David Begg: Why I'm optimistic about the future of public transport

Twenty years ago, I was advising the government on transport. Our North Star was this: how do we get people out of cars, and onto public transport? We worked

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Twenty years ago, I was advising the government on transport. Our North Star was this: how do we get people out of cars, and onto public transport? We worked hard and made several huge breakthroughs. Public transport in the UK thrived and up until recently, was the mode of choice for many.

But over the past few months, things have changed – drastically so. Two decades of progress has been effectively undone in a matter of months. The government has actively discouraged people from using public transport. That’s never happened before, although I understand that it was necessary.

So: where do we go from here?

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the transport industry and its frontline workers. And it’s not over. We have a long road ahead, with many challenges looming.

Even so, I’m optimistic. Here's why.

The arguments for public transport are as strong as ever

Let me own up to my biggest fear first: an increase in car ownership. At the moment, many people are apprehensive about, or scared of, using public transport. That may make them rely more on their cars.

When you’ve got a car, you’ve got an enclosed space. You don't have to sit next to anyone. It's one of the reasons car shares hasn’t taken off. People don't like letting others into their personal space. Covid-19 has exacerbated all this. It might lead families without cars to buy one, or go from one to two-car households.

Close up of bus handles.

That might not sound like a big deal. But there's a direct correlation: as car ownership rises, bus passenger numbers fall. Or, put that in perspective: for every new car on Britain’s roads, there’s 365 fewer bus journeys per year.

My goal has always been to achieve a modal shift towards public transport. I've been working with governments for many years to make this happen. That momentum has now ground to a halt. Will that change be permanent?

I don’t think so. The argument for public transport – economic and environmental – remain strong. They will only get stronger. One pivotal reason is climate change. At the beginning of 2020, that conversation was at the heart of public consciousness. Once again, circumstances have sidelined that conversation, but it's more urgent than ever.

The facts remain: the car is an inefficient user of roads, it's wasteful, it's polluting.

Polluted road with car.

But here's what gives me hope. During lockdown, many people have experienced good quality, clean air. Many of them for the first time ever. That's huge. That's compelling.

We caught a glimpse of what a life with less pollution could be like. A live demonstration of a world with less traffic and fewer planes. That’s something most of us want to hang on to; without losing the thrill and energy of vibrant, busy cities.

What's holding us back is public perception. Many people see buses as a main polluter, causing congestion and reducing air quality.

That's not true. One new bus produces less pollution than one new car. That's despite the fact that they can carry 50 times as many passengers, by the way. In fact, buses are a key part of the solution for clean air and sustainability.

What we need to do is shift ingrained mindsets and change misperceptions.

Even after disaster, people adjust

Covid-19 poses an extreme threat. But we have dealt with – and recovered from – extreme threats before.

Take the London bombings in 2005. We lost 35 people; it was all over the television. It was terrifying. People's lack of confidence in public transport was lower then than it is now. Even so, Transport for London got their systems running again the very next day.

Or take 9/11. One of the worst horrors of anyone's lifetime. Remember how nervous were people about flying? But the next day, thousands of planes still took off. Today, aviation has a fantastic track record of keeping people safe.

We've mitigated the risks associated with terror attacks as much as possible. But you'd need to be a fool to say that that terrorist threat has gone away completely.

We don’t know when, or if, Covid-19 will completely go away. We can never eliminate risk. But we can learn to live with new danger.

We adjusted to airport security measures. And we will adjust to facemasks and social distancing.

Man sat on bus wearing mask.

Human beings are born to adapt.

It will take time, of course. Some people will be nervous for the foreseeable future. But long-term, people’s behaviour will normalize again. Patterns of patronage will return. All the evidence shows this is what happens after a crisis.

We need a marketing exercise. To gradually build up public trust, to reassure passengers it's safe. A way of reassuring people about risk, hygiene, temperature checks and general safety.

Our key workers are resilient

Being a bus driver is one of the toughest jobs in the UK, especially in a busy city.As a driver in London, you have to navigate the busy streets, the traffic; and at the same time, you have to keep people safe, give directions, take their fares.

It's a demanding job at the best of times. Along came COVID-19, and bus drivers were even more exposed than healthcare professionals. Thirty-three of them died in the UK. And all the while they were delivering NHS staff and other key workers to their jobs. The role they play is enormous.

London bus driving down regent street.

We should be clapping for our bus drivers.

We don't know what their job will look like when all this is over. But I have trust in the resilience of our key workers, and in their capacity to adapt.

One of the economic fears in this respect is about a potential increase in autonomous vehicles. I do expect those to play a big role in the future of transport. In the past year, the number of autonomous car trips was no more than a few thousand.

But there have been hundreds of millions of autonomous train journeys every day. Half of all trains in Asia are autonomous, and we're starting to see autonomous buses come to the fore. There are five different tests in European cities later this year. This looks like it will be an area of big growth.

But won’t that mean job losses for frontline workers?

I don’t think so. In my view, we can approach the issue of driverless vehicles in two ways.

We can say that we're not going to change people's jobs despite the fact that we've got new technologies. Then we will lose bus drivers in the long-term. That would be the wrong way.

Or, we can use technology to enhance people’s jobs. Frontline workers’ roles could shift to become more customer service-orientated. Our workers could be there as ambassadors, communicating with passengers. In the case of an emergency, they could mingle with customers, make sure they're okay. This could herald a new era for public transport, an 'excellent customer service phase'.

We've already seen the potential firsthand. If you've got a lively happy bus driver, the whole experience changes. But at the moment, it's difficult to achieve that. If we move towards an autonomous world, we could recruit more of the right people.

There could be a different mindset, a different approach, a different energy to it. We could reproduce the customer care that people expect in restaurants and shops.

So the role of frontline workers will change, but the prevalence of jobs won’t. Our frontline workers will be as relevant ever.

Close up of bus dashboard.

We can build strong collaborations

To produce a much better product, we need the help of our customers. When it comes to the bus system in particular, we tend not to know what our customers think or want. We don't communicate with them, or not enough.

Bus aisle.

We want to get to know our customers better. Learn about what matters to them, communicate better with the people who rely on us. Drop them text messages. “Sorry, I'm hacked off, we couldn't produce reliable journeys because of these roadblocks.” Reward them, thank them for their loyalty. That would mean learning about best practice in customer care.

We also want to form closer partnerships with the unions, local authorities and the highways authority. We need to get to know the local politician who's in charge of road space allocation well. To deliver, you need strong relationships like that.

We need to broaden our vision and build robust connections. With our customers, with relevant authorities.Look at best practice in other industries, think bigger, and focus on core competencies. Nail the areas that matter most, no matter the line of work.

That’s my vision for the frontline of the future, and that’s why I’m optimistic.

With a focus on communication, marketing and customer service, we can make the changes we need. Not just to recover – to thrive. It won't happen by itself; we need to set the right priorities and make the right decisions.

But we can do it. The future is bright.

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