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The buses don't match the data. The data don't match the buses.

In June, West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) announced a £7million fund to spend installing extra 'real time' bus screens at more bus stops in Leeds. They claim they are making this investment because 'overall this will promote the local bus network in Leeds and improve the offer for existing customers, as well as growing the market by attracting new customers.'

I'm not buying that.

Bus services in Leeds are generally poor. Leeds bus services are often jokingly and anecdotally mocked by the local public. Within the ODI Leeds team, a number of us are regularly impacted by the poor quality of service in Leeds. (Amy bought a bike in part because of frustrations caused by travelling regularly by bus!)

But Leeds buses are (in)famous in one particular way. We're talking about a phenomena where buses miraculously disappear (digitally) - commonly known as 'phantom buses'.

These are the 'due in x number of mins' buses that never actually appear. In these cases, the at-stop on-screen arrival information counts down to zero and no bus arrives.

They can have profound effects on passengers trying to get to and from home or work and the causes of the disappearing bus are usually unknown to passengers. In a severe case of phantom buses, some passengers are left stranded as they have no other bus services that can get them home.

There are a number of reasons why this actually occurs, but mostly it's caused by data issues or faults with the real time information system.

But phantom buses are just one of many issues that put people off using the bus, with other barriers including confusing tickets and products and rising fares.

What's the objective?

In their very ambitious Transport Strategy in 2016, Leeds City Council stated their objective is to deliver 100% growth in bus patronage in the ten years to 2026 (see page 13 of this strategy document).

In other words, they want to double* the annual number of bus journeys that people take, within ten years.

(*Thats not a typo error.)

In the minutes of the Leeds Public Transport Investment Programme in December 2016, they stated a ten-point planto improve bus services in Leeds. A hugely impressive list of interventions, but not one of the ten things related to improving data quality.

Yet they reiterated their intention to double bus patronage by 2026. By the time that WYCA had developed their Bus Strategy 2040 in July 2017, their objective for bus patronage growth had been watered down to a more realistic yet still ambitious 25% in the same time period.

It seems as if someone flagged just how unlikely their lofty goals were.

Yet to continue to muddy the waters, the newly created Connecting Leeds seems to be working to the 2016 target. In June 2018 they outlined the next phase of their consultation on the future of Leeds transport, which included a plan to double bus patronage across Leeds by 2026.

Connecting Leeds is "...the new transport strategy for the city of Leeds being delivered by Leeds City Council working with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, partners and stakeholders to improve all aspects of the transport network in Leeds and connecting to the wider Leeds City Region." They're clearly ambitious.

The £1bn West Yorkshire Transport Plus Fund has a number of planned projects to improve transport across the region. WYCA publishes openly their ongoing (or in development) transport projects here. At the time of writing there are 85 projects either live or in business case stage, and you can guess how many relate to improving data. None.

Any growth is difficult

Regardless of what percentage of growth is the objective in West Yorkshire, lets just assess how ambitious ANY growth is. Across the country, bus patronage is declining at a rate of about 1.5% per year. In 2017 we (England) travelled about 70m fewer bus journeys than the year before. And the decline has been a relatively consistent trend for the last decade.

Fortunately, DfT makes openly available the data about annual bus patronage by local authority area. You can find it here.

The data only goes back as far as 2009, so we can only do an 8-year comparison rather than a ten year comparison, but its close enough to see some patterns.

In the 8 years to 2017, bus patronage in England as a whole decreased from 4.6bn to 4.4bn, a decrease of 3.9%. But there are lots of regional differences; some areas achieved some pretty impressive growth in that 8-year time period. The following local authority areas gained patronage growth of over 20 to 2017.

Local Authority AreaPatronage Growth 2009-2017 (%)
Bristol, City of 33.0
South Gloucestershire31.0
West Berkshire28.9
Bath and North East Somerset26.7
Central Bedfordshire24.3

However, the sharpest declines in that same 8-year period were felt in the following Local Authority areas:

Local Authority AreaPatronage Growth 2009-2017 (%)
Windsor and Maidenhead
Telford and Wrekin
Redcar and Cleveland

For comparison, in the same period, London achieved a 0.1% increase in patronage.

What about Leeds?

The West Yorkshire area very much followed the national trend. Patronage declined 1.3% from 169.2m pa to 151.3m in the 8 year period.

So across the country, getting people onto buses is proving harder than ever. And thats the case across West Yorkshire too.

There are macro reasons causing this: increased car ownership, greater congestion and slowing speeds to name a few. And then there's some reasons that are the fault of the industry.

But despite a national trend downwards and pockets of local growth, no local authority area in the UK has seen 100% growth in the past ten years. There's very little data to suggest that WYCA are going to get even remotely close to their goal, whatever number it is!

Spend the money more wisely

In order to achieve their goal, bus patronage growth needs to come from other transport modes. Growth in patronage wont come just from existing passengers travelling more. The current passengers won't just travel twice as much as they do today. People travelling to work typically do two journeys per day - to and from work - with very little scope for anything else.

The data don't match the buses. The buses don't match the data.

WYCA have so far not tackled one of the primary reasons why people don't travel by bus. Shiny new buses, more bus lanes, whizzy screens might help. But none of these solves the main problems. There's very little evidence I have seen that suggests that brand new colour screens will be a factor in changing peoples decision to not travel by bus. We already have high resolution colour screens in our pockets; these new screens will just be another place for us to view the inaccurate data about phantom buses.

I think WYCA can spend the money more wisely. In fact I think there's three ways specifically they could spend their £7m more wisely:

1) Buy Smartphones and a bus API

Buy 65000 entry-level smartphones (£100 each) to distribute to the population of Leeds and use the remaining 500,000 to develop a West Yorkshire API that incorporates all operator data and feeds into your own new app and any other app that needs it.

As a very good comparison and benchmark, TfWMs API is stable and covers the entire West Midlands region for a range of transport modes.

2) Build the best transport data infrastructure outside of London

Transport for London (TfL) invested heavily in their transport data infrastructure, developing a Unified API and it created an incredible amount of value, not just for themselves but for tech startups, journalists, academics and more.Whilst definitely not an overnight success and definitely a larger investment than £7m this decision has gone a long way to facilitating the service and reliability of the London transport network.

This involves delivering a world class information experience that lets passengers make fully informed decisions by providing them with information including Journey Planning (current and future), Status (current and future), Disruptions (current) and Planned works (future), Arrival/departure predictions (instant and websockets), Timetables, Embarkation points and facilities, Routes and lines (topology and geographical), and Fares.

You can work closely with our friends at Transport for the North who are making steps towards this too. The new Bus Services Act means operators (outside London) will be providing more open data and taking increased accountability and responsibility for publishing it. This can facilitate stronger data partnerships between private operators and local transport authorities.

3) Free monthly bus passes for 80,000 citizens in Leeds

Delivering WYCAs planned growth in bus patronage requires a pretty monumental shift in attitudes of the public of West Yorkshire. Transport planners talk a lot about behavioural change and behavioural economics and its importance in establishing patterns of transport usage.

Assuming the cost of a monthly bus pass is £88, WYCA could distribute free monthly bus travel to 80,000 regular car drivers in Leeds. The sustainability of this approach is definitely questionable, but if only 10 of recipients go on to regularly travel by bus instead of car, that would go some way to delivering the intended growth.

The buses don't match the data. The data don't match the buses.

To achieve its growth targets, WYCA needs to tackle these difficult problems head on. Vanity projects like shiny screens can definitely play a part in delivering patronage growth through an enhanced customer experience.

But WYCA needs to address the problems with the data, otherwise they're just magnifying the issues we already know on big expensive colour screens across the city. Any growth in bus passengers means getting people off other modes of transport and back onto the bus. Mostly it is people in cars. Drivers in Leeds are equally frustrated with the congestion, yet despite how bad driving in Leeds is, for many people it's still not bad enough to make them travel by bus!

Growth in bus patronage can be achieved. Fixing the problems with the data will go a long way to delivering it.