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"The Failure of Public Transport to respond to the needs of Society" by Brian Masson: Aberdeen meeting of Tuesday 17 January 2006

Brian Masson has spent 32 years in public transport, mostly at Travel Dundee but latterly with the Angus Transport Forum which was formed in 1995 and is based at Stracathro Hospital, Brechin He has recently been involved in EU-funded Demand-Responsive Transport research projects (DARTS, FAMS, CONNECT, MASCARA) involving over 30 organisations from 17 countries. Using IT solutions including real-time scheduling and dispatching systems, vehicle tracking devices and mobile communications, these projects have demonstrated passenger growth in excess of 20% per annum along with subsidy and operational savings in excess of 15%. Meanwhile the reality in Britain has remained very different.

In the period 1960-2005 British society has seen many changes - 24/7 lifestyles, improved standards of living with higher expectations, better communications and increased use of credit-cards, greater perception of crime, increasing distances travelled and above all a greater value placed by individuals on their own time. In those years public transport has also experienced developments - low-floor vehicles, real-time information, exact fares, smartcards, web-based journey planners, DNA test kits, onboard CCTV - but the product remains 90% unchanged with vehicles operating on fixed routes that exhibit little knowledge of the potential market. The bus industry is characterised by difficulty in filling driver vacancies, investment in new vehicles but a fragile bus-building sector, little further scope for cost-cutting and by heavy reliance on public subsidy.

Urban public transport is now characterised by greater differentiation between daytime and late-night/Sunday frequency and by a decline in passenger numbers that continued virtually uninterrupted from the end of petrol rationing to the introduction of free travel for the over-60s. Rural public transport has steadily reduced over the last forty years, leaving many non-car-owners dependent on hitching lifts. Public transport generally is difficult to understand due to the number of operators and lack of joint information, with fares that are incomprehensible and hence hard to budget for, and operations that do not meet the needs of a 24/7 society. The perception is that public transport takes too long, is for only the young or the old and is costly, unreliable and user-hostile, failing to maximise use of resources or to guarantee a seat while having too many stakeholders and inflexible regulatory policies.

By contrast the car is available to 70% of adults, and (provided they remain licensed and able to afford it) offers freedom of movement which may be led by considerations of lifestyle, convenience or necessity. However there may be reasons why now is an opportune time to reduce car-dependency - as well as environmental considerations there are also budgetary pressures arising from the car's financial dominance, exceeding even food in an average family spend, and the looming pensions crisis may impose reprogramming of households' expenditure.

Customer expectations of convenience, comfort, cleanliness, communications and cost may have to be addressed in designing any successful alternative, which must meet known needs and requirements, be user-friendly and sustainable, take account of developments in vehicle design and facilitate social inclusion.

The framework developed by the FAMS programme for demand-responsive transport in countries ranging from Finland to Italy envisages an agency to make bookings, with solutions brokered in real time between all transport sectors so that for example health movements can be integrated and an all-year use may be secured for vehicles used to provide school services. GPS monitors use of resources, reducing duplication, and with resource availability thus established for all sectors, gaps can be identified and management of asset control improved. DRT poses the question as to whether subsidies encourage or discourage innovation, and the Eastern European experience showed what happened when state support was lost, with bus operators no longer able to rely on supply of spares from Soviet factories. Even in Britain the use of taxis has risen 10% per year over the last ten years. The design of modern housing estates is not helpful for traditional bus operators to design services due to the wide scale use of cul-de-sacs. Consideration must be given towards the use of feeder services from the customers door to meet connect with main line services.

The way forward has to be multimodal, with coordination between all transport services and joint ticketing to produce a demand-responsive integrated system that will require a more flexible framework since no single mode can meet all 24/7 needs. Such partnership working will succeed only if there is a shared will by all stakeholders to improve access to opportunity. Unfortunately the British reality is that an integrated transport system falls a long way below health and education on the political agenda, and support for new networks tends to be on an annual basis whereas worldwide experience shows that it takes three years to overcome user unfamiliarity and thus establish demand for DRT. So as to get away from the present take-it-or-leave-it offering of the deregulated bus sector, legislation is required to enable risk-taking that could address the particular opportunities offered by say park-and-ride or out-of-town shopping developments, where better public transport could meet planners' requirements on reducing land-take for car-parking. Due to their low-volume and therefore high-cost nature, taxibus operations might be better used to focus demand on transport hubs than to provide end-to-end services.

Report by John Yellowlees.

 

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