Data and bus franchising in Greater Manchester

Over the festive period, Tom Forth, our Head of Data, created a submission for the TfGM consultation about bus franchising, and specifically how data and open data would impact this. It is recreated below, and though written for Manchester it could apply to anywhere. The google doc is available openly for comments/suggestions, or you can follow up via Twitter or email so that we can continue the discussion.

Greater Manchester is the UK's first city-region to consult on a proposed bus franchising scheme under the powers of The Bus Services Act 2017. I have already contributed online as a resident and a regular bus user in Greater Manchester. Here I am writing on an area beyond the scope of that consultation - data.

I have already written about open data nationally as part of the UK government's transport select committee inquiry into the health of the bus market in 2019. This short piece will focus more specifically on Greater Manchester.

Why data matters and what we have now

Data on bus use, as part of data more widely on all transport use and the economy of Greater Manchester, matters for three main reasons:

  • To select the public transport investments and subsidies within Greater Manchester that will maximise social, environmental, and economic goals of the region.
  • To win UK government competitions for national investment in transport infrastructure.
  • To make the business case for private co-investment, new taxes on land value up-lifts created by public transport investment, and local public borrowing to fund infrastructure investment.

Specifically we need to know:

  1. Where and when buses are scheduled to run (timetables).
  2. How often those buses run and how long they take (real-time bus tracking).
  3. How much those buses cost (fares).
  4. How many people use which buses, where, and at what time (bus use data).
  5. What type of people are using the buses, and for what purpose (bus passenger analysis).

Of these, only timetables are currently required by UK law. Bus timetables are available as open data for the whole of Great Britain as the Traveline National Dataset, and subsequently appear in apps such as Google Maps and City Mapper.

In coming years the UK's Bus Services Act 2017 will additionally require parts 2 and 3 to be available as open data. It is likely that Google Maps (and other similar apps) will contain live Uber-style bus locations and at least basic fare information.

There remains no plan and little prospect of good bus use data (4) or bus passenger analysis (5) being required by UK law, and thus becoming available in Greater Manchester.

Why bus franchising is the best way to deliver improved data

Franchised public transport has proven itself more willing and able to both collect data and publish it under an open license than is required by national law.

For example, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) already publish fares data under an open license for their franchised tram service. Great Britain's railway industry, run under franchise, similarly publishes fares data under an open license. And Transport for London's (TfL's) fares data is open across all modes of travel.

Franchising seems to improve data publishing in four main ways,

  1. It increases the likelihood of simplifications that make publication easier. For example, TfL's single bus fare makes publication of open data on bus fares trivial compared to the thousands of fares and their complex interactions available for bus travel within Greater Manchester.
  2. It removes commercial sensitivity as a concern that limits data publication. While a private bus company may reasonably argue that sharing detailed data on bus use patterns would aid its competitors there is no such concern for a franchising authority with a legally enforced monopoly.
  3. It places public transport operations within the realm of democratic accountability and the freedom of information act. Greater Manchester's Mayor Andy Burnham personally intervened to encourage the publication of open data on tram fares. He cannot do the same with bus fares.
  4. By centralising all fare collection and integrating payments systems such as those required to run the Oyster card system in London (including the integration of debit card payment within that system) it ensures that data on public transport use is available in a single place, stored in a single format, and covers all journeys made.

It should be possible for unregulated and unfranchised private companies to collect and release the same open data as the best franchised systems provide. But we have not seen this happen in three decades of deregulation and, with limited exceptions, there is no suggestion that this will change this decade.

What detailed open bus use data would allow

Cities around the world are already using transport data in varied ways, but no example is more relevant to Greater Manchester than that from Great Britain's only large city with franchised bus services - London.

TfL's world-leading open data already lets anyone,

  • Calculate public transport journeys anywhere within Greater London (timetables).
  • Track individual vehicles and understand typical delays to provide realistic estimates of how long a journey will take at different times of the day (real-time bus tracking).
  • Calculate a fare for any journey or combination of journeys across all modes of public transport (fares).
  • See which buses people use and where and when they board the bus (bus use data).
  • See a snapshot of all journeys (origin-destination pairs) across all modes of public transport modes (multi-modal use data).
  • Combine public transport with open tools such as Open Audience to understand the demographics of public transport users (bus passenger analysis).

I have written about this in more detail, including example analysis of the data with maps and graphs, at

Even more exciting than what has already been done with TfL's open data is what will be much easier to do in the future as a result of data being collected today.

With existing data already published and widely used, the people within TfL who can provide data to people both within and outside of the organisation are well documented. Data is now far easier to find and the principle to publish open data is established within TfL. It is trivial to access existing data and easy to ask for more data to be published. Commercial sensitivity is neither a concern nor an excuse not to publish data at TfL.

Even where data cannot be published openly, it exists and its existence and the name and contact details of a person with control over its collection is published for all to see. Research proposals can be written against this data and businesses can be formed to make use of it. Just three important examples of this effect are,

  • In Birmingham where I used open data on bus locations to explain part of the city's productivity underperformance and to calculate far higher returns on investments from bus lanes than traditional (mostly using poor estimates not real data) methods.
  • In London where data on public transport will be used to understand the impact on travel patterns of Crossrail, making the case for or against further such investment.
  • In The Netherlands where the national tap-in tap-out public transport travel card (OV-chipkaart, possible because almost all Dutch public transport is franchised) collects data that can be used to evaluate the impact of investments and subsidies of public transport.

Why both the prize of success and the cost of failure are large

Returning to the first list in this document:

Better data will let Greater Manchester better select the public transport investments and subsidies that will maximise social, environmental, and economic goals of the region. One example is how to respond to the common request from the public to improve public transport between towns at the expense of focusing investment on travel between those towns and central Manchester. Without accurate bus use data we cannot currently accurately compare the costs and benefits of investing in these two priorities and we risk making poor decisions as a result.

Better data will let Greater Manchester win UK government competitions for national investment in transport infrastructure. Since funding for such projects continues to be overwhelmingly competitive in nature, it is essential to catch up and overtake London in this regard. If Greater Manchester cannot show how significant transport investments such as the tram extension to the Trafford Centre impacted on public transport use it will be at a significant disadvantage when bidding for further money against cities that can.

Better data will let Greater Manchester make the business case for private co-investment, new taxes on public transport supported land value uplifts, and local public borrowing to fund infrastructure investment. Employers are interested in the number of employees who can reach their places of work. Retail businesses are interested in the number of potential customers who can reach their shops. Developers are interested in both. All are willing to invest, or support additional taxes so that local government can invest, if they understand the likely return on that investment. But without an open equivalent to Londons Passenger Transport Access Levels (PTAL) tool, especially one that can accurately predict the real impact of investment, it is difficult to make the case for investment.

This decade, Greater Manchester has the opportunity to catch up with the leading cities in the world in understanding how its population uses transport. The goal must be to understand mobility as well as equivalent cities in The Netherlands, in order to make the investments that help boost its economy to the same strength. I think that releasing as much data as possible as open data, so that more people can find it, work with it, and developed shared tools that work across multiple cities to process it will increase the value still further, but it is not essential.

I believe that franchising gives Greater Manchester the best chance of collecting, sharing, and analysing data on mobility. If I am correct, it is an option that the region must take. If we can achieve the same without franchising, I look forward to reading the vision of those who believe that. I am open to changing my mind on this issue and ultimately it should be a decision for elected politicians.