Rural buses are awful. They are infrequent, often indirect, and huge swathes of rural population live too far from a bus stop to be able to use public transport at all.
Yet Roger French, writing in LTT868 and on his website Bus and Train User, thinks that trying to fix this is a waste of money if the time and energy he spends criticising DRT schemes is anything to go by.
If we’re not trying to improve public transport in terms of the number of people it serves, the journey times, and service levels throughout the day we need to take a long hard look at what we are trying to do
Continually undermining DRT schemes for a lack of ‘commercial viability’ is unhelpful. As is the idea that trialling new technology is a waste of public money. This article aims to address these issues in turn.
Commercial viability issues are not unique to DRT – rural bus services are rarely commercially viable. It’s basic physics that it’s hard to fill a bus in low population density areas. To improve ridership, rural bus services often follow tortuous routes to pass near as many people as possible, and in maximising their potential ridership make journey times excessive.
There is supporting evidence that the current bus business model doesn’t really work in very rural areas where there is scattered demand. We can observe a repeated pattern in which commercial operators cut and cut routes, with local authorities stepping in to subsidise buses where they can.
This has resulted in many rural areas with few services that are often a long way from people’s homes, disconnecting them from jobs and services, social and economic opportunities. Furthermore, these areas that do have a service near to clusters of homes, find that the service is often only a handful of times a day. Fixed lines every 2 or 3 hours is not sufficient for these residents.
The criticism of a lack of commercial viability implies that the solution is to say that people in who live in rural areas with no public transport don’t deserve a bus service.
There are several factors that make this an increasingly untenable position. We face a climate crisis where transport emissions are one of the more intractable problems. Not everyone will be able to afford an electric car in the next few years.
And in the shorter term we have a more pressing affordability problem. The cost of living crisis is affecting rural people forced into car dependency harshly. Rural trips are longer on average as well as more likely to be made by car. In addition, those who cannot drive for any reason are faced with few options and are at risk of deprivation and dependency on those who can.
The case study of HertsLynx is a microcosm of these issues. The HertsLynx DRT service was launched in North East Hertfordshire to cover a gaping hole in bus services. Across the area the majority of the population (about 40,000 people) live more than a 15 minute walk from a bus service with an hourly service (not exactly a gold standard of ‘frequency is freedom’ but the services are at least visible).
The services that do exist have ridiculously long journey times. What is a 16 minute trip by car takes several times that by public transport.
When we look at these trips in detail, we find the source of the delay is in diversions to neighbouring villages to pick up as many people as possible, as well as connections between infrequent services.
To improve these services with fixed line buses would be nigh impossible. The journey time for the example above could be reduced by cutting out the diversion, and increasing the frequency of the two routes it combines. The resource implications – including a new route for the villages which would no longer be served – would be an estimated three fold increase in service vehicle numbers and hours. For a single origin and destination pair this seems excessive.
This is not a theoretical journey. This journey has emerged as one of the most popular origin and destination pairs for the HertsLynx service. It takes 30 minutes by DRT instead of an hour and a half.
Suggesting that people should be using services which would tie up 3 hours a day to travel to and from work or appointments is offensive. The average commute in the UK is 27 minutes – when the discrepancy between bus and car grows like this it’s no wonder that people who can, drive.
The second set of issues are around the use of public funds. Dismissing trials as a waste of public money is short sighted and seems to lack ambition for public transport.
However, I think we can all agree that evaluation and learning needs to be shared. How this is done is also moot. There is a focus on subsidy per passenger that is reductive and not particularly useful. I would suggest we that there are at least four different metrics for evaluating DRT (and for deciding whether fixed line would be more appropriate):
Accessibility - the absolute numbers of people served and the percentage of the population
Frequency (and DRT equivalent)
Span – the hours the service operates
The status quo is unacceptable and we can’t just tweak the system we have. There is a place for innovation and change, and that is what DDRT is trying to achieve for rural areas.
All these measure how well the service provides access to useful public transport. In Hertfordshire the commercially operated bus routes are concentrated at the beginning of the day – but the HertsLynx service is particularly useful in the off peak and later. It’s no good having bus services that get people to work without enabling them to return the same day.
In addition, there is a fifth potential metric, and that is the impact on the network as a whole. First and last mile is always the most expensive bit of transport but it’s also the bit that enables people to access mainline station and rapid transit routes. Evaluating how DRT enables people to access (commercial) bus and rail – increasing the ridership of the entire network also has merit.
In addition, DRT has many specific elements that need to be observed and evaluated. For instance:
The appropriate size of areas to vehicle ratios (unsurprisingly, large areas with few vehicles mean poorer services).
Learning whether allowing people to book ahead or requiring them to book on the day is more appropriate for the area.
Best vehicle sizes in different types of locations
Designing service patterns
Finally, the status quo is unacceptable and we can’t just tweak the system we have. There is a place for innovation and change, and that is what DDRT is trying to achieve for rural areas.
Yes, it may not work in every scenario and some trials may fail, however, in the areas where it is working well the feedback is very very good from users. Additionally, outside of the UK, DRT is expanding at a greater pace in many countries and has more mature deployments, suggesting this is not a trend, but a transition to an alternative service option.
Are we seriously suggesting that people should give up their cars to take 5 times as long to make the same journey?
Or that it’s acceptable to place so low a value on the time of those who can’t or won’t drive, for whatever reason ?
If we’re not trying to improve public transport in terms of the number of people it serves, the journey times, and service levels throughout the day we need to take a long hard look at what we are trying to do.
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