The railways should be given the role of coordinating Integrated Transport. Information about buses (and cycling and walking) needs to be considerably improved, so people can readily understand and begin to trust the quality of connecting services.
When I’m going to visit a new city, I look to find out how to get from the station to my destination – be that somebody’s offices, where I’m staying, a conference venue or the city centre. In a small city, I’ll probably just walk. If there’s obvious public transport – a tram or a metro, I’ll use that. It’s usually next to impossible to decipher the buses. If I’m travelling on my own and feeling adventurous, I might look up potential cycle routes. But failing that, I’ll probably resort to a taxi.
Why is it that integrated transport is so good in some countries, but so hopeless in Britain? A large part of it is down to our lack of trams. Tram and metro systems are generally simpler to understand, because the cost of infrastructure limits their complexity, and most routes have a good frequency. There is a strong tradition of diagrammatic mapping that people are used to, and which works well. Because it’s a diagrammatic map, you do then have to go to the effort of finding your station/stop on a street map, but the diagrammatic map inspires confidence, and makes that worthwhile. Here’s an example from Basel (there’s an even simpler version which just has the coloured tram lines, and leaves out the buses).
Bus maps are generally more complicated. The norm in the UK is to use a different colour for each route in the suburbs, in an attempt to mimic metro maps, but to give up in the city centre. Buses often run in complicated loops in the centre, and if you have one colour per bus route, you would end up with multiple parallel lines, and an unintelligible tangle. Mostly, this type of map never sees the light of day, but here’s an example from Luxembourg.
The best you can usually hope for in the UK is a central street map showing the stops, and a guide which lists the stops you can use for each destination. There might be another list that tells you how frequent each service is, but not how frequent they are in combination. You can work it out if you need to, but most people will have given up by then. Sometimes the city centre is just a mystery, like in Oxford.
If I’m visiting a city, I want to know whether there’s a frequent service from near at hand to roughly where I want to go. British bus maps are mostly useless for this purpose. The best in the UK are TfL’s spider maps, which are produced individually for each small area, and rely on the fact that most services are high-frequency and planned as a system. Even these maps resort to destination lists and stop codes, so take a bit of deciphering. Here’s an example for the area around Paddington.
An alternative approach is to treat buses like low-frequency transport, and provide a journey planner. This will give you a list of departures, but it doesn’t give you a feel for how good the service is. It might tell you there’s a journey every few minutes, but they might take different routes, or involve changing in different places. The great thing about a map is that you can see this straight away, not have to decipher it from a list.
I’ve been developing a solution for my Oxford bus map, which is to use a small range of colours to show the routes that buses take in the centre. There are usually only a few distinct routes through the centre, which then spread out in the suburbs. I’ve limited the map to the routes taken by higher-frequency services, to keep it reasonably simple. Lower frequency branches in the suburbs are shown as dashed lines, to give a clear visual indication of where the quality drops. In this way, the central map blends seamlessly into the whole-city map, so it can be zoomable, and overlaid on a street map.
Why can’t we get good information already? Well mainly because the private bus operators are focused on selling services from the suburbs to the centre, not on providing a service that works for visitors. Some operators provide excellent information, others little more than a printout of a spreadsheet. The councils have responsibility for public transport in general, but are very patchy in the information they offer. Mostly they have subscribed to providing journey planners to discharge their basic responsibility, and left the private operators to provide further information.
This is why I think the responsibility for Integrated Transport needs to be formally given to the railway. The railway already takes on part of the responsibility, but it’s still rather patchy. The railway companies are the key beneficiaries of good integrated transport – they are the ones that get the income for the majority of the journey. So the railways are best placed to make a system that works well for visitors.
Integrated transport is mostly about information. In an ideal world, the bus companies would be improving their connecting services, and the local authorities would be improving conditions for cycling and walking. But for the moment, it is mostly a matter of providing the information, good and bad, and letting travellers choose accordingly. When we can easily see the good examples, there will be more incentive for improvements to be made.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for providing bike parking and bike hire. In countries like the Netherlands, there are huge cycle parking facilities at stations, and the two modes definitely complement one-another: 40% of train trips in the Netherlands are combined with cycling. The railways certainly have an interest in providing cycle parking and cycle hire, because there is never going to be enough space for commuters to take their bikes on the train. So this is a significant part of the market, and it does need to be provided for. But unless the conditions for cycling in our cities improve dramatically, it’s hard to see cycling becoming a major choice for visitors.
I think the emphasis needs to shift to promoting walking and local public transport. The NationalRail website needs to be much clearer about providing onward travel information, starting with walking. There should be a link to a zoomable street map for each station, perhaps as an icon next to the arrival and departure station, as on the Swiss Railways site.
At the moment there is a link about three levels down which takes you to a pdf of the station information poster. While it’s good that these posters have been produced, they are unwieldy and a long way from best practice. Outside London and the major cities, the posters are very basic (in London and the major cities, they use TfL or PTE maps, which are slightly better, but still limited). The maps don’t give you any feel for what the city is like – the cartography is minimalist, and the cycle and walking routes seem to be almost random. They don’t really tell you whether this is the sort of station where you walk straight out into the city centre, or whether cycling is fairly safe, let alone where buses run.
A proper zoomable street map would at least give you a feel for what the area around the station is like: are there major roads to cross, do you have to walk along a main road or cross at a major junction to get into the centre? Is there a pedestrianised area and shops close by, or is it industrial? Open Street Map already gives a good impression of this, though it could be improved (it doesn’t show pedestrian crossings, for instance).
In the same way, you could have a map focused on cycling – one that shows where the routes are (not just odd bits of cycle path), whether there’s any provision on main roads, and whether you can cycle in the pedestrianised area. There can also be links giving more information on cycle hire and how it works.
The biggest challenge is to map the central bus services, but that’s not impossible, as I have shown. Some of the TfL and PTE maps are pretty good, though they are often focused on taking you off to the suburbs, rather than getting about the centre. And of course, every map is different. There needs to be a consistent zoomable map, showing clearly where services run in the centre.
In the UK, I think the starting point is to make the railways responsible for providing good consistent readily-accessible information. We have the technology; all we need is an informed customer.