WECA’s Final Solution: A Response

As promised in Ask a Stupid Question, here is our full response to the WECA Bus Strategy Consultation.

The consultation (open until Sunday 15/03/20) is still available at TravelWest. Just in case it disappears, the consultation document can also be found here: West-of-England-Bus-Strategy

FYI: Consultation headings in bold, direct quotations in italics, responses in plain text.

Our Vision (p7,8)

To realise our vision this Strategy seeks to achieve the following:

  • A doubling in bus passenger numbers by 2036.

In order to achieve this, services will need to be organised in a commercially minded way for efficient mass transit, rather than concentrating on the social service aspect. It appears to me that WECA (or their consultants) have heavily over-estimated the level of cross-subsidy which would generated to support less commercially viable services.

  • To maximise bus service reliability and reduce journey times.
  • Address congestion and delays due to car travel by attracting car users to use buses for some or all of their journeys.

These two aims are broadly the same aspiration. Traffic congestion is by far the most prevalent cause of bus service disruption and inefficiency.

  • To provide simplified ticketing which allows all bus users to travel on a single ticket (on one or more buses), with fares capped to a daily maximum.

Such a ticketing system needs to provide a level playing field to all operators if WECA are looking to achieve commercial innovation from operators. A simplified, regulated ticketing system rationalised to the most easily understood products as can be found in the European cities most often cited as examples of good practice is crucial. Development of the current AvonRider package of tickets as a replacement for operator centred ticketing represents an easy route to achieve this objective.

 

  • Reduce overall emissions due to general road traffic by persuading car drivers to travel by bus, and by improving the bus fleet to low emission buses. Maximise service quality, in terms of vehicle comfort and ease of boarding and alighting, reliable and real-time information, and an attractive, safe and accessible bus stop environment.

There are a number of issues with this objective:

  • Vehicle quality becomes irrelevant when road condition is poor or inconsiderate traffic calming measures are in place.
  • Current local authority contracts actively favour operators who use the lowest quality vehicles.
  • Newer vehicles are not necessarily more comfortable.

 

Network (p9-11)

Many of the main bus routes in the urban areas have service frequencies of at least every ten minutes throughout the day.

This is fundamentally incorrect. Most urban bus routes in the WECA area are significantly less than every ten minutes.

There is potential to change how the network is provided to enable new journey opportunities for passengers and make the network more efficient.

It is essential that WECA recognises that a “one size fits all” approach is not appropriate for the diverse transport requirements of the region. Urban solutions for Clifton are unlikely to be appropriate in Compton Martin.

Would you be prepared to walk further to a better, more reliable bus service?

Given that serious mistakes have been made in the rollout of Metrobus m1, leaving some areas of housing which previously had bus stops within a few metres of them now facing a walk of up to a kilometre to access a bus stop, this is something which needs careful consideration. Bus services should not be limited stop in areas of housing without any replacement, as has been done around Bamfield and Inns Court areas with m1, while unused ticket machines at southbound stops are cited as being too expensive to relocate to opposite stops where they would actually serve a purpose. Had the councils bothered to consult with anybody other than themselves over such details, issues would most likely have been highlighted before the project was implemented.

The Metrobus concept has not been proven to work. Whilst the peak hour m1 services from Bradley Stoke are carrying impressive passenger numbers, the rest of the service has not delivered significant growth over the services it replaced considering the investment made in it. Metrobus routes m2 and m3 are simply a direct replacement for other services and cannot be considered a success in any form as their off-peak frequencies have now been reduced to similar or lower levels than the services they replaced (903 and X48).

It is vital that WECA recognises that Metrobus as a concept is flawed and addresses these issues before implementing further routes to the same concept.

An interchange-based approach will require a major improvement in bus service reliability for cross-city services to function effectively.

It is imperative that services must be bulletproof reliable before such a network replaces through services to suburban and non urban locations.

It would also enable a more comprehensive route network to be provided in those urban areas away from the main roads and in rural areas.

You have not presented evidence to support this statement. Providing the core frequent services across the city will represent a substantial expense. I find it doubtful that sufficient funding remain to provide substantial improvements to the peripheries. There is also little evidence given to back up the claim that the core services would generate enough income to cross-subsidise radial routes.

Rural areas (p12,13)

Consistent with the national picture, services to rural areas have been reliant on funding from councils because operators are generally unable to operate them on a commercial basis.

As the operator of four commercial rural bus services, two which were former council contracts and two which are commercial innovations, this statement is wrong. Within WECA over the past decade, several rural services have been moving away from requiring public subsidy. From June 2020, none of the rural bus services provided by Citistar will receive any revenue support at all from WECA or North Somerset.

Options include: Some rationalisation of services to provide more consistent routes, consistent start and end points, and easy-to-understand clockface

departure time…

This is a prime reason why WECA should not be advocating a “one size fits all” approach for rural bus services. Services which are already sparse may suffer serious damage from being butchered to fit design criteria conceived in an office by somebody without an understanding of individual services or operating territory.

Build interchange into the way the inter-urban bus services are arranged…

This is not an approach which should be considered until the reliability and effectiveness of the interchange model has been demonstrated to be successful.

Do you think that we should explore other transport solutions to serve rural communities rather than conventional bus services?

Yes, but not as a replacement to successful existing services with established patronage. This exploration should look specifically to develop new markets and new patronage.

Inter-urban services could be operated as a mix of ‘express’ and ‘local stop’ services along similar routes…

This statement fails to recognise that most interurban services already have a level of usage exclusively in urban areas. Several corridors to/from Bristol and Bath are served only by interurban services rather than dedicated services within the cities (such as the southern end of Wells Road A37 (376), Bath Road A4 (39/X, 178, 349), Hotwell Rd/Anchor Rd (X1-X9), Frenchay B4058 (Y4)). This statement also ignores the recent trends for dedicated Park & Ride services to be reduced in frequency.

WECA should also carefully review how much off-peak demand there is for express services before wasting resources providing them – Metrobus m1 in the north of Bristol has given an indication of this. This is hardly a new phenomenon – First have attempted to provide off-peak express services from the Bradley Stoke area several times over the past 30 and not yet found a sustainable model.

 

Infrastructure (p14,15)

New housing estates also need to be carefully designed to ensure that bus routes are fully accessible and prioritised over general traffic.

This is a ship which has already sailed. New developments over the past twenty years have been appalling for public transport provision. Portishead Marina (NS), Locking Castle (NS), West Wick (NS), Langford (NS), Bilbie Green (B&NES), Siston Hill (SG), Emersons Green (SG), Imperial Park (B) and Paulton Print Works (B&NES) have been constructed to cumulatively contain tens of thousands of homes. These developments have either no access for public transport, inadequate road infrastructure or very poorly conceived public transport schemes, combined with a lack of funding for service support. These are now locations where it will be almost impossible to provide attractive bus services to residents because they are established as entirely car-centric and insular from their wider communities.

 

Ticketing (p16)

Improving value for money is key for both passengers and those that don’t currently choose to use the bus.

I disagree with this statement. Convenience is now the key to increasing the number of passengers choosing to use public transport. Successful business models over the past decade have focused upon convenience rather than price – Uber, Deliveroo, Metro/Express/Local sized supermarkets. Issues over perceived “value for money” will remain for as long as the concessionary travel scheme gifts free travel to certain sections of the community, regardless of how cheaply tickets are priced.

Smart payments and ticketing will play a crucial role in improving the passenger experience and growing bus passenger numbers.

WECA seems to be reactive on this objective, as this is aspiring to TfL’s situation five to ten years ago. Perhaps learning from the huge cost of processing and maintaining the back office system that TfL’s ticketing system requires should be done in order to simplify ticketing rather than the obsession with buzzwords such as cashless and smart ticketing. This would leave far more funding available for actually providing bus services and raise the likelihood of being able to achieve the target of doubling bus patronage.

there is no consistent cashless payment or mobile ticket offer across bus operators resulting in the continued need for cash and different apps for different bus operators.

There is – purchase a Rider family ticket with a bank card, available on the majority of operators across the area, including us at Citistar. On the subject of these multi-operator tickets being available via an app, this is a subject on which First until very recently have reticently refused to engage in meaningful discussion. The dominance of the First app is the biggest hurdle that WECA will have to overcome with regards to ticketing, and any solution must not discriminate against other providers.

The strategy is to develop the existing multi operator ticket family, such that it offers a wider range of options

I do not believe that there needs to be a huge explosion in choice of ticket products. This complicates travel. User convenience and simplicity is the key.

As a principle smart payments and ticketing should include: The same experience on all buses.

The use of the word “experience” is concerning as this suggests all operators having the same ticket machines is more important than the same facilities available. Perhaps WECA intend for all operators to have to use buses with riot shields fitted around the cab, as this is part of the “experience” too?

Customers only needing 1 account/1 app for bus tickets, payment, journey planning, and real time information across the area.

Having one area-wide app or account for ticketing and payments should be the first goal for WECA in any ticketing revisions and I fully support this aim. I hope that WECA does not become obsessed with smart card ticketing in the interim as this is now something of a backwater technology.

 

Information (p17)

Paragraphs 1-3

The first three paragraphs of this section seem to reflect what TravelineSW already does. WECA does not need to spend money duplicating this portal.

To provide real-time information on services and alerts on disruption and service changes.

Working roadside RTI and app data would be a good place to start. Since moving away from the previous VIX system, the RTI system has been very poor.

To improve access to passenger transport information by making data openly available in formats that can be utilised by third parties.

Open data already ensures this is the case, yet this desire seems contradictory to the opening paragraphs wanting one single portal for information and ticketing.

 

Modern, clean and accessible buses (p20)

How important are modern vehicles to your passenger experience?

To the passengers we carry regularly: reliable, comfortable and clean buses are their key desires. Many vehicles bought or leased by larger operators in the area over the past decade are simply uncomfortable to ride on, especially on longer journeys.

 

Community & Demand Responsive transport (p21)

Community transport encompasses a range of transport (…) that supplement commercial public transport services.

In my experience, most current local community transport services appear to have been set up to abstract passenger usage from local bus services. It can hardly be surprising that south Bristol has seen huge reductions in local bus services in the past twenty years, during which time the number of minibuses ferrying pensioners around has exploded. As these services are open only to their members, they are not complementing the network, rather damaging it. Even for those providing public services under S19 or S22 permits, no community transport provider is part of the Rider ticketing scheme and most don’t even issue tickets. Such providers have shown no interest in integrating with the wider network.

There is no legal duty on local authorities to support community transport, but it is widely recognised that the sector plays a vital role in helping people to live independently and play an active part in community life.

WECA should not be spending transport funds on tasks which should be the preserve of social services.

 

Operational framework (p22,23)

We are thinking about how such services should be provided in the future, against a backdrop of limited funding.

I would like WECA to recognise the social and economic value of existing services before cancelling funding to them in favour of services which will not address the same travel needs. I would also like WECA to recognise the value of commercial innovation by all operators, including independents, and taking steps to ensure that there is a place for us amongst future network visions.

It is notable that there is not a single mention of support for or working with SMEs or local businesses through the whole document. If WECA do not want independent operators involved in the future, then I hope they have the decency to tell us so that we can close our businesses in an orderly fashion. On a personal level, I do not want to continue to waste my life trying to grow my operation and increase the number of passengers I carry if I am going to be forced out of business regardless. The frameworks outlined in this document seem to suggest that networks will be controlled centrally by WECA rather than operators being allowed to provide innovative solutions; if this is the case, then passenger usage is likely to fall rather than be doubled.

As WECA has already developed a scoring system for supported bus services which has been used to withdraw rural bus service contracts in North Somerset, why has this not yet been released to operators? Why is it not part of this consultation when it is already in use and causing passengers to lose their opportunities to travel?

 

If you have made it this far, genuinely well done. I’m sure you’ve read more of it than anyone at WECA will. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed something referred to which i haven’t otherwise yet made public, there will be more on that next week.

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