Could empty buses be used for other things?

Build back better – how about we investigate new business opportunities for public transport?

As a result of the COVID19 pandemic, the use of public transport has plummeted by around 90% , with use predicted to remain below pre-lockdown levels for some time to come. However, that doesn’t tell the full storey, as pre-COVID rail travel more than doubling from 2002 to 2018, whilst bus use decreasing by around 20% in the same period . Further, over half 2 of all bus use in the UK is within London.

The £2 billion funding for cycling and walking in England , plus funding from the devolved Governments and local authorities for active travel infrastructure is welcome, and will hopefully increase active travel long term, potentially displacing some commuters who had previously travelled by other modes.

Of greater concern from a public transport ridership point of view is the large number of people who may continue to work at home, at least part of the time following the reopening of offices. Anecdotal evidence at this stage suggests some companies are starting to reopen offices with reduced capacity, i.e. employees going to the office a couple of days per week and with staggered arrival times, whilst others remain closed. Whilst some will be keen to return to the office environment, others will want to keep working from home with one US report estimating that 25 to 30% of employees will work at home for multiple days per week at the end of 2021. Many companies might welcome this if they are able to reduce their real estate bill.

One impact of the lockdown was the sharp rise in internet shopping, which had been on an upward trajectory in any case. In 2006, the amount of internet sales as a percentage of overall sales was under 3% , rising to over 20% in 2019 and over 30% in April, May and June of 2020. Whilst this might fall back slightly following the reopening of non-essential stores, the trend is likely to continue to rise in the future.

The number of miles travelled by vans in the UK has increased by 70% in the last 20 years and this is likely to be largely in part due to the increase in online deliveries. Online providers are looking for innovative solutions to address the last mile delivery challenge such as automated fulfilment centres and new delivery platforms. Walmart recently launched Spark Delivery , a crowd-sourced delivery platform, where independent drivers pick up customer orders from Walmart stores and warehouses. Could they also look to public transport to form part of their solution?

Just as physical stores and shopping centres will have to adapt their offering to survive in the future, so too will the transport sector. Could stores and public transport operators work together to enhance the online shopping experience and secure vital revenue for transport operators? There is potentially scope, particularly in more rural or outlying suburban areas for flexile, demand responsive bus routes, such as the one operated in Sevenoaks , where smaller vehicles are used to provide a faster service, with the vehicles used partly for community transport in off-peak times. Could one such use be for delivery of parcels, either direct to consumers or to and from local distribution centres? Smaller vehicles also have the potential to be electrified more readily than standard buses or coaches.

The concept is not new as the Royal Mail operated a Post Bus in remote areas of the UK for many years until closing the last one in 2017, and similar concepts are operated in other countries. British Rail run the Red Star parcel network using passenger trains from 1963 to 2001 , finally closed with privatisation and hence the loss of a national network. However, just as back office functions can apportion the rail fare to different operators used on the same journey, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier.

Whilst the use of a post bus that also carried some passengers might not have been profitable, with more demand responsive options for buses that have to be operated anyway, would it be worth investigating this concept again?

Equally, could the passenger railway be used to transport larger loads over longer distances? Delivery of PPE was trialled on a converted commuter train in April 2020, demonstrating that trains could be loaded and offloaded with standard roll cages at most UK stations and with seats removed, the carriages have a large load volume. Meanwhile, 42 Technology has developed a concept for train seats that fold and slide to create space for freight transport during off-peak times , potentially providing a flexible solution.

It is also known that airlines sometimes carry freight in the passenger section of planes, with parcels placed on seats, secured by nets. Could a similar concept be applied to buses or coaches when not being used for passenger services?

Clearly, not all these ideas will be applicable in every situation, but there might be opportunities to better utilise public transport vehicles, providing valuable revenue whilst also offering customers a reliable and flexible public transport offering. It is worth investigating as things have changed and new thinking is needed.