An Uber for public transport

It was very interesting this week to read a post over on the Futuregov blog about their work with Essex and Suffolk councils to bring a (and I’m quoting) ‘Silicon Valley state of mind’ to rethinking public transport. It is a great post and uses the success of Uber (and despite the multitude of slightly shady activities it seems to indulge in there is no doubt that it is a successful model – thus the ‘Uber for…’ meme!) to frame discussions around a new approach.

My experience locally is that public transport is very much the poor relation in personal transport policy discussions – there has been a pretty much constant barrage of complaints about one aspect or another of the provision of service from our local provider First Bus since they swallowed up Badgerline in 1995 however the focus in the last decade or so has been primarily around parking, speed limits or cycling. There have been so many failed (actually they rarely get started so maybe failed is the wrong word) public transport initiatives that local people can reel them off as if they were FA Cup wins (well it isn’t as if we have any of them!).

Like much of the UK the challenge for providers locally is that they need to cover urban and rural areas with wildly different demand levels and challenges, subsidies from local government to maintain services on low(er) demand routes is pretty much non-existent these days despite those services often being a lifeline for isolated, disadvantaged citizens.

Seven and a half years ago I had an idea to try and run PublicTransportCamp in Bristol – inspired by a number of TransitCamps that were happening at the time in the US and Canada. Despite some initial interest it never really found an audience so it went on the back burner and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until this week.

I wonder if the time has come to try it again though. If we can get past the journey planner and next bus apps (I like CityMapper but we need to be more ambitious than cloning them locally) and really start to look at using the available data (and identifying what is still missing) and combining that with a real user driven, service design approach then perhaps a model can be identified that can be endorsed by Councils and transport providers.

Or we could just copy our Scandinavian colleagues in Helsinki and their ambitious and impressive strategy but my feeling is that while I could quite happily live in a car free city (I failed five tests and haven’t been behind the wheel of a car since 1992!) the reality is that car ownership represents something more than a transport option to a lot of people in the UK (almost as much as the US) and the goal needs to be to make public transport a realistic option rather than a replacement for everybody.

Anyway I think it could be a fun challenge – data, UX, service design, buses and trains. What more could a person want?