Forget Public-Private Partnerships. Share data and transport innovation will follow

Uber. Image: Getty.

“To help close the gap between public transit and your doorstep, we’re teaming up with Amtrak,” announced Lyft, Uber’s largest competitor, earlier this month. The partnership will allow Americans to ditch their cars and let the sharing economy deliver them seamlessly to and from the train station. Compelling, right?

For urban policymakers, maybe not.

Public-private partnerships (we can debate whether Amtrak is public or private later, rail nerds) seek to solve the first/last mile problem, and they do it very well. Multi-modal transport helps users overcome the friction of reaching a public transport hub, tempting many out of their cars.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Florida was amongst the first to launch such a scheme, named DirectConnect. The Authority pays up to $5 towards journeys made with Uber, a local taxi service, or a wheelchair-accessible taxi firm within designated zones, encompassing poorly served residential areas and starting or finishing at DirectConnect stops, mostly at the ends of bus lines. The scheme increases passenger numbers on primary bus services at a fraction of the cost of maintaining poorly performing branch lines, freeing up public resources to be deployed more efficiently elsewhere.

Schemes like this mean fewer cars and so less air pollution, more road space, lower demand for parking space, and lower atmospheric carbon emissions. What’s not to like?

Well for one thing, there’s little to suggest that this sort of multi-modal travel requires formal partnership: 25 per cent of Lyft’s journeys in Chicago are to a public transport node. Likewise, 40 per cent of Uber’s journeys in London start or end within 200 metres of an underground stop.

Data released by the firm last year after the opening of London’s Night Tube illustrated the dominance of these multi-modal journeys even more clearly. The number of journeys to or from an underground station during Night Tube hours has risen by 22 per cent since the service began. What’s more, pick-ups in Central London have fallen, while pick-ups at stations beyond the centre have risen by up to 300 per cent and 63 per cent on average. Clearly, consumers are well ahead of Lyft and Amtrak.

Click to expand. Image: Uber.

All this suggests that formal public-private partnerships may be unnecessary: if consumers can organise their own multi-modal transit, what need is there for expensive service integrations?

And by providing high quality real time transit data, metropolitan governments have reduced the need to partner with private companies to improve urban transportation. Applications such as CityMapper in the United Kingdom and Transit in the United States depend on free public-sector data showing, for example, when the next bus is due. Given access to open data, companies like these can give people the information they need to link multiple modes of transit.

Coupling its own data on urban transit with that made available by the private sector, CityMapper has gone so far as to provide its own ‘public’ transport service, or ‘social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle’, as the company calls it. The Night Rider, a 9pm to 5am bus route running through the heart of East London, from Aldgate to Highbury and Islington underground stations via Shoreditch and Dalston, will service an area neglected by public transport at night, a boost to the local economy along the way.

Image: CityMapper.

So what need is there for the public sector to partner with private companies, in an age of open metropolitan data? Principally, to ensure that no one is left behind.

Services like Uber require users to own a smartphone and have the ability to operate it, to have a bank account and to be comfortable making payments via an app, to be able bodied (very few ridesharing vehicles are accessible, leading to court cases across the pond), and, of course, to have the money to pay for what is ultimately a taxi, however cheap. Schemes such as DirectConnect allow the public sector to ensure that multimodal transport is accessible to the poor, the disabled, and those uncomfortable with smartphones by uniting public transport with accessible private vehicles that can be ordered by telephone and paid for with cash.

Partnerships like that between Uber and Transit, within the private sector but underpinned by open source public sector data, help us to navigate the multimodal city more efficiently than ever before. Public-private partnerships, on the other hand, are useful only in that they guarantee service accessibility – an aim that could perhaps be achieved by other means.

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.


 

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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