In this inaugural episode, Peter Durkin speaks to David Begg: author, academic, entrepreneur, CEO of Transport Times, and all-round transport whizz. They discuss reduced patronage on public transport, and why the industry needs a marketing exercise to recover from Covid-19. Now we've had a 'live demonstration' of what life is like with clean air, can we continue the positive environmental momentum towards a greener future? Is the case for cars stronger now, or weaker? Will we learn from our mistakes when it comes to autonomous vehicles?
In episode 2, Peter Durkin meets Martin Harris, MD of two of the country's leading bus businesses. They discuss approaching the transport industry from an outsider's perspective, and why cross-pollination between sectors is essential for maintaining fresh thinking and innovation. A vocal advocate for sustainability, Martin explains why his philosophy is a personal one; and predicts that, post-Covid-19, we will either create systemic environmental change, or revert back 30 years. The pandemic has forced smarter collaboration and stronger culture: how can we continue to co-create solutions with local government and unions? When it comes to customer service, will technology bolster human efforts, replace them – or destroy them? And has the public perception of Frontline Workers changed forever?
Frontline of the future is the podcast inspired by our frontline workforces, the contributions they make to society, and what the future of work has in store for the 80% of the working population who don't sit behind a desk. Throughout the series, Peter Durkin speaks to a number of frontline leaders, understands their journeys, and explores what we can expect from the Frontline of the Future.
Peter: My guest today is a legend. He's one of those people whose intros could genuinely take longer than the show itself. Suffice to say, he's having a long and distinguished career which has seen him either be a board member or non-exec for First Group, Heathrow Airport, Tube Lines, Commission for Integrated Transport, Transport for Greater Manchester, TEFL. I could go on. Which is why most would keep it simple and simply welcome you as the CEO of Transport Times, David Begg.
David: We're living through uncertain times and anyone who thinks they can predict the future and what's going to happen to the economy and working patterns? Well, the impact is going to be on public transport. Anyone who can predict that with certainty – they're going to make a lot of money.
David: There's no doubt that it's worrying. It's the first time in our lifetime that government has encouraged people not to use public transport. That's a first. I understand why, I get it. I'm not being critical. What we know is, are there any long term ramifications from that? Once we come out the other side from Covid-19. Is there going to be any permanent change in people's moral choice? And is it going to lead to more people using car and less people using public transport?
David: I don't think so. I mean, I think we might see more walking and cycling. But the arguments for public transport haven't changed. You know, the car is such an inefficient use of roads. I'm still far too polluting. The economic and environmental arguments for public transport will remain. They'll get stronger. But I think we need a marketing exercise to try and get people comfortable using public transport. And that's the key. I mean, remember when we had the London bombings in 2005?
David: And one of the best things that Transport For London did was to get the tube running the following day. Think about that. We'd lost 35 people from the bombing. Blackout all over the television. You can understand how people would have lost confidence in using public transport, but TFL got a system running the next again day. It's like a falling off your bike – albeit nothing like as serious as bombings. But you need to get back on it right away to get comfortable.
David: I see this has been a really big marketing job, because even once the virus is gone – fingers crossed – you know, people still be a little bit nervous. I guess, if I'm worried about anything, the one thing I could be looking at more than anything is car ownership. I haven't seen any figures on this yet. But if people decided to buy a car, and they don't already have one. They may have gone from one-car to two-car households.
David: They're nervous about using public transport. That's a worry. Because for every new car on Britain's roads, there's 365 fewer bus journeys a year. So there's this direct correlation between car ownership and busses. When one rises, the other tends to fall. So that's the one thing I look at. But again, I'm being optimistic right here. I think public transport will eventually come out of this stronger.
Peter: And I would agree. I think that, you know, in every challenge comes the basis of an opportunity. One of the questions which is fast becoming a mainstay on this program is about silver linings. I'm curious to think about what kind of silver linings you think it could be, because you're absolutely right there. Have we seen examples of positives, short-term events? If you look at the International Energy Agency forecasts, they're saying that carbon emissions will be down by 8% this year.
Peter: And that's in no small part, obviously, due that the lifting of smog over major cities and so on as car ownership over the period of time is in decline. And that is a very real, albeit short term, positive impact from the virus. Do you think that that has legs or do you think the legs of it depends on how we can mobilize that marketing machine?
David: I wish more people were concerned about climate change and CO2. But there's still a large amount of concern when it comes to air quality. One of the silver linings is that, for the first time, people have experienced good quality air. It’s almost like we've had a live demonstration of what life could be like: less cars on the road, fewer planes in the sky.
Peter: No, I completely agree. I mean, it is I think it's one of the things that struck me personally is how uneven people's experiences as workers have been during the lockdown period, particularly that discrepancy between frontline and traditional desk-based, if you like. You have the frontline folks arguably keeping the country moving. And then the desk-based folks sitting at home and complaining about a four-walled prison that surrounds them? That's a very different perspective on a very challenging time.
Peter: I mean, what you said earlier David, in terms of predicting the future, they would be very wealthy individuals if they could. But that is very much the point of our show: we can navel gaze and speculate. And I'd like to think about what the Frontline of the Future really means in your eyes. I mean, I think we agree that frontline work, particularly transportation, will be as relevant, and as prevalent, and ultimately transport workers have reasons to be optimistic.
Peter: I was listening to Graham Curry's podcast from Monash University in Melbourne the other day, and he's been looking at the evidence after other major incidents at, shall we say, previous pandemics like SARS, which is reckoned to be both more contagious and deadly than coronavirus; or security or terror threats like the bombings in 2005, as you were saying earlier. Or economic crises – there's an enormous amount of change and disruption during those events. All of the evidence suggests that, after some time, our behavior normalizes and patterns of patronage returns.
Peter: How optimistic are you about the extent to which we will recover and those jobs in frontline transport will be safe?
David: I'm really optimistic. I think we will. But the short to medium-term challenge is demand. And I'm going to give you a better example. If you look at the Twin Towers coming down in New York in 2010. How nervous would people have been about flying? Here's the thing, right? We haven't got rid of that terrorist threat: we've mitigating that, but we accept that risk. We fly.
David: Aviation has got a fantastic track record keeping people safe. But you would be a fool to say to that terrorist threat has gone away. Hopefully the threat of Covid-19 is not quite as severe as the threat of a terrorist attack on aviation. We adjust, but I'm hoping that we don't lose sight of some of the upsides. We've witnessed this preciously as a result of this threat, at the same time having vibrant cities, cities that are full of life, with people moving around.
Peter: I agree. It's very important to take the silver linings forwards. And it's good to hear your confidence on jobs in transportation. I think the analogy about terrorists fits, whether it's in London and New York, because it's well-made. Our very nature. We are human beings and we're born to adapt. Now, interestingly, the number of autonomous car trips in the last year been still just a few thousand autonomous trains. On the other hand, you know, hundreds of millions of trains in Asia are autonomous.
David: The autonomous buses come to the fore. I think there are 5 different tests in European cities later this year. So something which has historically been seen as a threat to the industry, is its greatest opportunity. Public transport is embracing, dominating the use of autonomous vehicles. And I think where does that leave frontline transport jobs? Do we start to see a shift where from on transport workers are more focused on customer service orientated roles where they're communicating reassuring passengers and being ambassadors of public transport and not necessarily driving?
David: Look, I think we can do this two ways. We can get this wrong. We can say we're not going to change people's jobs despite the fact that we've got new technologies. So it means that you could have on the autonomous board who's a customer service job. And then in the case of an emergency where you've got someone you can mingle with the customers, make sure they're OK. There's all sorts of examples of how new technology is changing peoples job.
David: One of the toughest jobs in Britain is to be a bus driver, especially in a busy city. When my friends visit, they hate the prospect of driving in London and asked me what it's like. You can imagine a bus driver, a driver in London, the same time having to take people's fears. I want to make sure that the customers are OK. It's a demanding job.
David: The value we get from bus drivers is better than anything. You know, we should be clapping for bus drivers. What the industry had to do was to move into to this excellent customer service phase. We know good customer service when we see it. If you're going to a restaurant, and you've got a really good waiter or waitress, you know about it.
David: Good customer service is a lot better than any other approach. You can walk onto a bus and if you've got really lively, happy bus driver, it changes the experience. I'm the first to accept that because the job is to challenge is difficult to find that person.
My guest today heads up not one, but two of the country's leading bus businesses. He is chair of The Living Coast in Brighton & Lewes. He sits on the board of transport for the southeast. He's a trustee of the East Sussex Credit Union Foundation, a board member at the Coast to Capital local enterprise partnership and one of the founding members of Women in Transport’s multi-operated bus group. He is of course, Martin Harris, MD at Brighton & Hove and Metrobus, and a very warm welcome to you, Martin.
Good morning, Peter. Good to speak to you.
Likewise. How are you sir?
Excellent. Yeah, things from my point of view are very good. Yes. Tough situation out there for everybody, but yeah, we're doing okay, thanks.
I'm still working from my front room here today and apparently still in dire need of a haircut but delighted that thanks to the modern wonders of technology that we've got the opportunity to speak today. Where are you today, Martin?
Well, I'm actually in my home office today. I've been going into work two/three days in each week and then selectively choosing days to work from home just to kind of maximize efficiency and make sure that time is used to best effect. I've come into the industry and actually nurturing the idea that I'm an outsider. in some ways I try to keep an outsider perspective, even 40 years on, which sounds crazy, but it’s just to make sure we're looking at what's going on outside and bringing in fresh thinking.
Yeah, and it's interesting hearing you talked there about bringing, I guess, fresh thinking and new perspectives to the industry and kind of not trying to be a traditional bus or transport anorak.
It's interesting as well, in that, you know, I think I feel that that trend is continuing listening to David Brown speak at the UK Bus Summit last year, very much talking about, bring friends to this conference next year, bring people into our transport ecosystem that traditionally don't have anything to do with it because there's so much cross-pollination between industries right now. It's important for the growth of the industry to have that.
Absolutely. That was true before Coronavirus and it's definitely true now. So much is going to be about collaboration and I had a horrible word, combining competition and collaboration. I'm not sure I can even pronounce it properly, so I won't try.
But it captures that sense of actually, even with your competitors, you know, you need to be looking at where you've got common ground, joining forces. I don't mean in an anti-competitive way, but in a way that is going to produce better results for the consumer and for communities. I think coming out with Coronavirus, the crisis that lots of people are thinking that way and more and more will follow that route, essential for survival for many of us to be very collaborative.
One of the things, and I guess the spirit of collaboration I was keen to ask you about was the environment. I often hear you speak about the environment. You folks have won a truckload of awards over the years for sustainability and you're investing serious money in electric buses. In your position, you might expect that but I kind of feel like it goes a little bit beyond that for you, right?
In the sense that you've always wanted to be the one innovating sustainably, I saw you launch a competition recently the youngsters invited them to send things in they feel have a positive impact about the environment, which will then be putting on display inside your new electric buses and you’re chair of The Living Coast for goodness sake, who UNESCO recognizes a world biosphere region. It feels to me like a personal philosophy as much as a business one.
It actually starts from a passion for people, a passion for social justice and actually, the environment is a big part of that, because, you know, look at how it disproportionately affects different people in terms of the impacts of climate change and inequality. That started from a simple humanistic approach really, to most things in life, but of course, actually look like many people dearly love this planet we are on, looking after, you know, while it's in our stewardship, I just think we've got to do everything we can to nurture it and look after it. We've done a lot of damage to it over the years and those challenges are getting tougher.
For me, it's almost kind of a no-brainer to be trying to mitigate the worst effects of that but the upside is the powerful effect it has on people socially, economically when the environment around us works well whether that's in a very localized ecosystem, or whether it's in a much wider, more of a global kind of perspective, but it's been very hard to actually clearly paint the picture of what that would look like, and actually now people are seen trying to find a way to preserve the best of that.
I think it's making the case much more powerfully to what could be like in our city centers and also in public transport, we see ourselves as a key part of that. Those buses are reducing car congestion, taking cars off the road, which otherwise will be clogging the streets again. There's a danger that there's a big shift back to the car, which is very detrimental to our cities and although arguably short term, some short term things have a habit of hanging around longer than we would like or expect them to.
We've got to be really careful that we don't push off down a route that actually takes us back 30 years in terms of cleaning up our city centers. We've got to recognize that people have got to move about. They can’t all use walking and cycling, but the city centers can be kept clean and with good access to public transport, great facilities for cycling, good management of all walking routes and pavements, and maybe just kind of turn the tap off on the unbalanced approach to providing for cars.
Agreed. It certainly is an opportunity when you have such systemic change like that, in the aftermath, there is always going to be opportunity. There's a big responsibility on both transport providers, but policymakers to try and harness that opportunity, as you say, and not kind of divert down the other path, which sets us back a few decades.
Just to sort of narrow in then, Martin, I guess, on how the operation has been since locked down. You know, obviously, unlike me, who's been working from home for what seems like ever now, your teams have been out keeping the country moving each day, which honestly actually is one of the things that struck me how uneven people's experiences as workers have been these past few months.
How would you describe the lockdown period?
I think it's been one of huge challenge, but actually, in many ways, it's been hugely rewarding as well and that collaboration works, a big part of it and not just outside the business or other organizations, authorities have been working brilliantly with our local authorities and with government to protect and preserve the services and to keep facilities going for key work. Throughout that, there's been this great collaboration and internally, it's been absolutely fabulous, the people who've been at work, they’ve been flexible, responsive, working together as a team, when problems have come up, people have worked together to solve them.
We used to like to think we were pretty decent in terms of our internal culture, not perfect by any means, and like everywhere problems to address but pretty good kind of sense of working together and collaboration, but it's moved on in leaps and bounds during the crisis.
That's been one of the most satisfying — we coined the phrase silver linings and you know, we've got a whole list of silver linings that were taken from what we've learned during this, the stuff that we're saying now that we really got to keep doing this, we’ve got to keep things this way because it is so good for everybody and so good for the business and many of those on the list, they’re about the way we communicate and the way we collaborate has just been fabulous from that point of view and so rewarding.
I've got to say, I'm speaking from a very fortunate position because health impacts on our colleagues have been pretty minimal. You might expect to be a lot of cases amongst 100 drivers, we've had just four and happily, all of them have gone through that. That has meant it's been a much more positive situation than it might be. We're thankful for that.
Also an indication of how well people have approached it and professional, they've followed the advice they've kept to the right behaviors, we put in place the right cleaning and PPE provisions and achieved a pretty good result which, you know, our number one priority on this, we all said at the outset was protect our staff; number two is protect our communities and our customers; and number three was protect our business.
So protecting the staff bit is in good shape. We're now seeing the protecting the community and the customers more and more evidence if you like. More people returning to the buses 25% almost on a normal levels, which is obviously not enough to run a bus service now, but it's an indication that things that are just starting to come back, quarter of the levels. Bearing in mind, our levels are the highest usage of buses per head of population in the whole country or they were before. We're shifting 20,000 to 25,000 people a day. We still got a big part to play in moving people out even now, obviously, as that grows, that will become increasingly cool.
It’s really interesting to hear you say that. I can see how the culture and the team have responded so well to you almost triaging your responsibility and commitment to staff community, business in that way. I think, you know, you have seen examples of certain, shall we say, essential workforces who have been slightly let down by the system or their employer, but it's good to see that in your case, it's an essential workforce getting those essential protections.
I'm interested in the concept of silver linings that you mentioned there, Martin. I mean, I was listening to an interview last week with India Birdsong, who heads up the transit agency in Cleveland with a guy called Paul Comfort, renowned author and podcast presenter in the US.
She was saying that this has brought them, as a transit agency, far closer to the AMT, which is their union out there, because of the need to co-create solutions. Listening to you talk about the collaboration with both local government and at the same time the council, I'm curious to know whether the union’s been a part of that as well, and how potentially you've experienced a change in the nature of the relationship in the last three months since the lockdown began.
100% they've been part of it and deserve much of the credit for what's been happening. There has been a collaborative approach. We already have in place what I understand to be a unique partnership with Unite, the union and we're consulting more and more than we've ever done and working closer and closer with the union than we've ever done.
The results today, you know, we're seeing really good results because, you know, they want the same things as us. They want people's jobs to be safe, their families to be safe. They want to get the right outcomes from this and they’re productive, positive professional. We couldn't have asked for more really. There will be difficulties ahead and there actually going to be difficulties as we look into the future and the economy's maybe are going to have some struggles and we will be part of that struggle, I'm sure. But I think we've got a good platform to build on.
It's great to hear. Obviously, it's all about co-creating solutions. When you start to look at this concept of the frontline of the future, I think a lot of those solutions to challenge or transference from COVID-19, and so on, they are digital or technology based platforms, if you like. There's temperature tracking apps, remote sign on solutions, paperless depot's and so on, which really does kind of threaten the current way of working in a lot of frontline industries.
Obviously, traditionally, one of the roles of the unions has been to protect the workforce, but arguably the meaning of that is changing. You may start to see the unions having to skill up on certain tech platforms to really have the same relevance in protecting their members as before.
I'm curious in the years that follow to see what union organizations take from this current situation, and how they may have to adapt really to stay relevant if those silver linings and that spirit of collaboration can continue throughout and beyond where we are today.
I certainly endorse everything you said there. I think the key thing, not just for us, but for all businesses is to make sure we're exploring all the possible uses of digital technology in our service to our customers and in the way we work within the business and support our colleagues across the business.
But at the same time, make sure it is a case of using tech for the humans and not the other way around. Plenty of people have written on this subject and can talk far more eruditely about it than I can. But I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion of making sure we keep the humanity in the technology, remembering the stuff that the technology can't do; well, quality, value adding stuff that you know, even the greatest AI solutions can't necessarily replicate.
We've got to recognize that humans have a huge part to play in the way we deliver our services. Especially where we are at the moment, providing a frontline service to customers in a mass market. We’re currently, and maybe people say, “Well, there's electric buses that can be operated by robots out there now,” but it's a long way off. They may have around 150 meter track in its own segregated space, but that's a far cry from having 180 movements in each direction through the center of Brighton.
The technology is emerging and I think that its real strengths are going to be in the communications area in making our systems a little slicker and that won't threaten many job, but what it will do is add value for the people within the business and particularly for our customers.
We've got to keep exploiting that. We've got to keep innovating. We've got to keep thinking in an agile way to make sure we keep one of the lessons that we've learned from crisis, which is our ability to actually respond quickly, find new solutions together that work for us all to move forward.
I'm hugely optimistic about the future and I have complete conviction that public transport is going to continue to have a massive role to play despite a few people's perceptions of, “Oh, well, you know, this is a bit difficult right now. So maybe we should write them out of plans for the future.” I think that's what, a, nonsense and, and b, incredibly dangerous for the future of our cities. We've got a great future. If we make sure we stay agile, we make sure we take on both the new technology opportunities that are out there and keep it human, we have a lot to look forward to.
Final sort of question on this topic for me is, what else do you see being a key constituent in the frontline of the future?
I don't think it's going to be irremovable, but I think it'll be in a much stronger position and then that is the way key workers are valued in their entirety. I mean, we'll see some difficult decisions being taken as the economy adjusts and there's some structural change, but I think throughout that, the expectation on organizations to think about the way they look after their people, treat their people in when they're going to make those difficult decisions, you can do that.
Actually, you can maintain people's dignity and maintain their opportunities for the future. I think key workers and the whole notion of that has changed the perception, not just groups of people who saw that as an issue, the people who are delivering the stuff to their door, the people who were making sure they actually had food on the shelves, and you know, the bus workers and of course, fantastic, magnificent effort of care is in the health service.
I guess it's changed some people's views. Now, I hope that sticks. I hope it lasts because I think it will say a lot about us as a society if we don't slip into forgetting just how important that's been to us when it's been actually literally a life and death situation.
Think about your values. Martin Harris from Brighton & Hove, and Metrobus, it's been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you.