Colectivos norteños: a thought experiment in local transport service provision

Colectivo bus by Jonathan Lidbeck (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jondissed/)

In my research, I’m working to understand the dynamics of infrastructural change, and the relationship between infrastructural systems and the services that they support. As such, my eye was caught by a piece from the Guardian’s John Harris, which highlights the ongoing decline of that least glamourous of British transport services, the bus:

The story of how this happened goes back to the Thatcher government’s disastrous devolution of buses, and takes you into a murky world of acronyms and arcana. But the basic outlines are simple enough. Around one in five bus journeys are publicly subsidised but, thanks to funding cuts, the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) reckons that about two thousand services and routes have been lost since 2010. In 2012 20% was cut from the bus service operators grant, which campaigners worry will be in Osborne’s sights in the build-up to November. If its annual £350m contribution were to go, transport experts reckon that up to 10% of services would be cut, and fares would once again increase: the UK’s record on ticket prices, needless to say, is already characterised by serial above-inflation hikes and a clear sense of private monopolies abusing their power.

Three years ago I moved to Woodhouse, on the south-eastern edge of Sheffield. Woodhouse is the southern terminus of the 52 bus route, and the second train station out of town on the Sheffield to Lincoln line. When I arrived, a single ticket into town on the bus was £1.50; it’s currently £1.80. The train fare has increased by a similar degree; there is, at best, one passenger train per hour in either direction on this line, and during peak periods the old Pacer trains are massively oversubscribed — “packt like sardines in a crushd tin box“, you might say. One thing is very clear: these services are not going to get any cheaper or more comprehensive any time soon. And while one is keen to support greening initiatives wherever possible, one has to wonder whether the bus companies got the better end of the deal by spending that subsidy money on fresh new fleets of wifi-enabled buses, rather than, y’know, actual service provision.

Nonetheless, the past is past — and the future doesn’t look likely to provide the possibility of a massive cash influx to public transport networks outside of London, either. Harris also mentions the vestigial stumps of recent Tory gestures toward localism and devolution, the as-yet unexploited legislative capacity for cities and regions to go their own way on matters like transport — which, in Manchester at least, seems to be paying dividends. But he also mentions money, or the lack of it, which would seemingly stymie the possibility of any substantive action in a city like Sheffield.

So here’s a question: imagine you secure the new mayorship of Sheffield, and with it secure the power to integrate local transport, but you have a budget that’s shrinking faster than your timetables are. What might you do? After all, the mobility of people and material things is crucial to economic activity at all scales — a not-at-all minor issue that appears to have been forgotten or overlooked in our present enthusiasm for the sudden mobility of information. (Those wi-fi buses, amirite?)

What particularly interests me is finding alternative assemblages of infrastructures, technologies and practices for the provision of existing services — so, in this case, the question is “how do I provide bus-like services without being continuing to pour subsidy money into the baby-bird maws of the transport operators?” What combinations of systems and technologies and organisational strategies might supplement and eventually replace those contracted services? How could you get Sheffield to help Sheffield help itself?

The world is full of interesting and inventive precedents — especially the developing world, where decades of absentee governance left communities to kludge up solutions to their own problems, resulting in vernacular (and often sub-legal) and informal systems that are nonetheless remarkably persistent and consistent. I’m thinking in particular of the urban and suburban services I encountered while travelling in Mexico in the early Noughties; known there as colectivos, similar systems exist in cities all over the world. The average Mexican colectivo was a small people-carrier (often an old Volkswagen camper-van, perhaps with the sliding side door removed so as to provide easier access, not to mention a breeze while moving) which would run up and down a particular route across the town or city, picking up anyone who flagged them down, and dropping them off pretty much wherever they wanted along the route. Rates appeared to be flexible and negotiable on the basis of distance travelled and ability to pay (I’m very confident that I paid a supplement appropriate to my status as a European tourist!); the vehicles sometimes lacked the prominent license badges of legitimate taxis, and were quite clearly in many cases privately owned and long overdue for a thorough service. Colectivos don’t run to a schedule, just to a route; there are no official stops, though certain street corners become recognised as such without any need for signs of shelters.

Many, though by no means all, of the colectivos I saw or rode in would probably have failed a UK MOT many times over; many were licensed and legitimate, but there were plenty whose operators were fairly obviously grabbing opportunity by the cojones, too. But the point is not to replicate a system exactly: rather, the point is to extract the essence of the thing and see how it might be recreated in a different context. So our hypothetical Sheffield mayor might institute something a bit like the taxi licensing system, but for a service more like the colectivos: a real no-frills service provided by individual operators might be much better placed to cope with variations in demand while keeping overheads ultra-low, and would also likely reinstate the phenomenon of drivers intimately familiar with their route and its idiosyncrasies.

Transportation in particular suffers from what network theorists call the “last mile” problem: busy major routes offer the potential of profits based on economies of scale, but getting one’s network sufficiently granular that it can route packages (or passengers) to a specific address rather than to a general locality makes a lot of the efficiencies of the network-as-a-whole fall away. In other words, an operator providing national- or even regional-scale service will unavoidably experience the provision of hyper-local service as costly and problematic. It’s too hard to get a feel for demand, too wasteful to run underused services, too much effort for too little profit; the corporate model scales up well, but scales down very poorly (as anyone who’s had to rely on Royal Mail’s declining levels of household delivery over the past few decades knows only too well).

Way back in the 18th century, most hyper-local freight carriage was performed by “private carriers” — local folk with the occasional use of a horse and perhaps a cart, who knew the area intimately, and for whom taking an extra load a little out of their way would be easily (and profitably) slotted in to whatever other work they had going on. Mile for mile, local private carriage was always the most expensive leg of the journey, and that problem pertains in freight and passenger transport systems even to this day: the higher the ratio of nodes served to edges travelled, the more routing-work (and hence redundant capacity) that particular subnetwork will require. This is the phenomenon that leads to the ablation of timetables and services Harris describes: when times are hard, you prune back the fine growth of the network and concentrate on the trunk routes.

Colectivo operators would have no access to the economies of scale available to a corporation such as Stagecoach, of course, and they would have to meet their own vehicle maintenance costs and licensing fees out of their fares. I’m no quantitative analyst, but I’d imagine a working business plan for colectivos in and around Sheffield would rely on similar fare levels to the buses (although they might be able and willing to be a bit more granular about it, with shorter distances cheaper, and longer ones more expensive). Point being: colectivos probably couldn’t offer a service that was cheaper to the user than what is currently available from the bus companies.

But in our (justified, but increasingly hysterical) concerns over cash-money cost, we end up overlooking the non-money value of taking hyper-local networks back into local hands. Sure, people will still need to pay to travel — but in doing so, they sustain a business in whose best interests it would be to further tailor that service to local requirements, rather than to distant shareholder demands. Small operators can also be more flexible, especially in a climate of careful deregulation: colectivos could carry packages as well as people, deviate from routes in response to short-term changes, make bespoke arrangements and deals so as to optimise the use-value of the vehicle.

This seems, on the surface, a fairly libertarian sort of proposal. Wouldn’t it be better to return to nationalised transport systems, to state ownership of the infrastructures on which we all rely? Ultimately, I believe that would be better. But I also believe that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon, some sort of national Corbynite insurrection notwithstanding — and while the networks themselves are much in need of work, it is the withering of the services that run across those networks that are the most urgent concern. History shows clearly that the “last mile” is always the hardest and most expensive section of the network for a big commercial operator to serve well — and the cities of the global south show clearly that simple informal operations can serve them surprisingly well.

The above is just a thought-experiment, and would need a lot more testing and tweaking before being rolled out as a serious proposal — but it solves the mounting last-mile problem in a manner that requires little or no technological innovation or investment, and it specifically stimulates last-mile businesses, keeping local transport fares cycling around the local economy instead of draining away into shareholder dividends. It’s a local solution for a local issue, and — unlike the shiny technofixes and disruptive business models of Silicon Valley — it’s a simple solution with a lengthy history of success.

Is it the optimal solution, though? I have no idea — but as Harris has pointed out, the status quo clearly isn’t optimal either, and throwing more subsidy at the bus operators is not a long-term fix. We need alternatives — and as they’re not forthcoming from Westminster or the transport industry, we might as well start coming up with them ourselves.

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