How to provide truly useful public transport…

Travelling on public transport has never been brilliant in the UK and recently I have had occasion to travel on buses and trains much more. Having experienced the hanging around and the reality of public transport with the highs and lows, I have been thinking about what would make public travel the most attractive and therefore the first choice for travelling and commuting. The highs are the social element and the ability to sit back and relax. The downside is waiting, sometimes interminably, without any information on the delay and the cost and complexity of fares. In Singapore the tube stations are air-conditioned and in Switzerland the trains run reliably on time, but are these the only improvements we can envision? I hope for more. I hope for efficiency, comfort, reliability, cost effectiveness and something more fun!

What would happen if we had the opportunity to view our public transport network holistically? If I could plan a journey end-to-end with a comprehensive schedule and cost then I would be more inclined to use buses and trains, perhaps even a scooter for hire! The complexity of planning combined with the extra time it takes often puts me off, it’s just easier to get in the car. Where is the added incentive for travelling by public transport and would these provide the impetus to change behaviour – I don’t think that cost and frequency is the whole story – it’s the immediately apparent one. I think the incentive for me could be social and convenience beyond simply the times of the buses… Here lies my perspective on how we could increase and transform public transport!

Shared Cars:

As soon as I reflected on my experience of buses, I started to think about the possibility of Shared Cars in rural and suburban areas. Would services like ZipCar be effective and popular enough in rural areas? My observation is that with increase in working from home and the related decrease in commuting, have peoples’ habits changed enough that car usage has naturally decreased and sharing becomes a viable option? Would a ‘hire by hour’ service be more popular than some kind of collective agreement to purchase say two cars per street? If people could rotate and share cars by street, area, village or another collective grouping, what criteria would these vehicles need to meet? Would the booking and usage of these cars be dependant on income/image/feature standard of car/size/type/colour? With some research, I would hope that the essential and desired attributes of cars would surface to establish the most attractive and necessary ones. How would people be prepared to share, and would a booking service be welcome to ensure availability? Or are cars viewed as a private space and therefore shared use would feel uncomfortable as the car is a proprietary space? The expected challenge outside the proprietorial nature would be how peak times would work if cars are not available – how could we temporarily increase supply when required?

Bus Usage:

When I thought first about bus travel and how to increase usage, I immediately thought about reducing cost and potentially making it free. This could well increase the bus riders that would naturally choose the car for convenience, but may select bus travel for reasons of climate impact and sitting back to relax. Making bus travel free or nominal beyond the retirees would encourage people to travel by bus. It’s around £3.00 to travel to my nearest town and the cost matches what I would spend by car, giving me very little incentive for behavioural change. What could fund the bus service in place of fares? Could a village or series of villages contribute via some kind of crowdfunding to ensure bus routes stay in place? What if the refreshments purchased on board could fund bus travel – if we buy a coffee on board, what proportion of the profit would be needed to fund the vehicle? On a busy morning route where people are likely to buy a coffee, could the bus turn a profit used to help fund the rest of the bus travel that day?

There are other factors holding people back from using buses as the default. Reasons for choosing the car despite a convenient bus route could include frequency, the need to transport shopping, and the risk of missing the once an hour bus. Are the hourly timetables ever effective for riders given that if you miss one by a few minutes, there is a massive opportunity time cost of nearly an hour’s wait? Could this be alleviated by travellers logging their intention to travel on an App which then alerts the driver if an expected passenger does not arrive? The driver could then wait a few minutes extra knowing the traveller will arrive imminently. One problem with this could be an individual failing to report a change in plans, but this could be mitigated by an alert to their mobile which if not responded to effectively cancels their reservation by default.

The need to transport shopping and other items, particularly the grocery shop, is a major deterrent for bus use over the car. Convenience is paramount for most family shoppers, although many older and disabled people go food shopping by bus. The majority of these people either shop regularly and therefore carry less each trip, or have suitable shopping bags with wheels. One way of assisting the elderly and disabled would be to run a shopping service that provides wheeled bags/has larger and more accessible storage areas/and could offer help for the elderly, disabled or those with young children to put their shopping in? Could a routine slot or multiple slots each week work for this kind of service, as most people like to grocery shop weekly? This could not only make shopping more convenient, but could also act as a social event every week to reduce loneliness and create a greater sense of community. Would ‘book a bus ride with a friend’ or ‘book and make a friend’ be a possible solution for loneliness? I also wondered if a partnership with preferred supermarket chains would prove popular – in this case the supermarket would be associated with the climate benefits of bus travel, in addition to being linked to a social weekly event. In some cases, there may also be a case for that supermarket having a delivery driver and vehicle linked to a particular bus and time to remove the problem of carrying shopping and maximising enjoyment by removing the hassle and saving your arms!! In all cases, this style of shopping could become really popular socially and for convenience. Perhaps even parents with young children would appreciate some help with the manual side of shopping, while also getting the opportunity to share their highs and lows with other mothers/fathers, or even the older people on the other side of parenthood who could share their experience. There could also be greater opportunity for those who ‘shop for others with limited mobility’ to have fun as well as haeling someone else?

Above the challenges of shopping by bus, what could be done to make bus travel more attractive? Could buses provide working areas/internet access/coffee and refreshment provision/games and gaming for children/social activity for adults/book a ride with a friend for older people/dating service? Would a public toilet on board change the perception of the bus travel option for even greater convenience, especially for young children and the older generation? There are many things to consider and we won’t really know what’s most successful until we’ve run a few tests… on the principal that ‘if you build if they will come’!

Coach Travel:

Public coach travel seems less popular than trains since the time it takes to reach any destination is significantly longer. However, they are substantially cheaper and if planning was merged across buses and trains could be a viable option for longer distances. I have been thinking about how a merged service work across all these sectors. Could people book a ‘journey route’ across different forms of transport? This would include desired arrival time, delineate a maximum price, have the option to add the maximum time taken, restrict to ensure minimal changes, and inform and select facilities such as internet, public conveniences, seat position and so on.

Train Travel:

With the increase in working from home, what kind of commuting is now required? It seems that most people are working a hybrid week that requires less time in the office combined with working from home. Perhaps commuter tickets could be made more flexible, and dare I suggest it, cheaper as a result. Instead of assuming a five day week, could train companies enable each individual to select their ticket based on number of days in the office. Maybe this would assume a minimum of two days up to a five day week. To establish what would work in terms of price and the associated costs, we could research existing travellers with commuter tickets to find out their new working patterns post coronavirus and gear the prices and timetables accordingly. For example, if most commuters now intend to travel Monday to Wednesday with Thursday and Friday at home, does the timetable need to remain the same at peak time. Would Thursday and Friday then become off peak and therefore the ticket prices would reduce to a weekend rate? Would the number of peak time trains scheduled also reduce? Taking this logic to it’s maximum, could a commuter therefore choose to work Wednesday to Friday and benefit from a reduce commuter ticket price?

If we review usage and how overcrowding manifests at peak time post-coronavirus, then perhaps we can replan the train carriages and timings to reflect actual intended usage. The challenge is that adapting both price and timing could in turn influence how and when people travel, due to the savings they might make. So how best can we predict human behaviour alongside the variables of working patterns, train timings and price? Do we need to look holistically across all modes of transport, incorporate the variables into AI like that used to predict migration patterns through large buildings? In the end, I think we’ll find that higher charges for commuters are now unnecessary. An adjustment like this may have a knock on effect to the national provision of public transport, for example on the staffing demographic as well as their benefits (pay, benefits, training and prospects). How can we maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of train travel ensuring a high quality experience tailored to the new commuter behaviour? Honestly this analysis is beyond me, but I hope the cleverer among my readers could calculate how to truly transform public transport!


Uber is one thing, sharing taxis is another. Could we enable a sharing service on Uber or the average taxi App where someone travelling on a particular train could identify others who wish to travel onwards from the station to a particular local destination. I don’t think this would be too hard to implement and (having shared taxis by coincidence), I think it could be a really efficient way of linking people up. The service could be accessed via the train App and link to a local taxi service. It would make taxi travel more economical, better for the climate as there is only one journey not too, and could also be a secondary social option? There are already car-sharing Apps such as liftshare and with a little creativity we could extend this to taxis too.

Shared taxis could also be a great alternative to bus travel, where if someone books a trip say the previous day. Other local people could review the week and pick an appropriate taxi share, particularly if timing is somewhat flexible. I like the social element of both these suggestions, as in may places it’s not easy to meet other potential friends and this kind of service could help link people together.

Minibus Provision

In a similar way to sharing taxis, how could bus routes be tailored more effectively to suit need? Currently many buses are only partially full which must ultimately waste fuel which is not really needed. If we could identify the intended route and travel destination in advance, the bus company could choose to send a minibus in the place of a huge double decker. In order to cater for impulse bus riders, we may want to include a percentage variability to the know bookings but it should ensure the vehicle is more appropriate for the travelling public. Should there be a constraint on the size of vehicle due to availability, then the App could stop taking bookings at the limit on capacity. There could also be flexibility on the route taken with perhaps a condition that this is defined the night before to give time to plan and a prompt arrival?

The other way to look at the provision on minibuses is to top up frequency of bus travel or provide alternative routes not currently available. For a while I was without a car and it was actually impossible to travel in some directions, limiting my ability to collect a prescription or meet a friend at their home. So frustrating especially as with more efficient public transport, I may still choose to travel by bus or minibus to save fuel, mileage, maintenance and help along my carbon footprint!

Scooter Hire

There has been much negativity around scooters and there hire, particularly regarding how and where they are parked. However, for teenagers wanting to go into town together from a more remote village or suburb surely this could be a viable, flexible, and cost-effective option? It’s also fun and gives that age group independence apart from a parent driving them in or riding the bus. Could it also be seen as safer given they could ride together and are unlikely to be approached by a stranger, which can be a risk on public transport. The scooters could also be used on cycle paths instead of the road which again has safety benefits.

There’s also the options of putting on your rollerskates, getting out the skateboard, walking and running to work. While working in Brighton I would regularly see a young twenty-ish year old skateboarding to work, somewhat kamikaz-ily. Not a choice I would make but being able to link up with others using these modes of transport could make commuting to work or school much more fun.

Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash
Bike Riding

As someone who lives close to a number of business parks, I’ve had a number of jobs where cycling to work could have been a viable choice. In one role I managed to cycle once in a year, and not just due to laziness. It was partly influenced by the weather and partly due to the childcare arrangements I had at the time which made it impractical. To incentivise me to cycle, it could have been helpful to implement a ‘commuting bus’. This would mean people can cycle together as most would start at a similar time, creating a social activity and an opportunity to exercise apart from the daily grind of the commute? Would community showers/changing facilities on business parks help this initiative, rather than relying on individual companies to provide them?

In terms of other travel routes, usually it’s the time taken that deters me from cycling and the limited ability to carry shopping or equipment to whichever destination. I’m not sure there’s a solution for this (or the weather) so overall prefer the bus!

Truly transformative public transport would need all involved entities to work together and to scrutinise human behaviour. All the best to anyone facing this challenge as it’s a complicated one.

Kind regards, Ruth

Header image from JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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