Tees Valley: Buses on demand

Heather Scott, cabinet lead for Transport for the Tees Valley Combined Authority, looks at what the new ‘demand-responsive' bus service could mean for the region

Public transport can be a lifeline for those without access to a car. If those people live in an isolated or rural community, regular bus services are vital to help them go about their day-to-day lives. We are looking to revolutionise bus travel in the region, with a new demand-responsive service which will serve the third of our residents currently not within walking distance of a regular service.

Tees Valley is an area made up of five boroughs – Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees – consisting of major urban areas giving way to dramatic coastlines and beautiful countryside. However, with these dramatic views come rural villages and isolated residents.

Tees Valley Combined Authority aims to drive an additional £2.8 billion into the region’s economy and support the creation of 25,000 jobs by 2026, transforming our region. Led by the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, we are doing just that, with powers over transport, strategic investment, post-19 education, employment and skills and business support.

It’s all well and good creating jobs and taking control of a £29.5 million budget for adult education but it means nothing if our local people can’t access these opportunities. For context, some 31 per cent of all households in Tees Valley do not own a car. By comparison, 94 per cent of the population is within walking distance of a bus service, and 66 per cent is within walking distance of a regular bus service. Buses are the main mode of public transport in the region, with around 19,000 people relying on them to get to work.

There is a huge scope and responsibility to not only make sure our bus services work for the residents that need them most, but also encourage people to leave their cars at home. High quality, reliable and affordable bus services can do this, reducing traffic levels on main routes into our town centres and cutting harmful vehicle emissions.

While 90 per cent of bus users are satisfied with the service overall, only 76 per cent stated they were satisfied with punctuality and this figure is decreasing. So is the amount of journeys taken by our residents, with 28 million, or around 600,000 per week, in 2017/18, a drop of 13 per cent since 2012/13. There is also the problem of getting reliable, regular services to rural areas. We need to make sure each and every one of our residents can get to work, education and attractions, to be able to live a successful, rewarding life here.

There are also issues surrounding a complex fares and ticketing system across different operators, which can deter people from using buses, alongside worsening congestion impacting on punctuality and reliability. Further integration with other transport types and operators would only strengthen our offer.

Ten-year Strategic Transport Plan
Luckily, we have the powers to do something about this and deliver a more punctual, affordable, integrated, cleaner and modern service for all. As part of our devolution deal with government, we were given control over transport in the region, so that decisions for local people can be made by local people, with money spent on local priorities.

In January, the Tees Valley Mayor and Combined Authority Cabinet agreed a £588.2 million, ten-year Investment Plan, including £256.7 million to transform our transport infrastructure. To deliver this, we developed a detailed ten-year Strategic Transport Plan which sets out our vision for transport in the Tees Valley.

This plan not only covers buses but also every aspect of getting around, from roads and rail to air and sustainable travel. It views transport as a means to an end, not an end in itself, with interconnectivity at its heart. It examines major themes of national rail, major roads, connecting centres, unlocking key sites, and local journeys while delivering social equity and protecting and enhancing the environment.

The first way in which the plan is addressing our issues is by introducing a three-year pilot for a new ‘Uber-style’ demand-responsive bus service, announced by the Mayor earlier this year. It covers rural areas of Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar & Cleveland and will allow passengers to book a journey in advance on either a smartphone app, via a website or over the telephone. Algorithms then match passengers travelling in the same direction and schedule vehicles in real-time to find the optimal route for their trip.

The service will use small high-quality minibuses and, unlike a traditional bus service, there are no fixed routes – important when not all of our residents live on or near bus routes. Instead journeys are determined by where passengers want to go within a predefined geographical service area. The technology will also help provide more public transport options for passengers going to and from Teesside International Airport, which was recently brought back into public ownership and has a ten-year rescue plan of its own.

A provider has now been procured for this, with a view to be running early next year. If successful, there is the potential to extend the service into other rural and isolated areas.

A more comprehensive network
While we look to plug the gap in more distant communities, we’re continuing to work with bus operators to develop a partnership agreement to improve the bus service offer for the residents of Tees Valley. By working alongside operators and local authorities, we’re striving to deliver a more comprehensive network, an improved ticketing offer across all operators and co-ordinate services between timetables, including rail services, as well as activity between authorities outside of Tees Valley.

Targeted investment is key to getting more people on board. This includes funding for our road network, specifically at major delay points to improve reliability, and cash to improve facilities such as bus stops and shelters and better provide bus information at those stops. Most of all, this funding must be consistent to provide continuity. It must not be stop-start.

Improving key pinch points along our road network will benefit drivers too. We have identified our own 888-mile Key Route Network. This is central to economic growth. Work is currently progressing to enhance the current major north-south and east-west routes which serve key sites within our region, including a new crossing on the River Tees to lighten the pressure on the A19, a key trunk road. This scheme was hugely well received at public consultation level, and we’re very close to submitting a business case to Government for funding to make it a reality.

We are working to upgrade our rail network for both passengers and freight. The Tees Valley Mayor has pledged £45 million to kick-start the redevelopment of Darlington and Middlesbrough rail stations to increase capacity for local, national and freight journeys and futureproof them for potential projects such as National Powerhouse rail.

More support for greener, healthier local journeys will accompany our commitment to create good-quality, accessible and integrated cycling and walking networks. This will not only make them safer and better maintained, but encourage healthier travel choices, improve air quality and add to our leisure offering for visitors.

For those still finding transport a barrier to employment, we have committed £180,000 to a ‘Wheels 2 Work’ scheme. This offers scooter and electric bike hire as well as training at reduced rates to help people get to work. It has proven to be a huge success and is growing in popularity. Plans for the future of our bus network, and wider transport aspirations, have not been developed in isolation. We have carried out a lot of research, alongside our many strategic partners and five local authorities.

Following our public consultation, the Strategic Transport Plan will be published early next year. Buses on demand will play a huge part in our new and improved transport network for those in the most isolated communities. This will sit alongside partnership working with operators as part of an innovative and joined-up transport network that our residents, businesses and visitors deserve.

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