that in a later post…