Where next for the bus industry?

Following the Prime Minister’s address on Sunday evening we have been doing some work on envisioning where the bus industry (and transport more widely) is heading and how we can thrive in the post-lockdown economy.  Specifically:

  1. the possible long-term effects on travel habits and the bus industry as a whole
  2. the implications for The Big Lemon going forward, and what we need to do to adapt to a new environment.

But first, what have we done so far?

Wayne at the wheel ready to go

At the beginning of this crisis we set ourselves three priorities:

  1. to keep our staff and passengers safe
  2. to maintain services for our passengers for as long as possible
  3. to maintain the financial health of the organisation

The Big Lemon maintained normal services for as long as absolutely possible, and I’m proud to say that even though the option was there to reduce the service, our team chose to carry on with a full service all the way to the end of March, mainly to support hospital staff at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, and a number of our older passengers who rely on the bus to get their shopping. During this time we invested in extra cleaning for the buses and issued masks and gloves for our drivers to keep them – and everyone else – safe.

By the end of March, however, our passenger numbers were reduced to about 10%, and it no longer seemed necessary to run a full service, so we agreed a reduced timetable with the City Council that would prioritise the services that keyworkers still needed to get to work, whilst protecting our team and reducing costs to the bare minimum.  This reduced timetable has been in operation for six weeks now, and we are now turning our attention to what comes next. One thing is clear: it won’t be simply a return to how things were before.

What will be the long-term effects on the bus industry?

The obvious problem that we have as an industry, in common with most others, is how do we maintain social distancing on the bus? Currently social distancing on the bus is easy, because there are only three or four people maximum on the bus at any time; however as lockdown is gradually lifted we will need to restrict where people can sit.

Most of our buses have 30 seats and a total capacity of 58 people including standing passengers. Realistically, considering the layout of the bus, if social distancing is maintained it reduces our 58 capacity to seven people travelling individually or up to 14 if people from the same household are travelling together.  Across the industry that is a huge reduction in capacity and will have many implications.

The first of these is that people will be looking for other ways to travel. There is a danger that this will lead to more car journeys, with implications for air quality, public health and congestion on the roads, and I think it absolutely must be a priority for all policymakers not to let this happen.  Brighton & Hove City Council is fortunately aware of this issue and over the weekend a new cycle lane was installed on Old Shoreham Road, one of a number of measures planned to encourage cycling and walking. However, if these initiatives are not successful enough, we will see more congestion on the roads and this will increase costs on the buses, as more buses are needed to run the same level of service.

So as costs rise and passenger income falls to a fraction of what it once was, the whole business model for most bus companies gets blown out of the water. Sadly as a result of this we will almost certainly see many bus operators go out of business, and others reduce services. Rural communities could be particularly badly affected.

What are the implications for The Big Lemon?

The Big Lemon is in a better position than many others, because the majority of our services are operated under contract and financially supported by our partners.  However, our public bus services are also reliant on passenger income, which has almost completely dried up and will take years to recover. This means that we will have to work out the level of subsidy required to run the services going forward, and the City Council will need to decide whether to increase the subsidy or reduce the level of service. 

In addition to our public bus services we run a number of regular services for local colleges and other organisations for their students and staff. In order to enable social distancing on these services we are anticipating being asked to provide larger vehicles or extra services on these contracts; indeed one of our largest partners has already asked for this.

Thus for us it’s a mixed picture; certainly some challenges ahead but equally an opportunity to review our business model and make the changes that we need to make to accelerate our plans to realise our 2030 vision.

So what is The Big Lemon’s strategy for the rest of this year?

Where do we go now?

In a nutshell, our strategy is to envision what is required of public transport in the future, and make that our model, now.  This means both what is required in terms of passenger safety and social distancing; and what is required in terms of reducing emissions. 

Our mission then for 2020 is to

  • assess what our services will look like going forward, and what new opportunities may present themselves
  • work out how many vehicles we will need (and what sizes) from January 2021 onwards
  • re-work our business plan based on the new economic reality and the opportunities that we plan to pursue, assuming all vehicles used on our services are zero-emission vehicles powered by renewables
  • work out how much investment is required to increase our fleet of nine electric vehicles to the levels we need to run all services with zero-emission vehicles
  • put this to the public and see if we can raise the investment we need for a 100% zero-emissions fleet, powered by renewables, based on our post-lockdown business plan.

We’ll keep you posted, and as ever, if you have any contacts, know of any opportunities, or have anything you can offer that might help us accelerate our progress please get in touch!

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