Inclusive and Healthy Mobility – Understanding Trends in Concessionary Travel in the West Midlands

The way we travel on a daily basis is intimately linked to our social experience, lifestyles, health and well-being. In most cases, we do not travel for its own sake; we rather derive the need for travel from the pursuit of activities at a different location. Scaled up to a city or region, everyday mobility can reflect the differential distribution of material and social welfare.

The aim of the ESRC project ‘Inclusive and Healthy Mobility’ is to understand current trends in bus boardings under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS) in the West Midlands Metropolitan Area. The ENCTS was introduced by the UK Department for Transport in 2001 and, since 2008, has allowed residents of pensionable age to use bus services for free outside peak hours throughout England. In the West Midlands Metropolitan Area, the scheme is managed by Transport for West Midlands (TfWM).

Since 2010, TfWM has observed a steady decline in boardings under the scheme – approximately by 25 per cent.* This trend is of major concern as it may signal the wide presence of unmet mobility needs and ensuing health and well-being implications, in particular for vulnerable persons such as disabled or elderly residents. Therefore, understanding these trends presents an urgent priority that links more widely to questions of transport, mobility and social exclusion.

The principal data source for the project comprises electronic smartcards recording every bus boarding of a concessionary pass holder. Up until late 2016, the data captured more than 470 million journeys on nearly 600 bus routes. Approximately 70 per cent of those journeys pertain to the 500,000 concessionary pass holders registered in the region.

The large volume of smartcard data permits a detailed investigation of diverse mobility trends and patterns among concessionary pass holders. Preliminary results suggest that boardings have declined particularly sharply since the beginning of 2015, and this trend appears to result from a decreasing number of bus patrons rather than fewer boardings per person. Do these findings indicate that senior residents experience unmet mobility needs? Or do senior residents use other modes in lieu of buses? If so, why, and what lessons may be learnt for transport policy?

The project is set to investigate these questions mainly through linkage of smartcard transactions to other data sources routinely held by transport agencies and other authorities, for instance UK Census Neighbourhood Statistics. In this way, we intend to identify and characterise mobility profiles of senior residents with respect to social, health, geographical, physical and service-related attributes.

As a whole, this Big Data research programme is expected to generate new insights into increasingly diverse mobility practices of senior residents. The project will not only contribute to an active academic debate on the complex relationship between transport, social exclusion, health and well-being, but it will also address this as a pressing policy challenge faced by many transport authorities in the UK today.

Jens Kandt is Research Associate at the Urban Dynamics Lab and Principal Investigator of the ESRC-funded project ‘Inclusive and Healthy Mobility – Understanding Trends in Concessionary Travel in the West Midlands’. The project is expected to generate synergies in research and policy exchange with regional stakeholders, such as Transport for West Midlands and Birmingham Council, at the Urban Dynamics Lab.

* see http://opendatawestmids.org.uk/dataset/west-midlands-bus-patronage.

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