Uber-style app could mean doorstep bus pick up

Paul Raynes (left) director of delivery and strategy and Mayor Dr Nik Johnson (right)

Paul Raynes (left) director of delivery and strategy will tell combined authority members that Mayor Dr Nik Johnson (right) has made bus reform a priority. - Credit: Archant

A doorstep pick-up service by buses could revolutionise public transport in Cambridgeshire.  

The ‘demand responsive transport’ scheme would enable anyone to use an Uber style app to book a bus journey in real time.  

Passengers would use an app on their smart phone or telephone a call centre to book. 

A trial is about to begin and if successful could be rolled out across the county.  

It is being pioneered by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA). 

Paul Raynes, director of delivery and strategy, says a contract will be awarded imminently.  

"The service will commence in early August on a six-month trial,” he says.  

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"By adjusting the route and aggregating rides in real time, it is possible for a bus to serve several passengers making different point to point journeys in one trip.” 

The service will run six days a week and operate in the western half of Huntingdonshire providing links to a large number of rural communities as well as St Neots. 

It will also provide app-driven bus links to Huntingdon and Cambourne.  

He says: “This service is a trial of the technology, a trial of the public’s enthusiasm for a very different type of bus service, and a test of the system’s financial viability.” 

The trial is part of a promised shake-up in bus travel that Mayor Dr Nik Johnson says was part of his manifesto commitments.  

Mr Raynes will remind CAPCA members next week that “the mayor put a clear policy of bus market reform to the people of Greater Cambridgeshire which was endorsed at the ballot box in the recent election”. 

CAPCA is being asked to resume talks on bus market reform with the aim of progressing a franchising business case. 

Mr Raynes says CAPCA already intervenes in the bus market by giving direct support to 70 routes which operators are unable to run at a commercial profit “but which are judged to be socially necessary”.  

Those routes account for about 10 per cent of the total bus network and the direct subsidy is expected to cost taxpayers £3 million in 2021-22.  

The funding for supported services is awarded through public tender exercises.  

Mr Raynes says: “This is not the limit on public subsidy to the bus industry, though: operators are forecast to receive over £9 million through the reimbursement of concessionary fare.” 

And they also receive an estimated £4-5 million in Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG).  

In total, and in a normal pre-Covid year, public subsidy accounts for about a third of the total turnover of the bus industry in Greater Cambridgeshire – much more than the operators make in profits.  

But Mr Raynes points out that CAPCA can currently only use small fraction of that to influence operators’ decisions.  

He says the DfT’s BSOG grant provides per-mile payments which – with the current fleet of diesel buses – creates a financial incentive to produce carbon emissions, in conflict with both the government’s and the authority’s objectives.  

“It is unusual for taxpayers’ money to be distributed so generously without a clear line of sight to the policy outcomes it is buying,” he says. 

“Franchising is one way to impose conditions on the bus industry in return for the subsidy it receives.” 

His report says that since March 2020, the social restrictions needed to manage the Covid pandemic have reduced ridership drastically.  

“At the trough, Greater Cambridge buses were carrying a fifth of normal passengers,” he says.  

“Even now, following the Step 3 unlocking, passenger numbers across the area are down by about half compared to normal.  

“Commercial operation has been impossible. The industry has been maintained by extra emergency government subsidies.” 

He predicts recovery to any “new normal” will take time.  

A priority will be zero emission buses. 

“There are currently only two zero emission buses operating in Greater Cambridgeshire,” he says. 

“It is a recommendation of the Independent Commission on Climate Change that the fleet should be decarbonised by 2030; this is in line with the net zero ambitions of the Local Transport Plan.”