For Britons, Public Transport Embodies Social Fabric

At the Cop 26, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked global leaders to “make bold compromises” and “ambitious commitments” to tackle climate change. Still, shortly after, Downing Street confirmed that the Conservative Party leader would be leaving the summit via a private plane.

Observers questioned the Prime Minister’s resolve and were worried whether his position could be taken seriously if his words and deeds did not sync.

This year’s edition of The United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, known as Cop 26 (Conference of the Parties), was held in Glasgow, Scotland, between October 31 and November 12 and sought to reiterate the need for limiting global warming to 1.5C.

Every year, all 196 signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) assemble at a selected host city to negotiate international rules for tackling the climate crisis.

When asked why the Prime Minister could not take the train instead, his spokesperson justified the decision by pointing at his busy schedule and the “time constraints” the office was facing.

The spokesperson further argued that Mr. Johnson’s private plane uses a special mix of “sustainable” aviation fuel.

The aide also said that the jet’s fuel is one of the most carbon-efficient for a plane its size while the aircraft offsets its emissions.

Global leaders led by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres arrive at a COP26 reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow by electric buses. {Image Source: Electrive}
Global leaders led by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres arrive at a COP26 reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow by electric buses. {Image Source: Electrive}

Stark Contrast

The British Prime Minister’s Office’s decision to schedule Mr. Johnson to leave the conference via private plane contradicts his arrival at the summit where he led global leaders in taking double-decker electric buses to the event.

Mr. Johnson, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were transported to the summit by buses that don’t release emissions into the atmosphere which was in line with the theme of the event.

A London red bus drops Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a COP26 reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow. {Image Source: Karwai Tang/ UK Government}
A London red bus drops Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at a COP26 reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow. {Image Source: Karwai Tang/ UK Government}

“Treating Nature like a Toilet”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the world’s lethargy in tackling climate change, warning that the world is digging its own grave.

“Enough of brutalizing biodiversity, killing ourselves with carbon, treating nature like a toilet, burning, and drilling and mining our way deeper,”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres makes his remarks at the COP26 Summit where he urged signatories to stop treating nature like a toilet. {Image Source: UN News}
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres makes his remarks at the COP26 Summit where he urged signatories to stop treating nature like a toilet. {Image Source: UN News}

Public Transport in the UK

Capturing the ongoings at the Cop26 summit is essential to give you perspective on today’s topic – Public Transport in the UK.

What is mobility in Britain like?

Privatization

A must-know aspect about public transport in the United Kingdom is that private companies are the main players in bus transport. They run routes in England, Scotland, and Wales based solely on profitability.

This was precipitated by the government’s decision to deregulate the sector in 1985.

A report titled Public Transport, Private Profit: The Human Cost of Privatizing Buses in the United Kingdom states that private ownership of bus transport has proved to be a masterclass on how not to run an essential public service.

The report authored by Philip Alston, Bassam Khawaja, and Rebecca Riddell was published in July 2021.

“….Has left residents with an expensive, unreliable, fragmented and dysfunctional bus system that is slowly falling apart,”

REPORT: PUBLIC TRANSPORT, PRIVATE PROFIT: THE HUMAN COST OF PRIVATIZING BUSES IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

The researchers’ concern is that the bus operators have prioritized profits and dividends, extracting money from the system and doing away with important routes.

Lack of authority to ensure local buses meet residents’ needs has led to private players operating as they please over the years. An excellent example of this is that there are no minimum service frequency standards.

This overburdens cash-strapped local authorities which are left to conjure up ways to plug the gaps from public coffers.

“Unsurprisingly, fares have skyrocketed, and ridership has plummeted. While the public good has suffered, the private sector has profited handsomely,’

REPORT: PUBLIC TRANSPORT, PRIVATE PROFIT: THE HUMAN COST OF PRIVATIZING BUSES IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

The human cost of this is that British citizens have lost their jobs, dropped out of school, missed medical appointments, had to go without food and utilities, and cut from their families and friends, all because of an inadequate, expensive bus system that failed them.

Bus making its way in a United Kingdom road. Report lays bare how private bus ownership is failing British citizens. {Image Source: Stagecoach via The Guardian}
Bus making its way in a United Kingdom road. The report lays bare how private bus ownership is failing British citizens. {Image Source: Stagecoach via The Guardian}

This is worrying because of bus transport’s importance to UK Citizens. It is an essential service that delivers substantial social benefits.

Buses account for approximately 4.5 billion trips in England, Scotland, and Wales. This statistic underscores the bus’ status as the predominant means of transport in the region.

Buses are heavily relied on by women, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and low earners. In short, they link communities and provide a way to travel for people without access to any other mode of transport.

Quoting Department of Transport research, the report finds that a fully loaded double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road, which will cut down congestion and tailpipe emissions by a large margin.

Pandemic has Shifted Transport Mindsets

The National Travel Attitudes Study: Wave 4 published by the UK’s Department of Transport observes COVID-19 has had a substantial impact on active travel.

This specific study is an instalment of surveys taken to establish attitudes towards public transport in Britain amid the pandemic.

British citizen cycling on a lane designated for active transport. The COVID 19 pandemic has prompted travel behaviour among British citizens. {Image Source: Tracy Welch via The University of Leeds}
British citizen cycling on a lane designated for active transport. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted travel behaviour among British citizens. {Image Source: Tracy Welch via The University of Leeds}

The study published in January 2021 was conducted between May and September 2020.

The paper observes;

38%

Britons walk 38% more than before the pandemic.

34%

Cyclists cycle 34% than before the pandemic.

British citizens also substantially cut down on trips to visit relatives and friends following the outbreak of COVID-19.

The paper observes these types of journeys fell by 59% (May to July 2020) and 36% (August- September 2020) compared to the previous year.

Respondents also pointed out that they went out to exercise twice as often, 189% more (May to July 2020) and 138% more (August to September 2020).

Different Modes of Public Transport in the UK

A common joke is that complaining about public transport has become a hobby for British citizens.

That hits home especially for Britons residing in rural areas since commuters residing in urban areas have a wide range of public transport options to choose from.

The most common modes of public transport include Buses, Metros, Trams, Trains and Planes.

Bus Transport

Buses are an essential cog of the British social fabric. They are the most common and most accessible form of public transport in the kingdom.

The cost, quality, and efficiency of bus transport vary across the country.

The signature red London double-decker bus. Bus transport is the most relied on mode of mobility in the UK. {Image Source: Intelligent Transport}
The signature red London double-decker bus. Bus transport is the most relied-on mode of mobility in the UK. {Image Source: Intelligent Transport}

As outlined by the report by Philip Alston, Rebecca Riddell, and Bassam Khawaja, buses account for 4.5 billion trips in England, Scotland, and Wales, a massive percentage of all public transport trips.

Large cities in the UK have adopted contactless payment. In London, for instance, only smartcard payments are accepted through the city’s Oyster Card.

In rural areas where smart payments are not possible, tickets are bought at bus stations.

Bus operators in the UK offer discounts to full-time students, persons under 18, and full-time pensioners.

Some operators offer free Wi-Fi.

Coaches

In the UK, buses operate local routes while coaches offer intercity and long-distance travel.

Tickets are purchased online or at local bus stations.

Megabus and National Express are the notable companies that operate the largest number of nationwide routes.

A National Express coach. Coaches are popular for intercity and long-distance travel in the UK. {Image Source: Talon One}
A National Express coach. Coaches are popular for intercity and long-distance travel in the UK. {Image Source: Talon One}

Coaches are preferred for intercity and long-distance travel in the UK because they are more affordable. They are also convenient because British cities and major towns have direct coach connections to London.

The Victoria Coach station in London is the hub for international coach routes.

Data Corner

In January 2020, the UK government announced it was planning to roll out an Open Big Data project to standardize and publish information from bus operators.

British Under Secretary for Transport Baroness Vere confirmed the project would allow users to plan routes, understand costs, and estimate journey times ahead of time.

“Buses are the most frequently used form of public transport; to get to work, to the library, to the doctors or to see family and friends. By harnessing the transforming power of data and technology, we could be on the threshold of a golden age for buses. Sharing data on routes, bus locations and fares will give passengers even more confidence to ride,”

BRITISH TRANSPORT UNDER SECRETARY bARONESS VERE AS QUOTED BY TTI

The British official observed that developers would be able to use the data to improve existing apps or develop new products to make bus transport better and encourage more people to use public transport.

The London Metro

The London Metro, popularly known as The Tube, is an iconic and major mode of transport in London.

The Mayor’s Office operates it via Transport for London (TfL).

The London Metro, is operated by Transport for London and is one of the oldest rapid transit systems in the world. {Image Source: Railway Technology}
The London Metro, is operated by Transport for London and is one of the oldest rapid transit systems in the world. {Image Source: Railway Technology}

Zones determine London Metro fares while payments are made via the Oyster smartcard.

Since 2016, the London Metro has provided 24-hour services on certain lines during the weekends.

However, its demand usually is through the roof during rush hours, making it hard to secure a spot. Due to the massive demand, fare prices also increase.

That said, London is not the only British city that has a metro. Glasgow, Newcastle, and Liverpool all have underground transit systems.

Data Corner

Transport for London (TfL) applies Big Data to predict the impact of metro service interruptions which helps the organization tailor its advice to passengers.

“During a planned closure of the Victoria line in summer 2015, where works were taking place to allow an increased number of trains to run in the future. Our data allowed us to predict the impacts on the transport network and tailor our advice to customers,”

Lauren Sager Weinstein, Head of Analytics at Transport for London (TfL) TO INTELLIGENT TRANSPORT

This helped the organisation recommend alternatives for the commuters besides assisting them to get a complete picture of exactly how much they would be affected.

Trams

London, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham, Croydon, and Blackpool all have trams.

A tram gliding through the streets of Edinburgh. The UK is not big on tram transport. {Image Source: Wired}
A tram gliding through the streets of Edinburgh. The UK is not big on tram transport. {Image Source: Wired}

Light trams run along segregated routes and public roads.

Payment methods differ from city to city. In Manchester, passengers are allowed to use their smartcards onboard, while in others like Edinburgh, passengers are required to buy tickets and submit them before boarding.

The trams serving the different UK cities are generally affordable, clean, and modern.

Traveling by tram affords passengers beautiful scenes of the individual cities.

Pedestrians are advised to be alert since it is very easy to get hit by a tram because they ride so quietly.

Data Corner

Big Data derived from mobile GPS technology coupled with data from social media feeds can be applied for sentiment mapping and to analyze situations associated with travel experiences in various modes of transport, including trams.

This is captured in a research report dubbed Scoping Study into Deriving Transport Benefits from Big Data and the Internet of Things in Smart Cities authored by Nikolas Hill, Gena Gibson, Elena Guidorzi, et al. and published by Ricardo Energy and Environment in 2017.

“The results from such data analysis can improve the customer experience and influence travelers’ behaviours. The social benefit associated with this relates to the time travelers could save by having access to real-time and crowdsourced information. Moreover, Big Data and IoT applications are expected to contribute to improving mobility accessibility for all,”

REPORT: SCOPING STUDY INTO DERIVING TRANSPORT BENEFITS FROM BIG DATA and the internet of things in smart cities

Trains

Britain has an illustrious history as far as train travel is concerned.

The country’s train stations: London St Pancras International, Huddersfield, and Bristol Temple Meads embody this fact.

Class 442 train running through Earlsfield station  in the UK. {Image Source: The Telegraph}
Class 442 train running through Earlsfield station  in the UK. {Image Source: The Telegraph}

The UK’s train network operates on a franchise model where the service is contracted to different players.

This model, however, leads to disuniformity in levels of services, pricing, and cleanliness.

Train services are also expensive particularly if a passenger buys a ticket on the same day of travel. This can be avoided if a passenger buys tickets early.

The UK has only three international train stations: London St Pancras, Ashford, and Ebbsfleet.

Data Corner

An article titled Big Data in Railway Operations, Planning and Maintenance authored by Martyn Cuthbert and published by Ontrac, a British software company, observes data collection and analytics are now being incorporated in every facet of railway operations in the current age.

The article states that Ontrac’s software is being used by British businesses within the rail supply chain to aid project planning and maximize their assets.

“Using asset data from multiple sources, such as Ellipse, CARRS, Track Centre Line, OPAS and the National Hazard Directory, eTrac-GIS automatically generates schematics from geospatial data (geomatics) on demand. It can tell you where a possession is on a map, if it is currently being used, and how long for. This coupled with predictive maintenance of the possessions and assets means smarter planning all round,”

REPORT: BIG DATA IN RAILWAY OPERATIONS, PLANNING AND MAINTENANCE

Planes

The UK has a plethora of international airports located across the country.

The London Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport, followed by the London Gatwick and Manchester Airport.

British Airways plane in the sky. The airline is tapping Big Data to improve customer experience. {Image Source: Glasgow Live}
British Airways plane in the sky. The airline is tapping Big Data to improve customer experience. {Image Source: Glasgow Live}

Each region also has its set of local airports that provide domestic flights for residents. These services are vital for Britain’s island communities.

British airports are well maintained and have relevant facilities such as restaurants, shops, and bars.

All airports are linked to public transport whether by tram, bus, coach or train.

Data Corner

Airlines generate more customer data than any other industry. These large tracts of data are helping airlines to respond to customer demands and market trends with precision.

Software technology company Datumize in an insight paper titled Big Data Case Study: 5 Relevant Examples from the Airline Industry, observes that British Airways is using its intelligent “Know Me” Big Data feature to provide personalized search results to customers.

“In this impressive big data case study, BA identified that their customer base largely consists of busy, time-pressed professionals who require fast, concise results. Therefore, ‘Know Me’ uses in-depth data analysis to provide relevant and targeted offers for their consideration. BA received a huge amount of positive feedback from clients who loved the fact that the company understood their travel needs,”

DATUMIZE REPORT

Preaching Water But Drinking Wine

Calling on nations to play their part in tackling climate change was certainly the right thing to do.

This is a challenge that requires a collective effort from all signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The criticism directed Boris Johnson’s way was fair considering that he asked others to make bold decisions but took the easy route of jetting off in a private plane.

Technology is making it possible to live sustainably. Big Data for instance is eliminating unnecessary delays in train travel and helping operators adhere to departure and arrival times.

That’s the cue the Prime Minister should have taken.

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