What would transport systems look like if they were designed by users? From the Carillion collapse to controversy about bus and rail fare rises, the public discourse in 2018 has been more about who should deliver transport infrastructure and services, than what should be delivered. The trust in transport created through daily service delivery by millions of transport workers needs to be backed up with a stronger focus on customers.
Transport markets are not currently constructed socially. When Firstbus raised their ticket prices in Glasgow in January 2018 there were howls of protest from the City Council about the impacts on low wage earners. To construct the bus market socially the bus operators must gain the support of the local authority to their pricing strategy, and the Council must work constructively with the operators to ensure population needs are met. When Firstbus say one thing to the public, and the Council say something different there are no winners.
Current transport service design is commonly incoherent. The current service offer could be much better if packaged with information, customer promises and guarantees. Rail operators have started to address the gaps such as with Virgin Rail’s automatic delay repay scheme. However most providers do not yet seek to compensate customers when target levels of performance are not reached. Good governance of transport through a time of rapid social change requires the marketplaces to be reframed socially around the needs of people. In time, this can cover all travel needs including performance standards for maximum delays due to road congestion, guaranteed space in car parks and adherence to bus schedules.
There are currently many claims being made about how market driven service design solutions could help, perhaps retailing transport or even mobility as packaged services. However, these approaches have yet to offer packages that successfully frame equitable, efficient and inclusive markets, far less make a profit. Carillion won the 2017 Queen’s award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development by describing how it was committed to building trust amongst clients, developing an ethical supply chain, and investing in people. Yet, the practice of the company since 2013 has been to impose a 120 day payment policy on suppliers, often transferring risks to suppliers less able to manage those risks. Carillion management appear to have been more skilled at ticking boxes for investors and public procurement than following through promises into practice. Government departments suggest that their procurement strategy was resilient to Carillion’s collapse, such as Transport Scotland’s assertions about the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road, but the hundreds of small suppliers in Carillion’s supply chain will not necessarily see protecting government as analogous with protecting the whole of society.
What could be the foundations of more socially constructed transport marketplaces? Perhaps the most widespread mistake has been to seek to define the social foundations in the volume of travel. Most travel is derived from the need to access work, leisure and other opportunities. Successful and sustained approaches have relied on reframing transport markets around efficient and equitable supply rather than just demand. The Office of the Road and Rail Regulator’s December 2017 benchmarking report shows the sort of travel time and cost data by location and user group that could be used to frame transport markets. Journey times and costs are increasingly available as a matter of record from many digital sources, and transport authorities could make better use of such data to manage and deliver better performance.
Trust is built when promises are made and kept. Following the value chain to manage the things that matter to customers allows everyone to win. A good start would be simple low cost solutions that can be implemented now. For example, bus operators could promise the bus will run on schedule and automatically compensate customers if promises are not fulfilled. There is nothing complicated, expensive or difficult about encouraging travellers to use smartphone apps to pay for travel so that customers can be offered guaranteed maximum journey times and compensation if journeys are delayed. It is also easy to enable equitable approaches by giving people who need help with travel costs travel vouchers that can be cashed in with the operators they choose. The success of these approaches has been repeatedly proven in pilots and they could be mainstreamed relatively easily.
When people are given a greater stake in transport markets, trust is nurtured. Well informed customers making smart choices grow the markets faster. Delivering on such promises also defines a customer centric management focus. By overseeing supply agreements for the whole service, essential but neglected delivery functions achieve a higher priority such as information, customer relationship management, and keeping bus lanes clear.
The current corporate governance culture rewards ticking boxes over practical promises. Carillion paying after 120 days whilst participating in government prompt payment schemes is the tip of an iceberg that is damaging the transport sector. Corporate reports of some major transport operators glorifying the pursuit of greed are as unedifying as the political ideologies glorifying the pursuit of power. The transport controversies in January 2018 could be a wake-up call to refocus delivery on people.
This article was first published in Transport Times in February 2018