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Demand Responsive Transport cannot be a sticking plaster for bus cuts

Former campaigner's picture
Woman sits on bus opposite wheelchair using man, laughing

As bus cuts bite across the country, many councils are replacing regular buses with bookable 'Demand Responsive Transport', or 'DRT'. Dick Fowler, a bus campaigner in Lincolnshire, wrote this guest blog for us about how Demand Responsive Transport is failing people in his area.

About 12 years ago, Lincolnshire nearly had a reasonable network of fixed-route rural bus services linking towns and market towns via some villages, plus demand-responsive Call Connect bookable minibuses for the places missed out. These were supplemented by subsidised community transport such as local Dial-A- Ride. There was generally sufficient capacity and coordination to reach medical appointments and transport connections etc.

As government startup money ended and passenger numbers stubbornly remained low, councils found this increasingly expensive and began to cut back. In 2010/2011, even some evening and weekend services on main bus routes (e.g. Lincoln –Skegness) were axed and most local Dial-a- Ride services closed. Council staff became ingenious at getting more from less, by, for example, diverting scheduled buses to carry schoolchildren. Unfortunately, each time bus times became more restricted and complex, passengers with any choice tended to give up. For example, recent changes have resulted in some folk travelling to Lincoln instead of Louth or Woodhall Spa.

‘Call Connect’ Demand Responsive Transport (‘DRT’)

However, in late 2015 Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) were poised to axe subsidised fixed-route bus services in Lincolnshire to save £2.2 - £2.8m every year. But in February 2016, the public protested and Lincolnshire MPs secured extra cash from the government at the last minute. These cuts and more will be back on the agenda before 2018. About 120 services rely on subsidy either for the whole or part service, typically early morning, evening and weekend services. Depending on which services were to be axed, this could have (for example) virtually cut off Mablethorpe, Louth or Bardney and almost eliminated buses between Newark and Lincoln and between Stamford and Grantham. This is only a snapshot, and many other services were reduced.

The council also spend £2m-£3.5m per year subsidising and operating Call Connect demand-responsive transport (known as ‘DRT’) i.e., bookable minibuses here. LCC intend this to be the core of future rural bus services here, and are in the vanguard of a stampede towards DRT by cash-strapped rural councils across the country. There is no doubt that DRT is a boon to many and goes some way towards meeting a minimal definition of local authorities legal duty to provide socially necessary transport.

However, in June 2016, national passenger organisation Transport Focus produced a review of demand responsive transport, not involving Lincolnshire, looking at bookable minibuses, a community-run service and shared taxis. The following are extracts and quotes from the report:

“Introduction of DRT tends to result in even less frequent services, shorter time at destination and restricted destinations. This limits social and leisure activities of passengers.”

“Having to book removes possibility of making spontaneous journeys…. Some passengers are unable to make a spontaneous or onward journey”

“Some passengers are finding it difficult to book a service at a time they require as the service is already booked."

“Assumption that the service is targeted at other people/people not like me, which impacts on younger public transport users and workers”.

Transport Focus concluded that ‘some kinds of demand responsive transport can provide an attractive service, especially for older and disabled people, but it is not clear that it currently offers a good alternative to conventional bus services for other transport users, especially younger people’.

No substitute for regular bus services

Local authorities, including LCC, are making strategic changes by increments and misrepresenting these as routine service revisions. Such is the official inertia and hubris behind DRT, that dissent is unwelcome. LCC and some other local authorities are deliberately not engaging with the public over legitimate concerns, preferring to ignore problems and impose solutions. A witness contributing to the recent House of Lords critical review of the working of Equality Act 2010 and Disability pointed out that Gloucestershire had imposed bus changes without apparently having complied with their Public Service Equality Duty (‘PSED’).

Crucially, in rural Lincolnshire DRT, is becoming primarily an overstretched shopping service, geared to taking a stereotype of older passengers with plenty of time to the nearest market towns and facilities within roughly a 10 mile radius. Younger people, the active elderly and workers are being sidelined. DRT users increasingly have to refuse or miss appointments or leave, for example, group health sessions part way through. This model of DRT does not do the same job as many rural fixed bus routes, which joined towns (via villages) typically about 10-30 miles apart and enabled onward connections e.g. to get to jobs, schools, main hospitals or trains.

An elderly bus user who needs to attend hospital regularly summarised the situation thus: “The council does not understand the crippling cost of distance”. This is not correct. Councils understand but do not wish to pay for it.