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How to become a green community transport provider!

Posted by Alex Steeland on 22 June 2015 at 4:05 pm

Transport is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of energy use, but the sector is responsible for 36 percent of total energy consumption in the UK. If we are serious about reducing our energy use and moving to more sustainable sources, the transport sector must play its part. 

The Managing Director of The Big Lemon, Tom Druitt, has written an action pack on Community-Led Transport Initiatives to share his lessons learned from setting up a community bus service which runs on waste cooking oil. The pack has been produced by the National Energy Foundation as part of the Academy of Champions for Energy, a sustainable energy initiative running in England, Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands funded by the INTERREG IVB NWE programme. 

The Big Lemon was founded in 2007 to develop a new friendly, affordable and sustainable bus service in Brighton. Since then The Big Lemon has become a respected local provider of sustainable transport, running all the transport for the University of Brighton as well as services for Brighton & Hove City Council. 

As well as bus services, The Big Lemon runs private hire coaches, a music festival coach service and an alternative UK tour called Britain By Bus. Here’s a taster of the insights you’ll find in the pack about what it takes to set up a sustainable community bus service:

  1. A strong vision

It is important to know from the start what you are aiming for. The Big Lemon made it clear it was aiming for a better future for the next generation. That gives it a sense of purpose and guides strategy. 

  1. Clear messaging

Effective communication of your values, brand identity and what you stand for is essential. The Big Lemon quickly became known as the local eco-friendly bus, not because thousands of pounds were spent on an advertising campaign (they were not!) but because at every opportunity it was made clear that the organisation exists to make public transport better to attract more people out of their cars, and that the buses run on waste cooking oil to minimise their carbon footprint.

  1. Community buy-in

The Big Lemon started life in a pub, where a group of strangers came together to talk about how to run buses in a more sustainable, effective and community-orientated way. None of the people in that meeting had run a bus company before. What brought them together was a shared desire to see something better. A number of members of the public who attended that meeting subsequently became shareholders in the company and two became drivers.

Public meetings are a great way to get community buy-in. The Big Lemon has held public meetings in pubs, university campuses, a church, and on the buses themselves. Public meetings are a very effective way of getting people ‘on-board’ because not only do the discussions invariably generate some brilliant ideas, meetings also show the community at large that you are serious about listening to people, involving them in decision-making and working with them to improve the service.

  1. The right legal structure

The Big Lemon is a Community Interest Company (CIC) limited by shares. This means it can sell shares in the company in order to raise finance, but there are legal limits on dividend payments, and the assets of the company are only to be used to further its social objectives. The Big Lemon chose this model in order to safeguard its aims in law while also allowing it to raise finance from members of the community by selling shares. There are, however, many other models available – see “Setting up a social enterprise” on the GOV.UK website.

  1. A good funding model

The Big Lemon found the most effective way of raising finance to be selling shares to members of the community. There are also a number of other types of funding to consider, including loan funding, crowding funding and peer-to-peer funding. But without doubt, the best funding model is revenue. Social enterprises are enterprises, and need to be funded in the long term by selling, just like any other enterprise. 

  1. Premises, vehicles and fuel

Ideally premises should have some kind of security, so a unit in an industrial estate is ideal, or if in a rural area, it may be possible to find a nearby farm that has some space to rent. For vehicles, you will need to decide whether to own or rent them. Leasing is more convenient, and usually it should be possible to get a better vehicle, but it is more expensive in the long run. Buying provides more control and gives the project an asset. The chosen fuel will make a huge difference to the sustainability of the operation. Using biodiesel from waste oil is one of the greenest methods – an online database of biodiesel suppliers can be found on the BioDiesel Filling Stations website..

  1. Consistently good service delivery

The key is for the service to be ‘consistent’ and ‘good’. It must be good, or people won’t use it, but most importantly it must be good all the time. A lot of this comes down to recruiting the right people. Your team is your best asset, and whether or not you provide a good service will depend on them. 

Find more tips and inspiration by reading the Community-Led Transport Initiatives pack here

Photo: The Big Lemon  

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