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When the West Midlands Combined Authority noticed a drop off in the number of senior citizens using its free bus service, it asked Bartlett researcher Jens Kandt to find out why.
Credit: Brunel Johnson for Unsplash
Between 2009 and 2016, the West Midlands Combined Authority saw a decline of 25% in bus ridership from those entitled to the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme, which gives older people free bus travel. In transport terms, a 25% decline in patronage is huge. The local authority wanted to know what was going on, so they approached The Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) with a proposal for a pilot project.
“The West Midlands is one of the few local authorities where nearly all concessionary bus trips are made using smart cards, so they had all this data but not the resources to fully analyse it,” says Project Lead Dr Jens Kandt, a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Data Science at CASA.
Kandt’s interest is in sustainable transport systems and the council were posing a conundrum: freely available transport had always been part of the policy for enabling independent living for senior citizens, but what if it wasn’t working as well as it might?
These different groups clustered spatially. Regular users, as expected, tended to be in central areas, but there were also surprises.”
The result was the project ‘Inclusive and Healthy Mobility: Understanding Trends in Concessionary Travel in the West Midlands’. Funded by an ESRC grant, Kandt and his team collaborated with Transport for West Midlands for a year, analysing the boarding patterns of nearly 400,000 anonymised accounts of pass holders from November 2010 to August 2016. The first task was understanding that 25% decline.
“Because this is a scheme for the over 60s, some people disappear from it because they die,” explains Kandt. “So the first thing we did was compare the data against mortality rates and also migration statistics.” The increase since 2010 in the eligible age for the scheme was also factored in. Taken together, this reduced the gap to 10% – “still significant in transport terms,” says Kandt.
Then they looked at smart card data, identifying who were the daily users, the regular and irregular users; the people who rapidly abandoned the system and never used it again, and those who made a slow transition out. In total, the team found six groups. “These different groups clustered spatially,” says Kandt. “Regular users, as expected, tended to be in central areas, but there were also surprises – citizens living in deprived areas tended to withdraw from the system more than expected. What that means, we don’t yet know – but we are hoping to find out.”
Credit: Alistair Leak / CASA
Credit: Alistair Leak / CASA
The team distinguished their findings as either having social, health-related or structural causes (i.e. changes in the transport system itself). For example, they found that demand for the bus goes down where the tram system – which was extended into Birmingham city centre in 2016 – operates. “In this case the decline of the bus might actually be revealing improved connectivity.”
Other factors also had to be considered: “The launch of Uber in the area in 2015 coincides with some of the decline,” says Kandt. “People might also be using online shopping more often. We can’t prove it but some of the patterns we’ve observed make this seem plausible if we compare them with an ONS report that shows that the use of online shopping for the over 60s has gone up significantly.”
The next phase of the project will look to confirm these suspicions. But it has already provided the local authority with an interactive dashboard (created by CASA with support from the Bartlett Innovation Fund), enabling them to access and visualise the data.
“The concessionary scheme is the largest standing item in their budget,” says Kandt. “They want to understand the benefits of their spending. At the strategic level, they want to know if the scheme is working in the best way with their other activity to support bus passengers, and what needs to be changed. At a planning and operations level, knowing who travels and when, helps them understand demand for their services.”
Kandt says the work has already influenced policy and thinking. But inclusive mobility is a long-term project: the plan now is to build a data resource that covers senior citizen bus patronage in the region for up to nine years.
The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on the science of cities, applying it to city planning, policy and architecture in the pursuit of making our cities better places to live in. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/casa
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