BUSREPThe dilemma of user representation in public transport

From market economy to monopolies

The mass provision of public transport services in cities started as a private sector industry in the 19th century, although in most parts of Europe as well as in other developed countries these days are long gone. Urban public transport has now been provided for decades either by public sector companies or by operators working under licences granted by public authorities and hence under monopoly conditions.
As a result, typically only one service provider is available to satisfy a particular local and regional transport needs. A free choice between different modes is somewhat more common for long-distance journeys. However, the characteristics of rail, coach and air services are quite different, hence they can only in part be considered as alternatives. Intra-modal competition is quite common for air travel, but limited to a few corridors for surface transport.
Consequently, customers cannot express dissatisfaction with the service on offer by switching to another operator, because there is often only one provider. Hence the key incentive for the provider to orientate its service to the users’ needs is missing. The only alternative for them is to choose another mode - to travel by car instead of bus, air instead of rail. This is not always practical and usually not desirable from the perspective of transport policy. Furthermore, such a modal shift can have many other reasons and is thus not a suitable indicator for customer satisfaction.

Political influence

Political influence on service planning, provision and funding has always been strong. Examples are quantity and quality regulation, public service contracts, subsidies or co-funding of certain special fares. As a result, passengers could seek to influence service provision by means of the political process either through lobbying activities or by using the role of political authorities as the owners of service providers.
Passengers can try to talk directly to the relevant people and authorities or liaise with lobbying groups who do so. However, this approach is indirect and time-consuming. The chances of getting heard are linked to their position in the political system where they have to compete for attention and resources. In addition, passenger interests may well differ from those of public authorities, in particular if these are also the owners of transport companies. Furthermore, these mechanisms are not equally accessible to all parts of society.

From monopolies to market forces?

Following the EU’s concept of market liberalisation and regulatory reform, subsidies can only be paid to operators after non-discriminatory tendering procedures. A public authority assumes responsibility for planning and tendering. Hence the authority becomes the most important business partner for the provider as deficit compensation typically represents the largest individual source of revenue. Therefore the attitude taken by the authority has a major impact on future service standards and thus is of key importance also for "real" customers, the passengers.

Consumer protection

Last not least, "passenger rights" refers to another particularity of the public transport sector which has been much debated recently. The most important issue here is the treatment of passengers in case of delays and cancellations. The Civil Code normally includes obligations for service providers to offer redress and compensation in case of service malfunction. However, far-reaching exemptions have been included in special legislation for transport operators in many cases, putting passengers at a disadvantage.

User interests in the planning process

In the BUSREP project, we have structured user interests in four levels which build upon each other:
  • on the political level the competitive framework for public transport is set up and the strategic decisions on the service level are taken,
  • on the planning level, concepts for the service are developed and planned in detail including the preparation of operations and the level of spare capacity provided,
  • on the production level, these concepts are implemented, one of the main objectives being that deviations from the pre-planned pattern are kept to a minimum,
  • on the practical level, however, problems cannot be avoided and therefore one needs to think about practical solutions to problems arising from deficits in quality.