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Flexible bus services

03 April 2020
PickMeUp: premium prices on Saturday nights
PickMeUp: premium prices on Saturday nights


A shake-up to flexible bus service regulations could encourage more such operations, the DfT believes.   

This section of its call for evidence applies only to England because bus service registration, and taxi and private hire vehicle (PHV) licensing are devolved matters in Scotland and Wales. “We would, however, welcome views from respondents in Scotland and Wales on other areas of the bus, taxi and PHV framework that we should consider in future stages of the regulatory review,” the DfT adds. “The call for evidence will inform further work looking at how the bus, taxi and PHV regimes are converging and what legislative framework might be appropriate in future.”

The terms ‘flexible bus services’ and ‘demand responsive transport’ (DRT) are often regarded as interchangeable but a specific legal definition of ‘flexible bus service’ was introduced in England and Wales in 2004 as an amendment to the Public Service Vehicles (Registration of Local Services) Regulations. 

“We are interested in the wider context of DRT and would welcome comments on services that go beyond the strict legal definition of a flexible bus service, particularly on how the two might be brought together.  

“How do you think we should define the area of operation for a flexible bus service ” the DfT asks. When registering a flexible bus service, operators are currently required to register fixed stops and/or a geographical area of operation. A flexible service can “serve one or more local communities or neighbourhoods within a specific geographical area”. “Existing guidance states that an area of operation covering the large part of a county could not be said to fall within this definition,” says the Department.

Flexible bus services must arrive at each individual passenger’s pick-up and destination within a maximum 20 minute time window. This can work in two ways: 

  • a period specified by the operator (for example, between 10.30 and 10.50) or 
  • in reference to an agreed time (no more than ten minutes before or after the agreed time – e.g. the booking is made for 10.40 and can be between 10.30  and 10.50). 

Asks the DfT: “Does the 20 minute time window to arrive at each passenger pick-up remain appropriate?” 

On pricing, PHVs can vary their prices according to demand but flexible bus services cannot. They can, however, charge different fares at different times, reflecting the likely demand and costs of operating at that time. For instance, the Oxford PickMeUp service charges a premium on Saturday nights. 

“The ability to use flex pricing is one attraction of the PHV regulatory regime over the flexible bus regime for new entrants to the market and encourages ‘regulatory shopping’.”

The DfT acknowledges that allowing bus services to deploy flexible pricing could “create problems for passengers, especially those on tight budgets, who may be unable to plan trips with certainty about whether they will be affordable”. 

When introducing, changing or withdrawing a flexible bus service, an operator has to give at least 42 days’ notice to the Traffic Commissioner. A further 28 days’ pre-notification must be given to any local authority served by the service. 

The DfT asks if this remains “appropriate for routes that, by their nature, are already more flexible than standard [bus] services”.

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