It is now accepted that the UK has passed the point of peak car ownership with the graph heading downward for the each of the last nine months.
It is also the case that the younger generation are shunning driving themselves with licence holding amongst the under 30’s falling steadily over the last 20 years.
We see the rising popularity of Uber, Lyft, Chariot and other ride sharing businesses with customer friendly ride hailing and ride sharing technology but we also doubt the long term environmental and economic viability of mass urban transit provided entirely by small vehicles even if they are electric and drive themselves.
We see the traditional Bus locked in a cul de sac of outdated operating models, behaving like the ‘transport of last resort’ for the old, the young and the carless, tinkering with technology on the fringes as it continues to struggle with the long term decline which set in with the explosion of car ownership in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Is the UK bus industry akin to a lion ready to roar or a homeless tabby cat knowing its place is to live in a grubby cardboard box at the scruffy end of the High Street ?
Is it brave and bold enough to sense that there is a technology driven, ride sharing, ride hailing new dawn there to be exploited ?
Is it brave and bold enough to give up it’s reliance on a core of revenue from free concession schemes, scholars travel, local authority contracts and fuel subsidy ?
Is it brave and bold enough to stake its future on building on its position as the biggest ride sharing business in the UK and realise the time has come for it to shine as the beating heart of the ride sharing revolution ? To let the past go and embrace a new future where a smartphone app replaces a windy bus stop, old fashioned pricing models and rigid timetables ?
The bus industry currently chooses to position itself at a point where car owners are faced with a choice of making individual journeys by bus at a fare incorporating the full cost of delivery of that journey or the very marginal cost of the fuel consumed by their car. Add in the greater convenience of travelling from point to point at the time of their choosing and, invariably, they choose the car !
The bus industry knows full well that it cannot supply every individual journey people make and, therefore, there is a powerful incentive for individuals to acquire a car to give themselves freedom of mobility.
And thereby hangs a tale of woeful market positioning !
If the bus industry wants to be a serious growth business in an increasingly urban world, it needs to compete with the decision to buy a car and not simply the decision to use it at the margins.
I remember examining that very proposition way back in 1987. We looked at giving customers a mobility subscription with unlimited bus use coupled with an allowance for taxi trips, train trips and car rental but couldn’t quite make the logistics work.
Today that logistical problem has beeen resolved by existing, proven technology and an App presenting customers with all of their options for making local journeys. All backed up by either a monthly subscription or a ‘pay as you go’ account directly linked to their bank account or credit card with the App also serving as their ticket for all travel.
So, what’s stopping it becoming a reality in 2018 ? The barriers are governance, commercials and courage !
Putting together a series of wide ranging mobility partnerships is one of the things facilitated by the 2017 Bus Services Act. The ‘Enhanced Partnership’ powers can be used to bring together bus operators to participate in a wider mobility partnership, potentially owned and controlled by themselves, and encompassing all of the other modes including much greater use of demand responsive, flexible smaller vehicles for the ‘last mile’ to allow core bus load factors to be optimised.
We can all squabble about commercials and revenue and data sharing but when the prize is a transformational shift in demand, even with a very small percentage modal shift, we should all be smart enough to know when a deal is there to be done which benefits all parties.
Nerves can kick in when we see a big prize within our grasp …… but there comes a point when we need to stay calm, focused and drive relentlessly forward to secure it. It is all very well taking delivery of ‘state of the art’ buses with ultra clean engines, eye catching branding, leather seats, free wifi and USB charging but the marketing imperative is to make an irresistible proposition to customers which will maximize demand at a point before they have committed to car ownership. Otherwise the industry is locking itself in a cul de sac populated by the young, the elderly and the carless …. and even the elderly are increasingly choosing to retain and use their car despite the availability of free travel on the bus !
Who has the vision and courage to reverse the bus out of that cul de sac and deliver a customer proposition which caters for complete urban mobility for all - and not just at the times and to the places which suit big bus operation ?
Will the tentative steps being taken by National Express West Midlands in the Whim Pilot ( https://whimapp.com/uk/ ) be the first green shoots of the bus returning to mass relevance ?
There are finally clear signs that people are beginning to fall out of love with private car ownership. The bus industry needs to move quickly to ride that wave and truly turn the tide. It simply cannot win this battle alone and should grasp the opportunities presented by technology and legislation to work with allies to provide something even better than a car in the drive in the form of seamless, ride sharing mobility on tap.