The Community Transport Association is the umbrella body for providers of voluntary transport throughout the UK. We work to ensure that our transport networks are inclusive and accessible, so that our schools, hospitals, workplaces, cities and towns can be more accessible too.
Individuals use community transport often when the commercial network is inaccessible – perhaps because a bus service or bus stop is not physically accessible, or where individuals live in rural locations that are unprofitable for mainstream services to run bus route. This can lead to a lack of integration between the commercial and non-commercial network, meaning people struggle to get to where they need to be.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. The Bus Services Bill has been heralded as a reregulation of the bus market with an emphasis on new franchising powers, partnership agreements, and an open data provision. It is the data provision which has perhaps the greatest potential to enhance our bus network – but it has so far received the least amount of public attention.
Guidance issued with the Bill suggests that, by 2020, operators will be compelled to release data on routes, timetables, punctuality and fares. This data will be made available on a central data hub which will build on existing bus registration and journey planning processes. Importantly, this data will be made openly available.
The discussions on data so far have been on its application for app development: it is hoped that this new tranche of data will enable the development of journey planning apps, and more broadly improve the availability of digital timetables. This will undoubtedly make a huge difference to individual passengers, but it is also possible to imagine the applications of this data to transform the way we currently plan, finance, and integrate bus services.
Currently there is a poor relationship between the beneficiaries of well-maintained transport routes and investment in the transport system itself: a livelier town centre will not automatically mean more is spent on buses. This is historically because it is difficult to measure the financial impact that transport has on local economies, as Manchester found in its devolution deal. Thanks to the new data provision, though, it should be possible for local authorities to link together frequency of service, with data on footfall and patronage of the high street.
This is not only a useful tool for assessing the impact of bus services on local economies, but could also enable local authorities to lobby central government for funding for additional bus services. This could then be paid back through an “Earn Back” model of the sort adopted by Manchester in 2012, in which increased local revenues will be used to pay back upfront transport investment.
This data could not only justify investing in bus networks; it could also help establish a better case for new investment in radial and neglected routes. This would enable more people to access bus services, drive business to towns and cities, and if executed properly make a positive contribution to the public purse.
There is also the potential to better assess how to integrate and plan services more effectively. Community transport exists where commercial operators do not, and perhaps never will, operate due to the uneconomical nature of routes. It is able to do this as with, high use of volunteers, nimble structures, and a lack of profit motive, community transport is more resilient to market pressures.
But if local authorities can access new data on routes and fares, it should be possible to see where there are no services or where services are in danger of becoming uneconomical. If a council were to opt in to a franchising arrangement it would give them a far better insight into how services could be designed: this would mean that not-for-profit operates can be integrated into the mainstream network in a way that makes the rest of the network more sustainable, and ensures that more people can get to where they need to be.
The data provisions in the Bus Services Bill have the potential to transform how we plan and finance our bus services. The challenge now is for local authorities to use these powers in a way which makes the greatest difference to their communities.
James Coe is policy and public affairs executive at the Community Transport Association, which support the providers of voluntary transport through the UK to deliver inclusive and accessible services. He can be contacted @CTAUK1 and blogs here.