Here’s the case for a national bus strategy

The good old days: a publicity shot from Mutiny on the Buses. Image: Allstar/Anglo-EMI/StudioCanal.

The Labour MP for Cambridge, on the buses.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was widely mocked by commentators earlier this year when he used PMQs to draw attention to problems faced by bus passengers. He had hit a nerve, however: cuts to council budgets have left rural services in tatters, and in towns and cities a toxic combination of rising fares and slow and unreliable journeys has led to falling passenger numbers which feeds the spiral of decline. Yet for millions, just getting to work on time and getting home in the evening depends on a reliable bus service.

 Problems on the railways lead to widespread media coverage, lengthy reports, reviews and general hand-wringing. But what happens when there are problems on our much more widely-used, but rarely reported, buses? The recent intervention from the chief executive of a private bus operator, Go-Ahead, calling for a national strategy for buses may just mark a turning-point.

The call for a national bus strategy is not new. In 2016, when the most recent bus legislation was discussed in Parliament, Labour proposed adding a clause to the Bill to mandate the Transport Secretary to issue a national strategy for local bus services, setting out the objectives, targets and funding provisions for buses over the next 10 years and providing sector cohesion.

And despite 30 years of bus privatisation, almost half of bus industry funding still comes from the public purse. Total public support for buses accounted for 41 per cent of overall industry funding in 2014-15; in 2010-11 that figure was even higher at 46.3 per cent. Despite savage cuts to council budgets, some money still funds socially necessary supported services on routes not served commercially by private operators. The government just about still passes funds to local authorities and makes it their duty to reimburse bus operators for trips made by concessionary pass-holders, including the statutory older persons’ and disabled passengers’ scheme.


However, back in 2016, despite the public funds going into the sector, the government rejected these calls for a national bus strategy. It rightly publishes national investment strategies for road and rail, as well as for cycling and walking, but claimed that an equivalent for buses would “not help local authorities to address issues relevant to them and their area”.

Conservative MPs claimed that bus profits are “shared with the public through shareholder dividends”. It is doubtful whether many bus passengers have shareholdings in bus companies, or feel that their councils are well resourced enough to battle the bus companies when it comes to service provision. Recent figures from the Campaign for Better Transport estimate that 3,347 bus services have been reduced or withdrawn across England and Wales since 2010. 

Despite its exclusion of a national bus strategy, the 2017 Bus Services Act had some positive consequences. Areas with metro mayors can now reregulate their local bus services through a franchising process similar to that used in London. It remains a complicated and lengthy process, but Greater Manchester is leading the way and other areas are watching progress closely.

With transport problems contributing to air pollution as well as congestion in most cities, councils are desperate to achieve more efficient, customer-friendly joined-up transport systems, with simple and good value ticketing. After 30 years of bus privatisation, the market has failed to achieve that; we now need a new approach.  

Today, even private bus companies are calling for change. Two weekends ago, Go Ahead published its submission to the future of bus services inquiry by the Transport Select Committee. Their call for a national bus strategy cites the need for better allocation of road space, a national strategy to support electric buses and charging, and reflects on the effect of austerity on local authority bus spending cuts. 

Put together, could we be about to see a renaissance in buses? That may be a touch optimistic. Forty years ago, the TV sit-com On the Buses was part of the fabric of everyday British life, Blakey's catch-phrases universally recognisable. For the majority of people in Britain, the ritual of waiting hopefully for the bus that forever seems to be late is still a part of their routine.

But for the decision-makers on the train or in their cars, the bus remains a curious mystery, yet another invisible wall in a fatally divided society. Tackling those divisions means properly understanding just how important the bus is to the lives so many people – which is why, as a start, it is time to have a national bus strategy.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge, and a member of the Transport Select Committee

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.