The Kent County Council (KCC) improvement plan seems heavily reliant on tech. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), MaaS (mobility as a service), and DRT or Demand Response Transport are constantly mentioned. KCC is run by technocrats, and they are attracted like moths to a flame when tech is mentioned. In their world, nothing is impossible, as a tech solution will always turn up. The trouble is, tech can create as many problems as it solves. Let’s look at Tech.
Bus rapid transit
Bus Rapid Transit or BRT is favoured as a ‘low cost’ alternative to Light Rail transport, or Trams to you and me. The infrastructure can vary from guided bus ways such as the scheme in Cambridgeshire, to some bus priority routes for conventional buses to operate. The two schemes in Kent are mid-way schemes with tunnels, bridges, and priority bus routes populated with electric buses. Central government is stumping up most of the cost (insert link), with developers and District Councils throwing in a contribution. These projects are welcome, but on their own they will not reduce the problem of air pollution and excess deaths by very much.
Dover’s is the smallest scheme which links a large housing estate in Whitfield with Dover Priory station. It will have five electric buses, but it will not connect directly with HS1, because the nearest railhead for HS 1 is near Folkestone. Furthermore it is at risk from the Dover TAP and Operation Brock, because part of the route uses the A20 through route in Dover.
The North Kent Fast track scheme utilises 28 buses and links several railway stations with some serious infrastructure built in. It will have a good customer base to build upon.
Demand Response Transport
Demand Response Transport or DRT is one of KCC’s buzz words (or should it be bus words?). It is the old ‘Ring + Ride’ brought up to date with a computer algorithm, which makes decisions based on utility, who rides and who doesn’t. In one case in North Lincolnshire passengers were told that they should book their seat four weeks in advance to reduce the odds on not travelling. In Cheshire, a £1.5m scheme only recovered 8% of its costs in fares.
Most schemes lasted six months to two years, and often only 45% of potential passengers got a seat, which leaves 55% not getting one. In various studies it has been found that the running costs of a DRT are no less than a half-empty fare stage operation, which would at least give everyone a chance of riding on a bus. Many of the schemes that are heralded as breakthrough successes, end up failing shortly afterwards. What is needed is a bus service that can carry fewer passengers but can gain revenue in other ways.
MaaS (Mobility as a service). This is not necessarily tied to buses and instead is a scheme for the user to book or select a transport service that best meets the user’s requirements. In some villages, there is the Kent Carrier service. This is great, if there is choice, but in many areas of Kent, there is the car and nothing else. It appears to be waiting for the autonomous vehicle to become a reality, as MaaS would hail a pod or car when one was near at hand. So far autonomous vehicles have not managed to deliver safety and convenience, and it may take the demise of the non-autonomous vehicle to allow autonomous vehicles to operate. At the moment that seems a far-off prospect.
Without tech, the Kent BSIP is a turkey. There has been ominous silence since the government awarded the funding, so it may be that KCC may not get their funding after all if the trajectory of service decline continues.
What else will KCC do with the bus improvement money?
Bus lanes and bus priorities seem a likely area of expenditure. Again, it involves some tech but unfortunately it is a zero-sum game. Most of our town centres are cramped compact affairs, built in the age of the horse. The railways solved the problem by either knocking down parts of each town or building on the outskirts of a town.
If bus lanes are inserted into the road system it means less space or possibly no space for cars, which will not be popular. Such bus lanes could include cyclists, if cyclists and buses could be encouraged to cooperate. We face hard choices. Do we want less congestion, lower pollution, and a cut in carbon emissions, or will we continue to try to manage the situation, until the number of cars overwhelms our town centres?
They might subsidise lower fares, improve bus awareness by better, more effective advertising, subsidise more buses so that waiting for the bus is not a penance anymore and improve the onboard and outside customer experience, but they won’t. They could make a start by redesigning the Stagecoach site to make it easier to download the timetables for passengers trying to plan ahead rather than always directing the user to the next bus. These things are not as exciting as tech. There are no shiny pieces of kit for a photo opportunity.
So what other options are there?
£35m is not going to go far, so trying to spread the cash in wafer thin amounts is likely to produce widespread disappointment, instead of an outbreak of gratitude.
I would recommend three projects:
- Advertising: It is relatively cheap, and I would ‘persuade’ Arriva and Stagecoach to be as entrepreneurial as they profess to be, by recruiting a decent ad agency to do a makeover for buses. Currently some of the bus ads look like Dave in accounts has written them.
To go with the advertisements, I would do the same with fares, and go for specific targets like tourists and shoppers. I would also make sure that all that tourist advertising used to promote Kent, features the bus as well as the nightlife and art galleries.
- Rural services: DRT is not going to save the rural bus, but we could try operating the rural bus with a side hustle of delivering parcels for online retailers. The bus would have fewer spaces for passengers, but would carry parcels, because almost every village and small town gets a daily swarm of vans delivering for eBay, Amazon etc.
The service would not be fast, at least not at midday, but it could drop off parcels at secure locations for collection or onward delivery, thereby reducing van mileage and saving the rural bus. A pilot project could be tried in deepest Kent to see if it would be viable.
- Pick a Town or City in Kent with a serious traffic problem and create a scheme where the bus supplanted the car for most journeys. I would nominate Canterbury. There is no highways engineering solution that will work there, it has been tried, and even the high priest of highways engineering, Professor Colin Buchanan, gave it up as a bad job.
Canterbury is considering a version of ULEZ anyway, so why not combine the Canterbury CC scheme with an intensive, low fare/no fare bus service, with a road pricing system to help pay for it. It would be hell at the start, and the usual groups would be loud in their opposition, but if it bedded down and started to work, KCC could go back to the Government magic money tree and ask for more golden apples to be spent there and elsewhere in Kent.
I also think Canterbury would be ideal for a low-cost fast track of its own, connecting Dover and Faversham via the A2. This scheme could replace the gaggle of different bus services and join the Dover Fastrack with Canterbury and Faversham Town Centre. There are no stops so the bus could compete with cars and trains on level terms.
It is a depressing scene
We are experiencing huge cutbacks in services, dead-headed management, a lack of drive from transport planners, and a government that may be having buyer’s remorse where KCC is concerned.
When I see and read about all the new tram buses, electric bus refits, new electric buses, low fare initiatives, and push, in many metropolitan areas of the UK, it makes me feel sad. Sad for all those who will be isolated without transport, sad about the snarled-up towns and cities in Kent, and sad for the environment that we all profess to care about.