Gloucestershire council uses GIS on the buses
Gloucestershire council uses GIS on the buses
A local authority has harnessed geographical information systems to redesign services in face of sharp cuts in funding, writes Tracey Caldwell
When county councils took over the administration of concessionary bus passes in April, Gloucestershire decided to redraw the entire bus service map. Using visual mapping software showing the impact of the various service options on the community it started from scratch and came up with a new set of services that went live on 14 November.
The responsibility for bus passes came to the council as it faced cuts in its annual bus subsidy, down from £5m to £3m. It was no longer an option just to tweak some services and cut others.
"There were essentially two projects. One was to do with concessionary fares and the other was to do with a bus service review, and the big overlap is the financial context and accessibility," says Philip Williams, lead commissioner community infrastructure. The transport team decided to extend the geographical information systems (GIS) used to assess the accessibility of services OS Mastermap Integrated Transport Network Layer, OS Streetview and Basemap's Accession to redesign the entire service.
Central government provides financial support for bus passes used after 9.30am, but in rural areas it is often not practical to travel after that time. For example, those living in outlying areas needing to access services such as hospital appointments 20 miles away may need support to be able to travel sooner.
"We consciously wanted to present it in a map format so we could show the impact in areas and communities. Our supported bus services, those that can't be run commercially because there's not enough people using them maybe they've got long routes through rural areas tend to also be ones where there's a higher proportion of people who are bus pass users. We found that 60% of people who are using those buses that we have to financially prop up are bus pass users. So there was some overlap with these projects," Williams says.
"The traditional way of dealing with this would be based on combing through detailed timetables, and the information is very dry and quite abstract. By putting it into maps and doing a bit of colour coding it's easier to see. Straight away you can see the places where people are going to be disadvantaged, that this was a rural problem. We knew that we couldn't afford a blanket rule for the whole of Gloucestershire, so we thought can we be a bit more sophisticated?
"And so we came up with a policy that said if you live on an infrequent bus route with buses less than every hour, if you had to wait until 10:30 for your bus, then we would allow you to catch the bus before 9:30. It saved us about £300,000."
Redesigning and renegotiating all the bus routes in the county was a major task: over 130 operators provided bus services in Gloucestershire. "We decided we would redesign the bus network, and instead of thinking about what do you get if you chop 40% off the network, we said what do you get if you spend 60% of what you've got and start from scratch. The advantage of that from a negotiating position is if you design something that works properly as an entity, as a network, rather than chopping something good back and then seeing that it's impaired, it gives you much more control."
The council ran a public consultation to create rules to underpin the new system: "It came down to it's got to be affordable, it's got to be a service that gets people to health, education, jobs and essential food shopping," Williams says.
The council did not rely entirely on colour coded mapping. Where the consultation revealed rural parishes with many elderly residents concerned about buses, for example, this was taken into account in the design of the services. Buses running to known areas of deprivation were also maintained, as citizens needed a high level of public transport access to council services.
The team developed an appraisal scoring system for the procurement process. "We said 'For each of the routes, this is what we're proposing. If you want to propose something else by all means do because we'll just plug it into the system and we will be able to see whether it scores as well as the stuff that we've already come up with'," Williams says.
According to Williams the bus operators responded well to this approach: "They knew that if they weren't going to cooperate and take part in this process, they might well have to pull out running bus services."
He adds: "We made sure that we didn't terminate any of our old contracts until we knew that we'd got a better contract to replace it with. So we weren't left with our backs against the wall."
Bus companies came up with useful suggestions: "In the Cotswolds one of the operators virtually redrew the whole bus network and came up with quite radical proposals that involved connections, so we've got timetabled connections in the Cotswolds. The savings there I think were in excess of 40%".
The true test of this approach will be in how well the new service runs, but it shows that GIS is one of the tools that can give authorities a chance to stave off the worst effects of the spending cuts.