an oxford innovation: take the bus that comes!

Oxford_City_Birdseye Oxford, England seems to have taken a step toward a more North American way of thinking about transit.

In the "deregulated" ideology governing public transit in the UK outside London, the ideal bus line is a "commercial" one, consisting of two or more bus companies running on the same street competing for passengers.  Customers are supposed to feel empowered to choose between Joe's Buses and Jim's Buses, though in practice they're likely to feel frustrated when they hold a Joe's Buses monthly ticket and therefore have to let Jim's bus go by.  The idea that the customer might just want to get where she's going, and thus just wants to get on whatever bus comes first, never fit the ideology very well.

So I was struck by this news from longtime UK reader Peter Brown:

I thought you might be interested in a significant development in the UK deregulated bus scene.  Starting on Sunday 24 July Stagecoach and Oxford Bus Company cease competing on Oxford's main bus corridors and start a co-ordinated network branded 'Oxford SmartZone'.
This arrangment was brokered by Oxfordshire County Council (the transport authority) using new powers introduced under the Labour Government whereby local authorities can negotiate a cessation of bus competetion where they judge that the free market is not providing the best service to the public. 
Oxford has been a major success story since deregulation in 1986, in that two large bus companies compete vigorously on all main corridors as was intended by the legislation.  Elsewhere in the UK bus companies have tended to consolidate by acquisition eventually forming regional monopolies.

[JW:  Note that to say Oxford was a "success" after deregulation says nothing about whether customers were served better, though that may have been the case.  As Peter notes, the deregulation movement saw competition as the goal, not any improved mobility outcomes that supposedly flowed from it.  Clearly, too, Oxford's sky-high transit demand has nothing to do with deregulation; as Peter explains, it's a feature of the city …]

Oxford's success is due to its geography, it's historic city centre which is unsuitable for unrestrained car access, its huge student population, and a pro-public transport local government.  The result is that buses account for 50% of the modal split on journeys to/from the city centre. 

However the council wishes to expand the pedestrianised area in the city centre which would concentrate bus movements onto fewer streets to an unacceptable level.  The Council therefore brokered a co-ordinated network with fewer (but larger) buses on the main corridors, reducing bus movements but maintaining capacity.  The alternative was to remove bus access to the city centre forcing passengers to transfer to shuttle services to access the pedestrianised core. 
More information on SmartZone can be found at:
You will see both companies have the same network map.  The timetables on each site show the same times but in differing formats.  Impressive frequencies until late into the evening.

North American transit advocates who think Europe Does Everything Better might want to contemplate Oxford's achievement, which is a small step toward the a simplicity that most North American transit riders take for granted.  Imagine: Your ticket can now be used on the next bus that comes!  Since this situation arises directly from a "deregulation success," it would seem to question the whole UK deregulation model, though in this case the shift is led by the companies themselves.  I suppose it could be called virtuous (and legal) collusion, and like the elimination of fare penalties between New York's buses and subways, the result is likely to be higher ridership all around.  So what were we competing about exactly?

UPDATE:  In Peter's comment, some useful updates:

Here is a local press report on the first few days. It appears that the 25% reduction in buses has been noticed, if not the fact that the new fleet are double deckers and thus capacity has been maintained.  [JW:  I'd expect that in such a bus-congested corridor, effective frequency has been maintained as well.]  For US readers I have also found an interview with the Commercial Director of one of the UK's best bus companies that has really thrived since deregulation by focussing on what passengers want.

22 Responses to an oxford innovation: take the bus that comes!

  1. EngineerScotty July 23, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    If bus operations are to be privatised (or privatized for us yankees), you could do worse than the franchise arrangements found in Hong Kong. Of course, it’s highly regulated, with fares and schedules set by the government, and the question of which private company rides what bus is seamless to the user, so it may not make free market puritans happy.
    But as far as service quality goes, ’tis quite nice.
    (Of course, dwell times on HK busses frequently suck; partly because double-deckers take longer to board than articulated busses; and partly because there’s so many busses one bus often has to wait at a bus stop for another bus to get out of its way…)

  2. John July 24, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    It sounds like some higher capacity transit is needed in oxford. Time to think about rail?

  3. Angus Grieve-Smith July 24, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    I can personally attest that customers were served well. Service was fast and professional. Former competitors Greyhound and Peter Pan have done the same thing since 1999 on the Northeast Corridor in the US.
    Incidentally, John, there is a train between Oxford and London. These buses are a supplement to the train, making different intermediate stops and arriving in different parts of London. They also go directly to Heathrow Airport, which requires a transfer on the train.

  4. Angus Grieve-Smith July 24, 2011 at 6:27 am #

    Oh, these are local buses! Well, yeah, they should have had a single fare system a long time ago.

  5. Angus Grieve-Smith July 24, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Interestingly, it looks like they once had horse-drawn trams, but these were never electrified, and then bustituted in 1914.

  6. Jarrett at July 24, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    @John.  Fewer larger buses are meeting the need for now.  The buses converge on the main corridors from several outlying areas, something rail can't do efficiently.

  7. Zoltán July 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Given the government at the time of deregulation, it’s likely that ideologies of private sector competition always being good were part of the decision to deregulate local buses. One of the most powerful given reasons for the decision, however, was a quite sensible one – allocative efficiency. That is, the efficient allocation of resources to where they’re needed, i.e., where actual and/or latent bus usage is highest, as opposed to cross-subsidy supporting areas where usage is lower.
    In that, it has generally succeeded.It was a surprise to me when I first visited a few American cities to see the level of overcrowding and passups common on inner city routes, and the amount of coverage service provided to far-flung suburbs. Being from Britain, I’m used to adequate service on main roads in inner city areas to provide most passengers with a seat. Meanwhile, local authorities are pressured to provide coverage service efficiently by local authorities, often leading to several low frequency routes being combined into one very slow but adequately frequent route.
    Nevertheless, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater of cross-subsidy. That is, among other things, integration of schedules/fares between different bus routes, integration schedules/fares between buses and rail and the possibility of a city planning out a complete network. And never, ever are there free transfers. The structure of the British bus industry since deregulation has been based upon consumers thinking “I want to take a bus”, rather than “I want to get from a to b, by whatever vehicle(s) of one mode or another will get me there soonest”.

  8. JJH1 July 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    As a Canadian living along the Oxford Road corridor in Manchester (one of Europe’s busiest bus routes, with the same privatized model) I was shocked at the inefficiencies created by multiple operators running the same routes.
    Peter Brown captures most of the issues, but I might add that Transport for Greater Manchester’s Journey Planner will list the various operators, but it’s a toss up which bus will show up for your planned journey. If your trip involves a comparatively low frequency route, and you have a pass for Joe’s Bus, you may end up paying cash for Jim’s when it shows up instead. Not an ideal situation for low-income, captive users.
    The other issue is that larger operators can under cut the smaller ones on monthly pass price, and the result is severely imbalanced loads, with one operator’s buses sitting empty at layover points and another’s running behind schedule, overloaded.
    To be fair, the corridor has almost metro frequencies and all the available passes are pretty cheap by North American standards. But as a bus customer, I might pay more for a faster journey in a less crowded bus. Since nationalization seems unlikely, hopefully Oxford County Council’s approach catches on outside London.

  9. Andre L. July 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    I think they should have kept competitive scheduling, with some sort of fare integration (maybe with smartcards).
    Initially, such mode might be seen as positive. However, soon one would find the bus schedules subject to political pressure, like more service to an area that doesn’t warrant frequent service based on its market demand.

  10. Chris M July 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    I’ve lived in the same corridor to which JJH1 refers and it’s evident that areas where the competition success criteria have been met are exactly those where the service is poor. The system rewards operators to provide a bad service. In addition to the ticketing issue, the major operator (Stagecoach) has aquired a second ‘cheap’ brand which operates like an unofficial jitney, refusing to move unless a certain number of passengers have boarded. It’s one thing to not be able to ride the next bus, it’s even worse to not be sure that the next bus will be faster than waiting for one of a different brand.

  11. Tom West July 25, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    The worst part of the deregulated bus system in the UK is that it actively prevents multi-operator tickets. If Joe’s Buses and Jim’s Buses have a joint ticket scheme, that is deemed “anti-competitive” – because between them they have a monopoloy! (And this it hinders a third operatot picthing in…)
    The way round this is for the local government to run universal ticket scheme valid on any operator, current or future, and divide up revenue accordingly…. which is exactly what happens with British trains!

  12. Al Dimond July 25, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…
    I’m no transit history expert, but I know the various L lines in Chicago were privately owned back when public transit was a profitable proposition. Fare systems weren’t compatible, you couldn’t always transfer between companies, and disputes between operators, railroads, and other construction interests made service unreliable at times. I’d hardly call the system a failure, but you’d think in the 21st Century we could at least improve on the model.
    Everyone knows that free markets aren’t free — it takes effort and investment to maintain them. If you want free markets for ideological reasons you may not care whether they’re effectively competitive or whether they actually provide benefits. But if you care about the results, it doesn’t take long to figure out that a common system for tickets and transfers would make for sharper competition over operations and routing. If you hold a Joe’s pass, and thus use Joe’s for a trip where Jim’s would be better, then competition has made for a less efficient system. With common ticketing the interests of the operators are aligned with the efficient operation of the system.

  13. Lauri Kangas July 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    To be blunt I don’t think Europe Does Everything Better arguments for public transport usually include Great Britain. Admittedly the train system is extensive and London is well served. Apart from these many cities have thoroughly inadequate services. The remaining successful systems are much more likely to exist in spite of bus deregulation than because of it.
    Public transport in Continental Europe is usually managed by the public sector. Running the vehicles and infrastructure maintenance may be contracted out. In some cases operators are granted more freedom to plan their routes and schedules, but overall coordination and fares are still handled by public authorities.

  14. Alon Levy July 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Lauri Kangas wrote exactly what I was going to say. As one of the most fervent advocates of Europe Does It Better, let me say that I usually exclude the UK from this, and that my Platonic ideal of Europe is closer to Switzerland and the rest of Germanic Europe. In a German Verkehrsverbund integrated tickets are standard, even across different operators.

  15. Andre L. July 27, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    I think that competition is like democracy: a value on itself, something you promote, and then deal with unintended consequences. It should be not opened to questioning whether a dictatorial transit system in which the government decides and imposes routes, fares etc. is acceptable. We should be discussing how we can promote efficient competition to serve the public.

  16. Chris, Public Transport July 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    As I see it there are two major problems with this approach:
    1) Operators will only serve the most profitable routes, and operate them in the most profitable way possible. Lifeline services in low density areas will have to be totally subsidized by the government. There will be less of an incentive to offer discount fares, transfers, etc. This has been kind of discussed above.
    2) Passengers will not be able to have a comprehensive understanding of all the choices available to them because there is likely not one place where all transit information is easily available. Residents of the Sydney, Australia metropolitan area encounter this with the transit maps put out by the public operator ominously warning that “Sydney buses do not operate in this area”, ignoring all the private operators that provide service. On my website I have begun to explore this topic, with more to come: .
    It sounds like the Oxford Smartzone is a welcome move in the direction of government coordination to ensure an efficient transit network that can readily be understood by the average person.

  17. Pete July 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    As a UK citizen I agree with the comments re Europe Does It Better not including the UK. Generally UK public transport does not compare well to European models. However, it has been 25 years since bus deregulation, and we still have comprehensive bus service throughout the country. The quality varies (as it did under state / municipal ownership). I think a lot of this depends on the management of bus companies. Those with enthusiastic and innovative people stand out against those that play it safe and offer a no frills service.
    The developments in Oxford are very interesting. It is the first example of a local government using new powers to get commercial bus companies to co-operate rather than compete, and will be closely watched by the industry I’m sure.
    Here is a local press report on the first few days. It appears that the 25% reduction in buses has been noticed, if not the fact that the new fleet are double deckers and thus capacity has been maintained.
    For US readers I have also found an interview with the Commercial Director of one of the UK’s best bus companies that has really thrived since deregulation by focussing on what passengers want:

  18. Morgan Wick July 29, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    On this topic, there is a sense in which the better North American way, with its centralized, government-mandated approach, is more European, and the British way, with its emphasis on competition, is more American, or at least United States-ian.

  19. teme July 30, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    OK, now I understand where the silliness I ran into some time ago comes from.
    So I was reading this paper from a think tank, well meaning I believe, with various ideas on how to improve transit that to put it diplomaticly where kind of beside the point. But there wass this one idea that I really thought was a joke: In one Finnish city there are plans to build a light rail line, and the think tank suggested that instead of subcidizing it or busses, introduce competition between light rail bussess and give passengers vouchers, so they can choose on which mode to spend it.
    Now I won’t get into all absurdities in this particular proposal, but what would be the benefit? Well I would assume that we would know what people want, ie. how many passengers use each service. Using a novel new invention called measuring passenger numbers we would know that. And I think it is pretty obvious how that would turn out, but let’s not go there.
    But of course we want competition, because well it is good. As such, like babies. Fine, let’s introduce another high tech gizmo called the voucher 2.0. With vouchers 1.0 passengers could just partially pay their trip, but vouchers 2.0 are actually financial instruments used to pay for travel services purchased for the price passengers had to pay on top of their vouchers. Let’s call them tickets. The company running the service can then cash them in, they get more tickets, they get more money. Yay, competition! Come to think of it, this is pretty standard on any sane transit system with competing service providers works.
    And btw, 50% modal share to city center sounds pretty bad to me.

  20. David Oleesky July 31, 2011 at 2:43 am #

    The situation in Oxford is atypical for the UK, where overall there is a continued steady decline in bus use. This has recently been exacerbated by cuts in central government grants to local authorities, leading to many evening and Sunday services being slashed, e.g. in the counties of Shropshire (where there are virtually no services outside Mon-Sat 7am-7pm) and Derbyshire (where Trent Barton, one of the more innovative bus companies referred to above, operates).

  21. Matthew August 8, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    I work in Oxford and have long been annoyed by the various operators having different tickets. This is also apparent when going from the city to nearby small towns, such as Woodstock and Bicester. Round trip tickets usually cost about 5-10% more than one way, but this ties you into a single operator that may only come by once every 30 minutes or so. Another big issue is congestion on High Street. Even with double decker buses, High Street is packed with exhaust belching, noisy buses, both local and intercity (check it out on google maps). Oxford operates a well-coordinated park and ride system, but the streets in the city center are at capacity even with buses. I don’t know if 2-3 car double decker streetcars running from the train station to East Oxford along High Street would solve the congestion problem, but it sure would be nice to reduce the noise levels.

  22. Nathanael Nerode March 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    The return of the 19th century! Private companies, competition, organization of private monopolies… what’s to like?!?
    Anyway, regarding Matthew’s comment on Oxford: Companies used to mave *triple-decker* streetcars; you can just about keep them stable, which you can’t with buses. Oxford probably has enough local circulator demand for it to be worth running those on the High Street!