Phone-based tickets make buses more efficient – but will the poorest passengers lose out?

mTickets in action. Image: First Group.

This article was amended 1655hrs on Friday, to reflect comments from First Bus, noting that it also accepted smart cards. 

For a short time last year, my job required me to commute on Bristol’s buses. As a result, every Monday involved searching through my wallet, my handbag and around the house, trying to gather enough change to pay for a return fare without incurring the wrath of the driver. The result: many cups of coffee purchased in order to break a tenner.

Then our local bus company introduced mTickets: tickets you can buy and hold on your mobile phone. No longer did I have to reach under the sofa to find that final pound coin, or start the day feeling wired from an extra espresso. I could buy a bus ticket using my Smartphone.

mTickets are becoming more and more popular across the UK’s bus network. First Bus, the company that runs the majority of Bristol’s buses, claims the move to mobile tickets will improve punctuality and cut journey times. As mentioned, they reduce the stress of trying to find the right bus fare in your purse or pockets.

I spoke to the company spokesperson responsible for First Bus in the South West. He told me that on one popular Bristol route, “33 per cent of the time a bus spends standing is waiting for at the stop for people to buy tickets. Using mTickets rather than cash make boarding times 400 per cent faster.”

Switching to mTickets, First Bus argues, “means we can save people in Bristol 32,000 hours a year. A more punctual bus service encourage people to use public transport, and reducing the time buses spend waiting with the engine on can have a positive impact on the environment.”

But there’s a problem: mTickets are incentivised via price. The launch in Bristol last year coincided with a 30p price rise in single cash fares – a rise you could avoid most easily if you bought your ticket using your mobile phone. (The lower fares are also still available on smart cards, which can be topped up in shops).

Considering bus fares in England have increased by 66 per cent in the last 12 years, offering people a cheaper way to buy tickets seems like a win (though the First spokesperson says they’ve been kept down in Bristol). However, incentivising mTickets risks making it more expensive for the poorer and more vulnerable people in society. 

Let’s look at the numbers. People on low incomes are more likely to use buses than the rest of the population. According to government statistics, 67 per cent of stages on local buses are made by people who earn £25,000 or less. This suggests that buses are providing a significant service to people on lower incomes.  

Secondly, those on lower incomes are less likely to have the Smartphone technology needed to purchase mTickets. The government’s report on digital exclusion stated that 37 per cent of those who are digitally excluded are social housing tenants, and 17 per cent of the digitally excluded earn less than £20,000 a year.

Similarly, Ofcom’s recent report on Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes found those in the lowest socio-economic bracket are between 10-15 per cent less likely to own a Smartphone than those in AB-C2 brackets (although the majority of people across all socio-economic backgrounds do now own a Smartphone). This means there’s correlation between the people most likely to use bus services and those least likely to have a Smartphone.


I put the point of social inclusion to First Bus, who cited the Ofcom data on Smartphone usage. “We looked into the cost of ownership of a Smartphone and found there are no statistics that demonstrate switching to mTickets would shut out significant sections of society,” First Bus told me. It also provided examples of various low cost phone contract prices.

This is reassuring. However, tiering ticket prices so people without Smartphones have to pay more risks contributing to the “poverty premium”.

This “premium” is the many ways in which being poor is day-to-day made more expensive. From metered gas and electricity leading to higher bills, to groceries being more expensive in local shops, it’s estimated that the poorest in society pay 10 per cent more for basic good and services. Tiered ticketing where it’s cheaper to travel if you can afford the technology risks entrenching that.

For First Bus, mTickets are a way to encourage more bus users. “Most of the complaints we get are around punctuality,” their spokesperson tells me. “If we reduce the time buses are waiting, we can improve punctuality and encourage bus use – something which benefits everyone.”

With congestion and air pollution causing more and more problems in cities, getting more people on the buses is a worthy goal. Moreover, it’s encouraging that the company is looking at inclusion and ways to open access to those most excluded in society. The fact that First Bus works with agencies including City of Sanctuary, St Mungos, SARSAS and Syrian Refugee Resettlement so they can provide bus tickets to their clients/service users demonstrates some level of commitment to social responsibility in this area.

But it can’t be ignored that tiering ticket prices risks ending up with some people losing out – and those most likely to lose out are the poorest in our communities. Closing the price disparity between mTickets and cash tickets would succeed in encouraging more people to get on the bus, without leaving some of the more vulnerable in society behind.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.