Bristol’s latest metrobus m2 begins

The second of the three new metrobus routes began operating in Bristol yesterday. The m2 links the Long Ashton Park & Ride site (south west of the city) via some impressive newly constructed exclusive busway road to the city centre where the bus does a large anti-clockwise circuit.

It’s been controversial and way behind schedule. This route’s £50 million budget is part of an overall £200 million scheme being overseen by Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucester Councils.

I’m not complaining about the high cost though; compared to rail schemes or roads it’s virtually petty cash and it’s good to see buses receiving impressive infrastructure investment.

First West of England has bravely taken the route on as a commercial proposition and I reckon they’re going to have their work cut out to achieve the elusive double digit margins City analysts demand of PLCs.

Unlike route m3 which began in May serving the busy University of West of England campus at the route’s southern end (north of the Uni is a bit barren) the m2’s main objective is bringing Long Ashton Park and Riders into the city centre. There’s not really much else to it.

Helped by well over a mile of new exclusive busway buses bypass any traffic congestion until they’re close to the city centre. That’s good for journey time and timekeeping (28 mins to Broadmead/22 mins back again) but not so good for picking up other revenue potential.

The circular city centre route has proved controversial as many commuters have complained the new circuit means a much longer walk to their workplace than the previous 903 service, but I’m sure such criticism will die down once the new arrangements become familiar. There are always winners and losers and a circular routing does make sense for Bristol’s central road layout.

The £4 First Bus day ticket is good value and can be used across their network with longer period tickets also available as are First’s M-ticket range. Despite this it’s surprising there’s only one ‘iPoint’ ticket machine at the Park & Ride terminus. As metrobus drivers don’t handle fares that’s surely a recipe for frustration with queues building up at busy times with a bus about to leave. Considering the investment in these ‘iPoint’ totems along the routes, even at quiet stops (on both sides of the road) this seems very shortsighted and penny pinching.

I also see the frequency is only every 20 minutes before 10am on Saturdays and would have thought that’ll be unpopular in the busy weekends leading up to Christmas. Otherwise it runs every 10 minutes at peak times. 12 minutes off peak and 20 minutes in the evenings.

Astonishingly the Park & Ride is closed on Sundays and route m2 doesn’t run! That is a bizarre omission.

The busway has sections of guided track which, just like in Leigh in Greater Manchester, are completely unnecessary. I suspect it may be to do with getting grant funding from the DfT that required a certain percentage of route to be ‘guided’, if so it’s bureaucracy gone bonkers as it slows the bus down, costs more to build and operate when there’s no issue with available road width.

The route serves Ashton Gate stadium but buses won’t stop on Bristol City home game days as capacity is a problem.

It’s also advertised as serving Temple Meads Station but not via the bus stops right outside nor on Temple Gate at the bottom of the access road but to the side in Temple Way accessed through the station’s side entrance/exit. In the event the connection to the station is a bit tenuous as, other than people like myself, few arriving by train would want a bus to a Park & Ride site on the city’s fringe and there are plenty of other buses to the city centre from right outside the station or on Temple Gate. It’s a shame the m2 bus stop in Temple Way hadn’t yet been updated from the former 903.

Despite these shortcomings Ashton Gate stadium and Temple Meads are highlighted in the route’s inflation leaflet.

There were copious supplies of the leaflet available at the impressive Park and Ride kiosk along with other facilities.

The buses are functional and comfortable rather than luxurious and are clean and well presented. The livery is a bit drab and doesn’t really excite.

The bus stop facilities along the route are excellent, if anything, a little over the top but better to over provide than under.

If I didn’t fancy using First West of England’s smart newly branded Excel excellent bus routes but instead was an ardent motorist living in North Somerset with commitments in central Bristol I’d definitely use Long Ashton’s Park and Ride car park and hop on an m2 bus into the city centre. It beats sitting in Bristol’s notorious congestion.

It remains to be seen whether sufficient people will do likewise to make it viable. Certainly every effort’s been made to make it an attractive option and well done to all concerned.

If you’re down Bristol way soon give it a try – it’s free on the last two Saturdays this month.

Roger French 4th September 2018

I Didn’t Get Gett

Having been plagued for some weeks by marketing emails from the London black cab App organisation called Gett, I finally relented yesterday and headed up to London to use up the £10 credit (with an expiry of 31st August) they’d recently added to my account in a last ditch attempt to entice my return custom. It wasn’t as if I’d been much of a customer, having made one solitary journey back in October 2017 to try out the new peak hours only ride-sharing Black Bus 1 route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo they’d just introduced amid much fanfare with partners Citymapper who’d worked out there was latent demand on that corridor from the enquiries they’d been monitoring on their Journey Planner App.

I thought I’d replicate my Black Bus 1 journey and see if once again I’d be sharing the intimacy of a black cab with other riders for the bargain fare of £3. I’d not been able to do my usual trip research beforehand as all the Gett App would tell me was I’m in an unsupported area down in Sussex where I live. I’d had a look at the Gett website, but that hadn’t mentioned anything about Black Bus 1 either. So it wasn’t until I came out of Highbury & Islington station at 0842 I could sus out the travel options.

I trotted along to nearby Compton Terrace on the main road just south of the station where I’d waited before and sure enough having entered Waterloo as “where I want to go” at 0844 the Citymapper App listed a taxi icon among the options (as it had done before) showing an arrival in 5 minutes and with a journey time of 45 minutes (taking 50% longer than the tube options).

I clicked it, got an encouraging ‘Book & Go’ clickable icon over a map with reassuring reference to my Smart Ride not costing the expected £3 but would be a freebie at £0.

I clicked that only to be stumped by payment options of Apple Pay or “Add Credit Card”.

I decided to add my credit card details despite that £3 fare being reassuringly struck through and then received confirmation at 0845 it was “Using £3 from your credit” and the “Driver arrives in 16 min”.

As a bit of a novice at this game I had wrongly assumed with those messages I’d done all I needed to do. It turns out I hadn’t; and despite not wanting to use Apple Pay, I needed to find another icon to “pay’; even though I had a fare of £0.

But there was I thinking I was all good to go, especially when I rechecked at 0847, as within only those two minutes the screen had updated to “Driver arrives in 2 min” and what looked like a fellow passenger appeared alongside me also staring intently at her phone.

She confirmed she’d also booked a ride and within a minute an anonymously branded black Mercedes people carrier appeared.

The driver was a bit perplexed to find two of us, and establishing we weren’t a couple he confirmed I wasn’t booked with him and needed to wait for another driver.

Clicking back on the Citymapper App showed a wait for another driver of another 15 minutes so I decided to interrogate the Gett App instead; after all they were the people who’d gifted £10 credit to me and were so keen for my return custom. In fact it puzzled me how Citymapper knew I had credit as I’d had no communication from them.

The trouble was the Gett App, like the website made no mention of Black Bus 1, and I appeared to be booking a standard black cab to take me to Waterloo.

Even more consternation as there was no mention of my credit and instead wanted me to pay with my credit card; although it did make reference to me getting “£10 off this ride” with my “coupon”.

Not being a black cab user I feared for my bank balance for such a long journey if I went through with the transaction, but decided to give it a go, only to be told the expected arrival time of a driver was another 15 minute wait and with an expected arrival time in Waterloo not until 0953 which was 57 minutes away.

As by then it was 0856, this seemed a very long time away, so after a three minute cogitation, at 0859 I decided to abandon this smart ride-share gig altogether and instead plump for a traditional ride-share gig, the humble TfL red bus to take me to Waterloo.

Despite battling with some of London’s usual peak hour congestion, we arrived in Waterloo at 0941 comfortably ahead of Gett’s prediction had I used them, and it only cost me £1.50.

I still have no idea what the relationship is between Gett and Citymapper  and how my £10 credit appeared on Citymapper. It would seem Gett no longer run a BlackBus 1 for £3  and just run traditional black cabs but Citymapper contract an anonymous ride share company to do so instead but not marketed under that Black Bus 1 brand. The whole experience was confusing and I was reassured traditional bus, tube and train are still the modes of choice for me and I won’t be disrupted.

Roger French                           1st September 2018

Are App-A-Rides viable?

Followers of this blog, my twitter timeline and various magazine articles I’ve written will know I’m a bit of a sceptic about the current fashion for App-A-Ride, the modern day Dial-A-Ride and so called demand responsive services.

I just can’t see how the business model will ever deliver a profit. I must be missing something as hot on the heels of Oxford Bus launching Pick-Me-Up and Arriva announcing an expansion of their Click brand into Liverpool came National Express’s announcement last week of plans for something similar in the West Midlands.

Readers will know I’ve yet to actually share a ride with a fellow passenger other than on the Gett Black Bus 1 route (actually a Black Cab rather than a bus) in London one morning. My various Clicks, Slides, Chariots, My First Mile rides have all been Ride Solo rather than Ride Share …. until today.

In my continuing research to find the positive bottom-line secret of making App-A-Rides profitable I wandered back to Sittingbourne to have another try on Arriva’s Click; the first and original. My train was due into Sittingbourne station at 1114 and previous experience taught me to book a Click ride in advance to avoid a lengthy wait on arrival.

So I logged into the Click app to book my journey at 1015 soon after leaving Victoria. You’re given half hour time slots every 15 minutes as options so I booked 1115-1145 and hoped when the confirmation came it would be closer to 1115 than 1145 to minimise waiting.

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Not having received an update by 1108 I checked the App and was a little alarmed to find my booked slot had slipped to 1145-1215. If I’d not been a BusAndTrainUser I think I’d have cancelled and opted for a taxi waiting on the rank instead.

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But; almost as if the software knew, just as my train was pulling into Sittingbourne station I received a confirmation text that I’d be picked up … in 28 minutes at 1141. So much for minimising the wait.

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Just to add to the fun, as you can see from the rather operational explanatory wording (not sure what AC means!) it would be a spare minibus (maybe number 006 or maybe number 9?) and would pick me up a short walk away from the station in Park Road rather than outside – which, when I arrived, was obviously due to extensive roadworks immediately outside the station. But no mention in the text.

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Frustratingly my minibus passed by where I was waiting in Park Road at 1135 but going in the opposite direction which I later realised was to pick another passenger up heading in the same direction as me as by 1139 it had turned round and was heading back towards me!

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As I’d made my way from the station to the designated pick up point in Park Road I saw another minibus heading into the temporary bus stand obviously scheduled for a break but it did add further to the frustration of waiting to see this.

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Eventually driver Andy arrived with the other passenger on board at 1147 (33 minutes after I’d arrived by train despite pre-booking). He managed to park by a busy junction not helped by white-van parking at the designated spot, and kindly got out to open the manually operated door in this wheelchair accessible spare vehicle on hire.

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Fortunately my fellow passenger was alighting on the route to my destination (clever bit of algorithm) so we dropped her off without needing to make a detour. Interestingly she’s in the social/healthcare profession using Click to make home visits.

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My destination in Tunstall was out of bounds due to a road closure so Andy kindly dropped me as close as he could and then he was off.

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The App software isn’t able to indicate road closures so I didn’t risk booking my return from there so instead took a walk further into Sittingbourne’s suburbs to find another location.

Park Drive/Sterling Road looked a likely spot to book from with the usual unhelpful bus stop information. And a great shame too, as I found out after returning home, a bus on Chalkwell’s route 9 would have picked me up just 15 minutes later from this stop on one of its 5-7 journeys per day and taken me direct to the town centre.

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In the event I had better luck with my return booking. At 1202 a minibus was just 11 minutes away.

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And it turned out to be so. Driver Daniel was very friendly; been driving with Click for around a month and enjoying the change from running a newsagent.

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As we chatted away I detected we were actually heading south along Borden Lane towards Borden rather than north towards Sittingbourne’s town centre. ‘We’ve got another pick up’ Daniel explained. I’m thinking it’s just as well I’d not planned a tight connection for a train at the station.

We made the pick up in Borden and headed towards Tesco where the passenger wanted dropping off, not before he’d affirmed with Daniel the air conditioning wasn’t working as he bid us farewell.

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It wasn’t long before we arrived at my chosen town centre destination (a Pizza Hut car park!) probably about five minutes later due to the Borden deviation so not a huge inconvenience on what would have been a direct seven minute journey at most. But on the other hand more than a 50% increase in journey time was a bit of a downer.

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So for the first time I’ve shared a ride share, and twice, in one day, and to be honest it wasn’t painful. But notwithstanding this, I can’t see how Arriva made any money from either trip I made today. The outward journey cost me £3.75 for the 2.8 mile ride. It took around ten minutes. A bit pricey at £7.50 return (if I’d gone both ways); although you currently get £10 worth of Click credit for handing over £8.50 in advance. (Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up doesn’t require a deposit and just deducts what is currently a flat £2.50 fare from a pre-registered bank/credit card as each trip is made.)

My return trip today cost £2.50 being slightly shorter (as booked) at 1.7 miles although in the event the distance was greater due to the pick up.

There are of course no reduced prices for children or teenagers and no concessions are taken. It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in Liverpool’s much more price sensitive bus market when Click begins there in three weeks. It looks as though the requirement for credit will be waived: ‘click, pay and go’ as the tweet promotes.

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My experience today has not given me any further clues as to how this business model will succeed. It looks a sure fire money loser to me. Great to grab the headlines. Great to be seen to innovate. Great to be giving something different a go. But make a profit? No more likely than running rural buses which are being steadily withdrawn ironically as App-A-Rides are being introduced. Maybe, just maybe, they could have an application in rural areas as a halfway mode between a taxi and a bus, but someone is going to have to fund such a service and with local authorities strapped for cash and seniors expecting free travel, it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French      7th August 2018

A Pick Me Up for Oxford

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Well done Oxford Bus. I’m all for innovation and trying new things. And it’s time someone had a real go at beating UBER at their own loss making game of undermining the taxi trade. So I’m pleased to see Phil Southall and his Oxford Bus team joining in the fun and games with a brand new demand responsive minibus service across a large eastern arc of the city. It launched on Monday 25th June 2018.

I wrote in the May 2018 Buses magazine about the financial futility of these new ride-sharing app-based demand-responsive small-bus-come-big-taxi operations, but that doesn’t mean I’m against companies trying out the idea. I just hope they’re doing so with their bank accounts wide open. And my big plea is for honest assessments of the results so we can all learn. Cut the PR hype and those unbelievable ridership figures banded about at conferences and in the trade press. They simply don’t add up.

I can only base my judgement on my own travel experiences. I’ve tried them all: Arriva’s Click in Sittingbourne, RATP Dev’s Slide in Bristol, McGills Connect&Go in Wemyss Bay, Ford Motor Company’s Chariot in London, and just the other week First Bus with CityFox taxis launched MyFirstMile in Bristol and now with Oxford Bus and their new PickMeUp we have Arriva announcing a soon to launch second Click for Liverpool.

Pointedly on every ride I’ve been the only passenger picked up. It’s been a delightful personal taxi ride but in a much-more-costly-to-operate small bus. On some trips I’ve had to wait far longer than convenient for the bus to arrive; rarely has it come in an impressively quick time (read on for yesterday’s wow factor in Oxford). I’ve paid introductory promotional fares which are amazingly cheap. I’ve paid eye watering post promotional prices which seem no cheaper than standard taxi rates and far more than standard bus fares.

The problem with these operations in a nutshell is this. If they become popular with lots of passengers, as they must for commercial success, it means necessarily a longer wait for me and my journey becoming unattractively protracted with route deviations for pick ups/drop offs. If I’m paying taxi style fares, I’ll soon get cheesed off and opt for the bespoke personal service a taxi provides. On the other hand if, as all my experiences to date have been, I’m the only passenger, then it’s just not viable to be running 17 seater minibuses and certainly not if the fares are closer to bus type rates.

The wait for a taxi or bus can be critical especially for those personal journeys that can’t be planned well in advance. Most towns (where these DRT schemes are trialling) have lots of taxis zipping around but only a handful of minibuses. Bus companies can’t afford to have expensive to operate vehicles waiting on street corners just in case I launch the app. Yet, I don’t want to have to wait too long before I’m picked up. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. It may be early days, but I see no evidence from Clicking, Sliding and Charioting that the business model is working. Whatever that model is.

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Pleasingly yesterday’s first day experiences in Oxford were the best yet. After a false start where the usual block message from software company, Via, appeared – I’ve had the same trouble three times on Click in Sittingbourne – alleging all the seats have been taken as it’s so busy – complete tosh of course – once again, as Phil admitted, teething problems meant a driver’s iPad had been inadvertently logged off, but a message of this kind, knowing to be false does nothing for the credibility of the system. Via need to be a touch more honest and just say: “we can’t get a vehicle to you at the moment”.

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Having sorted this teething problem out, a PickMeUp bus arrived twenty minutes later. Had it not been for the introductory promotional fare of £2.50; had I not been trialling the new service, I’d have taken one of the many taxis queuing outside the station for my journey. However, Ryan the driver was superb. Smartly attired and very friendly. It was a lovely ride.

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A 17 seat brand new minibus all to myself – just as well as the Mercedes Sprinters are notorious for their cramped legroom and awkward wheel arches. They really are of questionable suitability for carrying passengers.

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Full marks to PickMeUp for my second journey. I’d made it to John Radcliffe Hospital and summoned up a ride across to Blackbird Leys – a journey for which there’s no convenient direct bus. Impressively within four minutes I was boarding Marion’s bus. It was a good job I was alert to spot the Satnav on the app wasn’t bringing the bus into the Hospital’s bus station where I was waiting and luckily I was agile enough to make the quick two-three minute dash to the adjacent residential road for the pick up (I spotted a cut through rather than track the circuitous dotted line recommended on the map). Had I been less physically able, or not so alert that would have been a problem. But four minutes was my most impressively short wait yet for a DRT style bus as was the precise expected and confirmed twenty minutes for the journey across to Blackbird Leys. And all for £2.50. A true bargain and totally in the spirit of these loss making ride-sharing innovative ventures!

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Good luck Phil with this project. I reckon of all the trials this one has the best chance of success. How about a touch of integration with Oxford’s high profile big buses? Maybe some joined up ticketing and fare offers so that it truly is an integrated transport option for those wanting to give up driving cars around the city? I reckon that really would be a compelling offer. Enough to send UBER packing perhaps.

Roger French      26th June 2018