The bus historically has faced a challenge to sustain itself. Increasing social aspiration and car ownership from the 1950s onwards drove a continuous decline in patronage which has only recently been arrested; fixes such as driver only buses and improved maintenance regimes failed to stem the decline with only growth in London in the 2000s stemming this tide of decline in overall usage. Internal to the bus industry has been a ‘cycle of decline’ with reducing patronage forcing costs to be spread over fewer users driving reductions in service levels something which is explored by historical commentators and academics alike. A projection from the 1950s onwards shows that the bus services in the UK could have no passengers by the early 2030s.
This raises two key questions:
- Is the statistical assessment likely to be accurate?
- In the light of Uber and other technology driven solutions does this doomsday scenario hold up to scrutiny or are they the bus industry’s greatest opportunity to retain a viable urban mass transport mode?
The potential negatives drawn from the recent past would appear to be:
- Concentrations of resources and providers
- Competition Commission misses the real point in 2011 i.e. competition with the private car
- Funding constraints with recent ministerial indication that long-term subsidy is unsustainable
The potential positives appear to be:
- Commercial uptake – concentration of ‘good’ investment in key routes and services
- Forward thinking customer engagement with new sales / marketing channels
- Bus Services Act – a little of ‘something for everyone’?
- Housing growth
- Young person’s mobility and retention of the 16-25 demographic as bus users
The future holds much that would suggest that a straightforward statistical analysis is not a valid approach to considering the future trends for bus use. Key future influences of demand from the viewpoint of today will include:
- Congestion key risk to the bus service going forward but can be a selling point for a properly prioritised bus service
- Guided and non-guided busways – correct locations are vital but are such systems liable to be a victim of their own success rather like the DLR where greater use causes mode hierarchy uplift and a requirement for greater investment
- RPTI and multi-channel off-bus sales via multiple platforms are a given
- Environmental requirements are likely to drive mass transit demand and investment levels until EVs are the norm
The industry response to these issues and opportunities will, to a great extent, dictate the future of the bus. The way the industry in both the public and private sectors move forward will no doubt raise further questions. Moves by technology companies to seek to move into mainstream operations (e.g. Uber purchase of “Transit” in the USA and Citymapper seeking to run buses in London) will be highly influential in how the industry tackles retention of its customer base in the future. In this technology driven environment the questions that can be foreseen may include:
- Should we expect universal coverage from a mass transit system?
- Is it too simplistic to have a distinction between commercial and non-commercial bus services?
- Does this mean the balance of opportunity and risk needs to change and will the Bus Services Act allow this to occur in a meaningful and stable way?
- Is the move to smaller mass transit vehicles (e.g. by Stagecoach and Arriva) a precursor to AVs given apparent limited concern with staffing costs? Or does it suggest a greater emphasis on the customer care ethic with a better staff / passenger ratio resulting?
Having seen the flexibility and renewed market focus of the industry and a good deal of self-reliance in the recent past it is likely that the bus service will remain a valid mode of mass transportation moving forward, albeit with characteristics that evolve as time moves forward. A brief prognosis could include:
- Mass transit by bus is not dead but will become more concentrated than previously
- Congestion will prevent Uber and AVs etc. from operating effectively in urban areas which remain
- The bus (and other mass transit modes) will survive due to space constraints in the urban dimension and environmental limitations in the medium term
- AVs could offer solutions for personalised transport outside of urban areas.