Kent County Council is looking at new ways to deliver rural transport services - respond to the consultation

3 August 2018

Kent County Council is currently conducting a consultation on rural bus services which they have called ‘The Big Conversation’. They have held a series of public meetings and the wider public is invited to contribute online 

In a nutshell, KCC has looked at a range of ideas for better use of its bus-related funding, including smaller vehicle feeder services that link to current routes, ‘taxi buses’ that would collect groups of people and on-demand services, summoned via phone or app.

There are merits in all the systems so far considered but there are also potential shortcomings too. For a full description of the options and further background material see HERE>

The consultation ends on 8th August so we need to get our responses in as soon as possible. 

Below, we have suggested a range of issues that people might like to use in their responses. 

Useful points for the Big Conversation consultation

- Connections need to be guaranteed both outward and return.

- Feeder services as well as conventional linking services need to be available over a long time frame from early in the morning to late at night.

- The system needs to be fully integrated (using through ticketing) with main bus routes and rail timetables. All vehicles should be able to talk to each other (plus trains and buses) and this info needs to be accessible to passengers. Advanced IT systems employing machine learning will enable this.

- Schemes needs to use electric or other low emission vehicles.

- A ‘feeder’ system will enable the main commercial bus operators to run conventional buses only on main roads between transport hubs and population centres. This will make journeys shorter and faster as conventional buses won’t need to take circuitous routes. This could deliver quite considerable savings for the operators. The gains from this, plus a larger customer base, should not all be captured by the bus companies. Some of the gains should be passed on to the community. 

- Safe and secure bicycle storage needs to be provided and, perhaps, a system whereby bikes can be transported on the taxis and buses.

- Some people might find difficulty using smart phone app (especially the elderly) so, for a period at least, landline access and other more traditional forms of communication will need to be used.

- Systems need to be scaleable and designed with the eventual transition to fully autonomous vehicles in mind.

- Assurances need to be give by KCC that there will not be a reductions in services as conventional buses are withdrawn and replaced by smaller vehicles. The aim needs to be firmly stated that the rural systems are designed to enhance connections and convenience. However the budget of around £7m my be inadequate to reach all the stated aims. If systems are introduced in a half-hearted way with a limited number of vehicles only operating within a limited timeframe, it is likely to fail.

- Current concessionary fares should apply and the overall cost of public transport should always aim to be below the cost of driving an equivalent route including car parking charges.

- KCC should lobby government for local authority control of bus routes with a system along the lines of TfL.

To be successful and encourage wider use, rural transport needs to move away from the perception (and the reality) that it is a charity service aimed mainly at elderly people getting to the doctors or hospital appointments or for school children getting to and from school. These, of course, are vitally important but to make an impact on current levels of car dependence rural public transport needs to be used by as many different people as possible as a genuine alternative to the private car.

More work also needs to be done to understand and cater for different types of journey requirements. Frequent, predictable journeys (e.g. to and from work) are different from occasional journeys (to the doctor, for example), shopping trips and visits to family and friends. The systems need to be flexible enough to cater for these different requirements so that it is feasible to go to and get back from the cinema, for example. In fact, a major client group could be young people who otherwise rely on the mum and dad taxi service.

Overall, there are positive and exciting possibilities here but a very strong commitment to enhancing services, making them more passenger centred and responsive will key. A half hearted or limited approach will represent a backward step and a further reduction in rural services, not the improvement required.