Disruptors to Journeys

Disruption is everywhere. Any bus operator or passenger will tell you that. But in this modern age – with technology moving faster than your average City bus journey – operators need to keep an eye not only on the disruption, but the disruptors.

Just as disruption is rife, disruptors are watching. No business sector is immune from these innovators – “blue sky thinkers”-turned real. The bus industry as a whole hasn’t really seen much “disruption” to it’s business model. Since the days when horses did the pulling, the bus is a means of getting people from A to B. That’s it, isn’t it?

A friend of mine works in the tech world. Don’t we all, these days? He’s been convinced for at least the last decade that we’ll all travel less in the future, and teleconferences are the future. The fact that he worked for a teleconferencing company shouldn’t unduly sway your thoughts on this. My argument – and experience – against this is that the roads seem more choked than ever. Where is everyone actually going? And wherever it is that they’re actually going to proves that we’re not all teleconferencing. I once read that business folk “like to see the whites of others eyes” when they’re signing a deal. And the fact that we now have “drive-thru Costa Coffee” suggests demand from infinite amounts of people in cars going from hither to wherever.

So if we’re all on the go, what’s the bus industry got to worry about?

Well, plenty, it would seem.

How come? At least part of this is the age-old “image problem”. Imagine Stormzy popping up at the Brit Awards proclaiming buses are the way forward. Sadly, the only Grime I found associated with buses was something down the side of the back seat on a 15 year-old Dennis Trident I travelled on the other day.

But making bus use appealing to young people is only part of the story. Transport Focus has recently carried out some research into young people’s attitudes to public transport – and, surprise, surprise, they don’t differ all that much from other age groups views. Reliability, cleanliness and value for money all feature. What is almost inevitable is the focus on the link to technology when using the bus. Charging battery-sapped mobiles is important, apps that show buses arriving in real-time and mobile ticketing stand out – and of course these things increasingly matter to older users too. In my late 40s, I find myself increasingly buying in to all of this too.

Another quote jumps out of the Transport Focus report – and this is where the disruptors are circling. “It may be £2 – £3 more to get Uber, but considered worth it because of door-to-door convenience”.

The Uber model continues to make the news. Sometimes for the wrong reasons, but the bus industry ignores it at it’s peril. I was encouraged recently to see my friend’s 16 year-old daughter completely at home using the National Express West Midlands apps on her phone to buy a local DaySaver and check the local times. But here came a rather large stumbling block. Going bowling with her boyfriend on a Sunday, her local bus – which operates at a 20-minute frequency Mon-Sat – has only an hourly timetable on the Sabbath. This was actually enough to bring Mom’s Taxi into play. Or, if the likes of Uber had a bigger presence in the southern Black Country, a ride via this method. The £2-£3 example in the Transport Focus report I would suggest isn’t something yet available to millions of cash-strapped youth widely, but…you can see the damage to the bus industry if and when it does.

It’s a real dilemma for a commercially-driven bus industry. The Sunday service on the aforementioned route may only be commercially sustainable on Sundays with an hourly frequency – but are the disruptors going to seriously take on even that with ball-park Uber fares? Once you’ve paid for bowling and had something to eat, a few extra quid to get from door-to-door rather than wait for an hourly bus makes bus travel seem very old hat indeed. A similar method of thinking also applies to safety considerations. I’ve caught many a “lively” bus home late at night – and indeed it’s a fair assumption that there is far less trouble than people perceive. But perception is nine-tenths of it. I’m 6’7” and 17 stones. And I work with the general public in my day job on the railways. I don’t always readily consider perceptions of safety as much as, say, a 16 year-old female might. Again, an extra few quid for a taxi or Uber not only seems more sensible, it gets people more used to whipping out their mobiles and ordering a ride in between updating their Instagram.

An article in The Guardian about disruptors in industry is as illuminating as it is blindingly simple. It refers to someone setting up a beauty salon.

Sharmadean Reid, founder of beauty brand WAH Nails, set up her first salon in East London. “I didn’t know how you run a beauty salon”, she says, “so I thought: ‘I’m just going to do what I think it should be like.’ I think disruptors bring a different opinion to an industry that might be a bit stale and rethink what a customer would want. All I thought was: ‘Why does it have to be like this?’”

See how easy you can transfer that thinking to the bus world? There may be many reasons why that route trundles around a loop in the housing estate. The Uber car doesn’t. Why does that travelcard zone end at this bus stop? I don’t get that level of detail in an Uber car. I click a couple of things on my phone and the lift turns up. It might be more expensive, but there’s a trade-off going on. And “value for money” isn’t always about the price.

Again, it’s a challenge to traditional bus operation. Here’s another example. My girlfriend lives barely 2 miles from the local rail station. She pays £100/month for a bus/rail travelcard. Buses to and from the station are 6 per hour during Mon-Sat daytime. She happily uses them. After 7pm and on Sundays, that drops to 2 buses per hour. If she leaves work late, she’ll often pay £7 for a taxi from the rail station, along the 2 miles home. Although she has the pass, she thinks that short 2 mile journey is expensive, at £2.40 for a single. National Express West Midlands has a competitively-priced £3 “Local DaySaver” which covers all it’s services in the area, all day. But she says the perception is that she’d only want a single trip, and £2.40 is “rather steep”. Another factor is that the 30 minute evening frequency along the corridor is shared with Diamond, on which the £3 day ticket isn’t valid. It’s too much faff. Uber or a taxi again is simpler, if more expensive.

There’s a lot being talked about “MaaS” or “Movement As A Service”. People are thinking less about “modes” of travel, more about just getting from A to B simply and effectively. Maas Global – a Finnish company – is developing a way to stop owning a car, but to reap all the benefits of getting from A to B – including car rental and taxi rides. In Helsinki, the company offers 2 monthly packages. For 49 Euros a month (in the City, or 99 Euros for the Region), unlimited public transport plus all journeys in taxis under 5km for a maximum of 10 Euros and a lease car from 49 Euros per day if you need one. MaaS Global have estimated car ownership adds up to around 500 Euros per month, so are offering the whole lot – car leasing, taxis under 5km, and unlimited public transport – for 499 Euros per month. A version of this – marketed as “Whim” –is on it’s way to Birmingham.

There’s a lot to think about there as regards price, etc. But what is clear is that disruptors to traditional ways of doing things are in play. Does Whim make buses relevant again to some people as part of a wider mobility package? What’s in it for the bus operators commercially? They’ll only get a proportion of the pie, as opposed to the whole pie, which is already the case with existing multi-operator/multi-mode ticketing. There’s an awful lot of brand awareness for National Express West Midlands’ own ticketing range, less so for all operator/mode products. The back end of many a NXWM double decker screams “unlimited bus travel” – but it has “on NXWM buses” in much smaller font. Misleading? Or are people more savvy? Either way, it creates levels of validity which just aren’t there when it comes back to our Uber friends.

For my money, we have to view bus services almost in two very different ways. City/Urban provision, which has high frequency and simple ticketing. Given good bus priority, it delivers. The other is types of service that are community-based. Rural/County-based, that meander around estates/villages, that are community lifelines. In the City/Urban example, the free market needs to be the major market, assisted by good partnerships with local authorities, providing effective bus priority where needed. In rural/County areas, there needs more public involvement in provision, with guaranteed funding to preserve these lifeline operations. If we’re talking about franchising and Mayors running the show, surely this should be in areas where services are needed as vital parts of the community, not highly commercial areas like city/region areas? If the disruptors are moving in, they’ll do it in big city areas where there’s a real chance of money to be made. Do we really want them up against the slow hand of the public sector?

City areas need good, effective partnerships between bus operators and the authorities. Leeds is currently in the news with some good things going on in the City. And with good progress comes investment. First are pumping significant cash into Leeds  and they’ve been bullish enough to say that they’ll only put the money in where they’ve got these good relationships with the local authorities. Similar things are happening in Bristol. And in Birmingham, where the local partnership is quietly getting on with things. Yet, congestion still rules the roost as the major sticking block in all of these areas. In Manchester, Mayor Burnham appears to be the first one to take up the new powers of control of the City’s buses. He’ll be watched very closely. But will congestion be seriously tackled?

But bus folk need to keep their beadies on the disruptors. It’s not just the likes of Uber that are looking at doing things differently.

In London, Citymapper’s “BB1” route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo (7am-10am and reverse 5pm-8pm Mon-Fri) is something different. “BB1” means “Black Bus”, as it is actually operated by black cabs. Citymapper has teamed up with the Gett black cab app and provides a link not served by existing bus or underground. It has a fixed fare of £3, can nip down back streets when congestion strikes and people can hop in or out anywhere. The company says that it is matching demand to spare capacity. It is another example of a disruptor to the existing status quo providing an alternative that would be far more difficult to provide under traditional means. What other City areas might this type of “pop-up” provision start operating in?

It was only a few years ago I was invited to Ireland to try something innovative. Standing in Dublin Airport, I had an iPhone thrust into my hand and I watched in amazement as a little cartoon coach ran across the screen in real time. I travelled on it, got off in the middle of nowhere and watched again as the next image on the phone proclaimed my next service was due. In those few short years, this technology has become the norm. It’s this incredible speed of technology which is driving the disruptors to provide what people want – with little fuss and maximum efficiency.

It’s up to the bus industry to prove that it’s offering is still relevant to the masses. Or will our children and grandchildren look back at the quaintness of how we used to move?

The Non-Scenic West Midlands

Scenic bus route logo

“It’s grim up north”, so the phrase goes. But could the same be said for the West Midlands?

The heat is on to find “Britain’s Most Scenic Bus Route”, and you can bet your bottom dollar the arguments will rage long after the winner has been announced. I’m still debating who was my favourite Spice Girl since the 90s (“Baby Spice”, since you ask – “Scary” used to frighten me…)

What caught my eye was the comment that Bus Users UK are supporting the initiative, alongside four of the “big five” groups – the notable absentee being National Express Group.

Is this a tacit admission that the gritty heartlands of Birmingham and the Black Country have no views of beauty from it’s buses? Viewing the list of nominees so far, some of the usual suspects appear from this green and pleasant land, but what about our former great industrial landscape? Granted, the sight of that great plastic monstrosity Merry Hill hardly warms the cockles of your heart as the X10 disappears down the latest pothole, but what about a fleeting glimpse of glorious countryside from the upper deck of the 257 as it negotiates ridiculously-parked white vans on it’s escapades around the Stickley Estate? Or a breathtaking view of Greater Birmingham from the Oakham Road near Dudley Golf Club? Ah. the 120 is normally single-deckers. But you get my drift.

We may once have been the workshop of the World around these parts, but we can’t be letting all these green fields and rolling countryside around Yorkshire win the day. Besides, Alex Hornby at Transdev won’t have any more room for trophies in his office.

So think on. Our Outer Circle around the outskirts of Brum may not entirely be classed as “scenic”, but who said the three hour round-trip on our most famous of bus routes won’t leave you breathless at the end of it? Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder…


Vote for your favourite scenic route here

(F)air Quality?

NXWM Exhaust-kits
National Express West Midlands bus engineers with one of the filter kits (pic courtesy Transport for West Midlands)

Something worth singing about in what is a fairly dismal time in the bus World is a new fund to retrofit “pollution-busting technology” to bus exhausts, which will help to banish at least one long-held belief amongst the masses regarding “filthy dirty buses” spewing out all sorts of undesirable matter from their rear-ends.

Announcing the new pot of cash – from the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – the recently-installed Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani told the UK Bus Summit via a number of soundbites that “buses and coaches are hugely important…”…”We have to move away from nose-to-tail car traffic at peak times…” etc, etc.

I’m sounding slightly cynical. Which I’m not, actually. Of course we’ve all heard nice words from the Minister of the day before about all sorts of things, but putting the cash up to get bus emissions down is a noble pursuit and of course it’s very welcome.

The West Midlands and Coventry receive grants totaling £4.5m – including funding by industry operators National Express, Diamond, Claribels and First – and will fit over 460 buses with the kit. It takes a team of two engineers around six hours to fit a filter and a selective catalytic reduction “trap” to each bus, reducing harmful emissions by up to 96% – making the exhaust air coming out actually cleaner than the air in the City generally.

It’s good stuff, and the kudos goes to the much-lauded “West Midlands Bus Alliance” – between operators, councils and others – which is quietly getting on with progress, and shows little interest in franchising via the West Midlands “Metro” Mayor Andy Streeet.

Buses have been cleaned up – in Birmingham City Centre, at least – via another partnership: the “Advanced Quality Partnership Scheme”, which requires operators to have “cleaner” emissions on buses entering the City Centre. It’s certainly got rid of the tat, and improved the image of bus travel – but…

There’s always a but. Whilst other areas of the West Midlands are following suit with their own “emissions zones”, other traffic roams free. And that includes all sorts of Tom, Dick and Harry examples in old, dirty polluting vans, trucks and cars. Whenever I’m in Birmingham City Centre, there seems precious little restriction of any sort of traffic – even in what appear to be pedestrian areas.

There’s no problem with the bus industry cleaning up it’s act – and good on them for embracing it – but where’s the long-term plan for other modes of transport? If I’m now happy to lie on the pavement and suck in what’s coming out of the rear end of a bus (yes, I may have strange pastimes) because it’s cleaner than what I’m normally inhaling, the issue of dirty air quality now falls on everything else entering the City Centre. I accept this isn’t an overnight job, but is there a plan?

In Glasgow, it’s all kicking off over a not-dissimilar plan to clean up bus emissions in the City. Except they’re proposing to go at it in a rather bull-at-a-gate type fashion. The Authority wants it done rather speedily – and the 300 suspected premature deaths per year in Glasgow due to air pollution succinctly makes the point. But the suggestion that it has to be buses first – and quickly to a certain high standard – raises questions about how it is to be funded, and how other dirty vehicles will still be allowed in without restriction.

It’s all very well cleaning up the air that we breathe in City Centres – and no one can argue against that. But as Minister Ghani points out “Buses and coaches are hugely important to those who rely on them and to the communities in which these people live and work.” If the crucial importance of buses is noted in Government, and that buses are part of the solution for moving large numbers of people quickly and safely, let’s make the battle for cleaner air quality fair. And that includes all modes of motorised transport.

Or is that too politically difficult?