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Insight, not apps: A fresh approach to net zero transport challenges

Stop reinventing the wheel when it comes to net zero transport. Councils should instead look to the tech sector to forge a new data-driven path to decarbonisation.
March 22, 2023

This week saw the release of a powerful UN-backed report calling for urgent climate action in the face of a “climate time-bomb”. While the UK has broadly committed to go net zero by 2050, most local authorities are already looking to go faster, pledging carbon neutrality by 2030 with policies designed to turn climate emergency rhetoric into effective action. Transport is the obvious area of change. To meet their ambitious net zero goals, councils need to cut private car use and encourage residents to adopt sustainable transport.

But persuading people to ditch the car is not an easy task. Post-pandemic work and travel habits are unrecognisable. Bus and train routes no longer serve communities efficiently and are either unbearably crowded or totally empty. People in areas where employment and education depend on reliable public transport find themselves isolated as local bus services are cut – almost one in ten were axed last year in Great Britain and more are at risk next month when the government’s Bus Recovery Grant comes to an end. Where routes do run, passengers doubt reliability and don’t have the real-time information to dispel the fear that the bus simply won’t show up on time. Local transport connectivity is declining just as it should be thriving.

To their credit, councils aren’t sticking their heads in the sand - they are very aware that change is required if they are to better serve the transport needs of the people who live in their region. For them, competing priorities make it an even harder task; Tees Valley, for example, want to improve bus corridors in the region but also see increasing private car use as the easiest way to encourage economic growth in town centres. Bradford Metropolitan District Council acknowledged that ‘when creating a masterplan and vision for urban extensions, the potential for sustainable transport mode share is often squandered by the classic predict and provide process.’

The problem lies in a fundamental lack of understanding of the technological solutions that are needed and the skillsets to deliver them. ‘Build a transport app!’ is the standard cry, even though the average app loses 77% of daily active users within three days of download and requires an expensive smartphone, data allowance or WiFi connectivity to function – not to mention appetite to register and provide personal data to yet another untrusted organisation. They usually also cater predominantly for an elite city population and rely on location tracking. Citymapper’s new transport subscription Pass, for example, gives you a multimodal travel card but it only works through the app, only covers London’s Zone 1 to Zone 6 and is only available for London residents. Apps are ruinously expensive in development, maintenance and marketing spend for consumer adoption, and require specialist skills if they are to provide a seamless user experience that retains users. For local authorities, building yet another mobility-as-a-service(MaaS) app is not the solution.

Demand-responsive bus pilots also appear to be a popular option for councils right now, particularly in light of the traditional subsidised service cuts. As just one example, WESTlink is a new service across areas of Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire, due to launch next month. Thirty minibuses will travel around without a fixed route or schedule, picking up passengers who have booked a journey via a website, phone or new app. Latent demand-based routing does work – we know that from our own research with the likes of Monmouthshire Council and Traveline - but WESTlink is not truly demand-responsive. It also needs £6million in DfT funding to run for the next two years before it’ll be scrapped if not able to pay for itself. ArrivaClick has offered a similar service in various UK regions since 2017 but has struggled to find the users – last year, the number of people who used ArrivaClick in Watford was just 6% of forecast rides. These services are not real DRT. They are glorified, albeit cheaper, minibus taxis which may take a while to drop you at your destination while they pick everyone else up and don’t run after 7pm.

Instead of continual innovation to reinvent the wheel, what local authorities need to encourage people out of cars is actually deceptively simple. They need insight driven by accurate predictive demand data to better understand how people want to travel in their regions, and the ability to give these people the information they need to do so when and where they need it. The trick is understanding where people want to go, not where they’ve been. If councils know how passengers intend to use a particular service, they can remove any friction that might stand in their way. This could be anything from providing immediate access to real-time updates from QR codes on bus stops to helping less confident travellers correct mistakes if they get on the wrong service with a timely push notification. At the end of the day, there are just too many barriers that leave cars as the easiest option. For some people, it’s a lack of trust that stems from a blackhole of information about the next bus service, particularly in rural areas where services don’t run every few minutes. For others, it’s anxiety that they may end up in entirely the wrong destination.

Some forward-thinking councils have already recognised that these issues can only be solved by taking a totally different approach. Oxfordshire County Council are using demand data coupled with real-time passenger communications for a programme to cut car journeys across the region by a third by 2040. What’s more, it’s not costing the taxpayer a penny and works collaboratively with, and not against, the transport operators and other stakeholders in the region. England’s Economic Heartland (EEH), a swathe of councils stretching from Swindon to Cambridgeshire, want to collaborate with partners from sectors outside of local government in a centre of excellence for transport innovation. Councils fall back on an ineffective app to engage with their citizens because they lack the capability to use the more efficient data and tools that already exist, so a fresh perspective from partners with different skillsets is a good way forward.