Mobile without a car –
and in rural areas too?
Guest article by:
The population of Ostbevern in the Münsterland region numbers around 11,000. A town situated some 20 km from Münster, it is popular with young families, not least because property prices are still low. Over the past decade commuter numbers have risen noticeably. At the same time, the population on the municipality’s edges is ageing. According to the town council these persons want to remain mobile, but without having to rely on cars. Ostbevern now wants to ensure that for 19 hours, seven days a week, cars will no longer be needed. The council members have commissioned a search for alternatives, and 200,000 euros have been made directly available for the purpose. If a suitable solution were to be found they could even afford 500,000 euros. The basic idea is to establish an innovative passenger service and adapt local bus transport accordingly.
For years car transport has guaranteed quick and easy mobility in Ostbevern, as in many other places. However, it is slowly becoming less and less viable. Sitting in a traffic jam on the town’s outskirts on one’s way from Münster is exasperating. And anyone who has taken the regional bus from the town centre to Münster has had the same experience. The train journey takes half an hour, while going by road often takes twice as long, says treasurer Michael König. However, given the extra time it takes to reach Ostbevern railway station the train journey no longer has the advantage. The solution being proposed is a wide range of transport options, basically featuring an innovative on-demand passenger service. With this concept the idea is not only to expand services within the town and to the station, but also to improve transport to the local district of Brock and eleven other distant farming settlements.
However, König has already made it clear to the local council members that operating a type of minicab service will not be enough on its own. “In order for this changeover to work the people of Ostbevern have to trust us“, the treasurer says. This trust has been eroded as a result of massive understaffing on the local public rail network (SPNV). A transport app for Ostbevern would aim to not only intelligently combine transport options, but also to inform passengers about available types of transport prior to a trip, as well as delays and train cancellations. Besides a passenger service Ostbevern is also considering three to six “mobile stations” aimed at making it easier to switch from bike/e-bike to local and regional public transport (SPNV) or a car sharing service. The Münsterland region being flat, Ostbevern also wants to encourage neighbouring municipalities to build new cycle paths.
Even though fast internet is available everywhere it is all-important for the required app to function. “Our priority is not a super-integrated app, but a somewhat simpler interface-based solution“, says the treasurer. Having already taken the initiative, the municipality has now established fast internet in the centre of the town, while coverage on the outskirts has reached an admirable 50 per cent. According to the municipality a number of app providers were contacted. Ultimately it was decided to work with Ioki, a subsidiary of DB, in particular because an initial test showed that basically the app works. However, from the point of view of Ostbevern the loki app needs “fine-tuning“. Should any technical difficulties arise the municipality has pledged assistance.
From the point of view of the municipality, in addition to the app’s algorithm and operating concept there are persuasive legal and organisational reasons for introducing loki. For Ostbevern, difficult coordination work now lies ahead. Numerous actors with expertise in different areas and divergent interests have to be brought together. Westfalenbus, a DB Group subsidiary, owns the transport rights to the route network, which is currently self-supporting, until the beginning of 2022. This means that neither the municipality of Ostbevern nor the administrative district is required to help finance local/regional public transport services. On the other hand the company which holds the rights has a strong say in the timetables and services offered. Without approval from DB Westfalenbus the current situation will not change, at least not until their rights expire.
However, Ostbevern wants to launch the new passenger collection service in 2020, which is why it makes sense to come to an agreement with the local bus operator now. This unique situation also has its advantages for DB Westfalenbus. “We remain in talks with the municipality of Ostbevern“, the company says. In principle such on-demand services could help to improve customer acceptance “by serving transport hubs, subject to timetables, thus making public transport more attractive.“
The situation is still very much in flux. According to treasurer König there is now talk of establishing a three-year pilot project capped at EUR 1.9 million. It includes trialling a self-driving minibus, similar to a DB/Ioki project being undertaken in Bad Birnbach. However, even an expanding municipality such as Ostbevern cannot finance sums this large. It is not expected that rising passenger numbers will provide the necessary revenue for adequate funding.
By a lucky coincidence, in the autumn of 2019 the State of North Rhine Westphalia launched its Mobil.NRW development programme. This offers substantial subsidies for “stand-out, innovative public transport projects in suburban and rural areas“. Throughout the entire state a total of EUR 30 million has been earmarked until 2023 for trialling such projects. 75 per cent of the project costs eligible for grants can be financed. “Whether they live in towns or rural areas, local people must be able to rely on getting from A to B and pay affordable fares“, is how State Transport Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) explains the programme and its generous funding. He too hails from the Münsterland region.
Even at this early stage, obtaining approval based on the Public Transport Act (PbefG) is crucial. A three-year project would run beyond the current approval period and affect a future operator. That could well be Westfalenbus again, but equally another company. Additionally, as things stand no further application would likely be made for the current bus network to be self-supporting. This has to do with a basic decision taken by the administrative districts of the Münsterland region to finance the reduced rates on student bus tickets by other means. It is therefore probable that a call for tender for public transport services will be issued.
If Ostbevern’s pilot project comes to fruition the municipality would not only have to manage it over two approval periods and possibly with two different transport companies. Two different financing cycles, with all the legal ramifications that involves, would also apply. A mobility analysis conducted by Ioki found that using small vehicles could make the large buses operating on route 418 surplus to requirements. However, the current local transport plan does not take this eventuality into account.
That is why it is important to be more straightforward in these matters. According to treasurer Michael König talks have already taken place with district government representatives in Münster, the administrative district of Warendorf, which is responsible for managing public transport, and Westfalenbus, the current local transport provider, in order to discuss various scenarios. One option is for Ostbevern’s local transport to be taken out of the general route network and the conclusion of a separate contract, which could conceivably take place directly. Legally speaking, this is permissible with minor contracts and where technically complex solutions are involved. Another option is to consider this as a special case in the context of Mobil.NRW resulting in a loki-managed self-supporting network.
Ostbevern is an example of how it is possible to come up with ideas for better and more flexible transport for people without cars in rural areas. It also shows that besides financing aspects, sorting out the organisational and legal issues is crucial to success – and both require preparation. The way in which new transport concepts and various regulatory mechanisms within the public transport market are interconnected demonstrates why, on a federal level, Ostbevern is such a remarkable case.