What do we really feel about the bus?

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Most of the discourse on buses treats people as if they know what they are doing. It assumes that travellers are constantly making fully conscious rational economic trade-offs between cost and journey times and then making the logical choice as a result. And of course there is part of the brain that does this. This part of the brain likes to flatter itself that it’s in charge. But it’s not. The rational economic actor in our brains is in a little boat that is being constantly tossed around by a churning sea of emotions and instincts. A big part of us is prehistoric.

The gap in the evidence base around how people respond to the experience of bus travel at this gut level was something we identified in our recently published overarching report What’s driving bus patronage change? An analysis of the evidence base. So we asked Systra to analyse the research that was out there already. We are currently finalising the report and aim to publish soon.

I think it makes for an intriguing read and I won’t attempt to summarise it all here. However, lying beneath a lot of the literature review findings is something fundamental to human beings around the dynamic between control and vulnerability. We like to be in control (as the proven power of the ‘take back control’ slogan shows) and our prehistoric threat awareness instincts mean that we don’t like to be vulnerable. And we definitely don’t like to put ourselves in a position where vulnerability tips over into active humiliation.

If the car is at one end of the spectrum for engendering the feeling of being in control then there’s something about the unique nature of bus travel that puts it at the other end of the spectrum – in the zone of vulnerability and potential humiliation.

There are so many points in a bus journey where you can feel stressed and vulnerable. Am I at the right stop? Is the bus going to turn up? Is the bus driver going to see me and is the bus going to stop? Will the interaction with the bus driver go well (and if not will I have a whole room full of people watching whilst I hold up their journeys and have an unpleasant interaction)? Will I end up sitting next to someone who behaves in an anti-social way? Will I know where to get off? Will the bus driver stop where I want to get off?

On top of that if you are a wheelchair user or encumbered with prams and children there is the anxiety around whether or not there will be space for you and how accommodating the driver and your fellow passengers are going to be. The same applies in different ways for other disabilities. Attach a heart rate monitor and look for the spikes. You just don’t get such a long list of stress points on other forms of public transport.

Now let me turn up the stress and vulnerability dial a bit further. Because as well as the particular stress points in bus travel, in general the bus can feel like a far less supervised and controlled space than a train. On trains there are conductors and PA announcements and there are stations which in general feel more supervised than the average bus stop. It’s also easier to move seats if you feel uncomfortable about who is sitting near you. The research shows you can further turn up the volume on these anxieties around the unsupervised nature of buses and bus stops in relation to your personal security and space if you are a young person or a woman.

There’s also nothing like the public humiliation of a bus sailing past your stop whilst you hold out your hand. Other than at a few deep rural request stop stations, trains don’t do this. And then there’s the minor humiliation of sitting on a bus that’s crawling along, or standing at a stop for several minutes in silence, to make up time whilst cars and even pedestrians merrily speed past you.

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Now when a train stops at a signal in the middle of nowhere it is true that there won’t always be an announcement to tell you why – but over the course of a delayed journey there is usually some kind of communication. On a bus the reverse is true. I don’t even know if most modern buses have a PA system – because I’ve never, not once, heard one used (other than in London, which I will come back to).

Some of this may sound trivial but the problem is that the pre-historic brain is on the look out for threats and the way it reacts doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing them by a rational analysis of how serious they are. That’s why this stuff matters and why we need a way of relating to this very human condition.

Fortunately we do have someone on every bus who can do this. The driver. One way or another the driver can help ease all the stress points set out above and turn a space that feels worryingly unsupervised into one that feels safer and more under control. Transport for London has recognised this and has been putting a lot of focus on supporting drivers to better support their passengers. I’ve experienced this myself recently, where drivers in London used the PA system to explain why their bus was being held at a stop and how long the wait was going to be. It was amazing what a positive difference this made to how I felt about the journey compared with the prior norm of sitting there for an unknown period of time and feeling like a sucker for getting on board in the first place.

At Urban Transport Group one of the follow on things we are looking at is what we can share on how best to support drivers to support passengers. At the same time we recognise that drivers are only going to respect the content of a training course if they feel respected by their employer.

So far I’ve emphasised how the nature of the bus as a unique social space can work against the bus. But now I want to flip that to how it can work for the bus – because what’s more complex and contrary than human nature? People can enjoy travelling socially and communally in a bus as an antidote to increasingly atomised lives, especially when the journey purpose is more pleasurable than the daily commute.

Shared long tables in restaurants are part of this cautious return to greater sociability. Lounge areas and tables for four on buses further play into the positive aspects of the bus as a social space. The young are most affected by the climate crisis and the least interested in car ownership. The bus offers the opportunity to socialise with friends whilst being car free.

And the bus can also be the vessel where people can socialise in the partial and addictive format of online social media. You can’t drive to work and plug yourself in to the hive mind. You can on a bus. Indeed Translink’s new outer suburban high spec ‘Urby’ services go to the next level by having a clip device on seat backs which will hold a mobile screen in place as well as the USB charger and Wi-Fi.

The design of buses could be part of accentuating the positives of the bus as a physical or digital social space. As could making the bus better reflect the nature of the local social spaces it serves. Futurologists say that the future of the High Street is less about bland and blank chain store consumerism and more about locally authentic, more social experiences. The way buses look and feel can play into this. This is backed up by research which suggests that passengers cut more slack when things go wrong to bus companies whose identity reflects pride in the areas they serve and doubles down on demonstrating that through the quality of the service they offer.

The bus is a unique social space. If, through vehicle design and better support for drivers we can tackle the negatives, and accentuate the positives of this space, then the opportunity is there to win more hearts and minds (both conscious and sub-conscious) for the bus.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.

No more tinkering – we need ambition

Bus funding helps to achieve a multitude of policy objectives for government – but real reform is required, not more of the same, writes Jonathan Bray.

Oxford City View, Oxford University, England, UK

Putting public money into the bus is one of the biggest bargains in transport policy – but despite this the bus has been one of the biggest losers from recent trends in transport spending. Urban Transport Group’s new report, The cross-sector benefits of backing the bus, shows that supporting bus services aligns with 29 policy goals of 12 departments across Whitehall. And not just the departments you would expect.

Buses tick the boxes for the Department for International Trade because the British bus manufacturing industry has an impressive export track record. The bus meets the goals of the Department for Work and Pensions, such as providing access to opportunity. It ticks the boxes for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because buses support rural economies. And the bus helps the Department of Health and Social Care as buses promote physical activity, give older and disabled people independence, and because they could play a greater role in a more efficient approach to non-emergency patient transport.

In short every pound that supports bus services cuts congestion as well as contributes to numerous wider social, economic and environment objectives. Without public support for bus services, labour markets will shrink and more people will be unable to participate in the economy. Skills and apprenticeships will be hit because of reduced access to further education. High street regeneration will be damaged through reduced access to town centres and there will be increased pressure on congested road networks as some bus users transfer to the car. There will be public health impacts from more isolation and loneliness and less physical activity. The young will be hit hardest. A divided society will become more divided.

Highways England has more money than it can realistically spend on expanding inter-urban road capacity despite this approach failing overall in its own congestion cutting terms, instead creating more sprawl, carbon emissions and poor air quality. Yet, at the same time, all the main sources of national funding for bus have been cut back. The case for more bus funding is strong, but the way in which buses are funded at present is not helping.

Indeed the way buses are funded nationally is as antediluvian as the way many other aspects of the mode are overseen (such as safety and consumer rights). So the six main sources of funding for the bus are: Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) from DfT (which will be reviewed as part of the forthcoming spending review); funding for concessionary fares and, indirectly, for supported services, from MHCLG; one off funding grants for things like green buses from DfT; general DfT capital and revenue funding for local transport, some of which is used for buses; and DfE funding which supports education transport.

Having three government departments involved (with arguably the MHCLG as important a player on bus funding as the DfT) is complicated enough but an absence of coordination across these funding departments, with little cumulative understanding of the overall implications of their respective decisions, has led to haphazard and inefficient outcomes. That would be bad enough, however some of the individual bus funding streams have been bent out of shape due to a combination of neglect and because other political priorities were seen as far more important.

Take BSOG as an example. There may once have been a logic in basing bus subsidy on fuel use but that was then and this is now. Now we are in an era where cities are scrambling to tackle poor air quality on extremely demanding timescales and when everyone everywhere with any sense is desperately seeking to reduce carbon emissions.

Or take the funding of national statutory concessionary travel schemes. The link between government funding for these schemes has now been severed from the cost to local transport authorities of paying for it. What was a ring-fenced funding stream from government for a scheme that the government decided it wanted, has now been lost within wider local government funding. So we have economists arguing about what it costs operators to provide concessionary travel (right down to wear and tear on tyres) in different areas in one room and different economists in another room arguing about how the costs of providing it should be factored into local government funding formula serving different areas, arguing about something called ‘rurality’. There is no door between these two rooms.

And finally, all of this is compounded by the fact that subsidy streams are seen by operators (most of which are part of wider multi-modal and multi-national corporations) as contributing to overall income, which in turn contributes to their expectations on margins. One of the innumerable downsides of bus deregulation is that making the case for more bus funding is challenging as the Treasury can see that subsidies are disappearing into black box accounts of companies which often make a good return out of local monopolies. So why should they give them any more money when we don’t know where it’s going? The best counter argument is that despite these leakages it’s still worthwhile, given the exceptional overall value for money of bus funding and that there are ways of limiting that leakage.

So hopefully so far I have shown that the case for more bus funding is very strong and that the bus has not been getting its fair share of overall transport funding. But at the same time the way buses are funded is too complex, too inefficient and lacks credibility. This is why as well as making the case for more resources UTG have also made the case for funding reform via a new ‘Connectivity Fund’ which would provide a simplified, enhanced and ring-fenced revenue stream for buses. We argue that it should be devolved to local transport authorities so it can be best targeted on where it would have most impact locally.

So there is no point providing additional subsidies for real time information if local government has already paid for it (something which the last set of BSOG reforms did, for example, creating a windfall for some operators in the process). Equally in a rural area it may be more supported services you want rather than electric buses, but vice versa in a polluted urban area. It is hard to make these trade-offs from Whitehall unless you want to create an expensive and bureaucratic system to second guess what would work best locally. Instead, we argue for a bigger pot (one commensurate with the scale of benefits that backing the bus can bring) and one that can be used in ways which work most efficiently and effectively locally.

We will see how comprehensive a review of BSOG we get in the spending review this time around. Given wider Brexit turmoil it’s possible that it won’t be that comprehensive. However, there’s a danger it starts off the same way as the last two BSOG reviews (which largely fizzled out). Firstly, by trying to get more for less (or the same amount of money) which risks operators responding to the de facto reduction in income through service reductions and fares rises. Secondly that a national system based on either payment by passenger or payment by mile is proposed. In the past these options have crashed and burned because of the eventual realisation that either way you get significant winners and losers. Broadly speaking urban areas win on per passenger and rural areas win on per mile. Whoever loses causes a political fuss. Both also have unintended consequences. For example, what are the implications of further encouraging bus operators to carry more concessionary passengers if BSOG becomes a per passenger incentive?

Buses are a very good thing, funded in not a very good way. The mood music in Whitehall has been far better about protecting of bus funding than it was last time BSOG was scrutinised. But with the bus in decline and punch drunk from previous funding cuts, now is the time for something more ambitious than tinkering and holding the line.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group.

This blog first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

Buses – it isn’t all about congestion

Passengers paying a bus fare

I agree with Brian Souter. When he said at last year’s Scottish CPT event that the bus industry relied too much on gut instinct and not enough on research. The Stagecoach chairman went on: “How much have we put into research and development in the last five years? We’re getting worse, not better…

Indeed nothing better exemplifies this state of play than incumbent monopoly bus operators’ favourite ‘fact’ of all time. That buses can’t prosper unless traffic congestion is tackled. However, I’m going to suggest something shocking in a sector which holds this truth to be self evident. Which is that the evidence base does not support this assertion. The evidence base is telling a different story – which is that there are many other factors at play in determining whether bus use rises or falls in a particular area and some of these may carry greater weight than traffic congestion depending on the local circumstances.

If it were always true that bus use is intrinsically linked to journey speeds, and that this is the only thing that matters, then why is bus use falling in the only major city region where traffic speeds are rising (South Yorkshire)?

If it were always true that bus use is intrinsically linked to journey speeds, and that this is the only thing that matters, then why is bus use falling in the only major city region where traffic speeds are rising (South Yorkshire)? And when one looks at the top 10 places where bus use is high or growing, why are there so many places which are not the first locales you would think of in connection with the phrase ‘free flowing traffic’?

So in the top 10 for growth in bus use, or highest bus use per head (or both) are Bournemouth, Bristol and Reading which were respectively 8th, 10th and 12th in a survey of the most congested places in Britain in a Go Compare survey last year. It’s even possible that in certain contexts congested conditions could give the bus a competitive advantage over the car: as in you have to sit in traffic anyway then you might as well get the bus (where you can also do things you can’t do when driving – such as maintaining your smart device addiction). And that’s even before we start talking about bus decline in places, and at times of day, when congestion is irrelevant (because there isn’t any) such as many places in the evenings, in the off peak and in many rural areas all day every day.

In our recent report we sought to take a more objective, look at all the factors that are relevant when looking at what’s driving bus patronage change. I won’t go through them all here (and there are few surprises in the headings) but it’s interesting how the same factors can have different effects depending on the local market.

The state of the UK economy is one factor in driving demand for travel, but the ramifications can play out differently in different areas. So a growing economy could lead to more car ownership and less bus use in places where car ownership is currently low and bus use is high. Meanwhile, in London, the rate of growth of the London economy (and inward migration) has slowed, whilst at the same time incomes have not kept pace with living costs. One of the impacts of all this has been less discretionary travel in London which in turn has hit bus use. Elsewhere, buoyant city centre and retail economies have been good for the bus in some of the more prosperous top 10 areas where the bus is performing well.

Young people are another fascinating and complicated factor. Young people are moving away from car ownership at pace – although not necessarily towards the bus. However, where the circumstances or the fares offer are right (or both) then this can be great news for the bus. So the youthful demographic of the West Midlands looks like it’s a factor in recent better patronage news there. Bournemouth, being the second biggest centre outside London for English schools could well be giving a helping hand to bus use there. The location of new student living quarters in Bristol is a plus for the bus in the city. And then there’s the simple young peoples’ fares offer in Merseyside which has had such a transformational effect on ridership. Who would have guessed it? Simpler and cheaper fares can bring back passengers to the bus. More passengers in the National Express low fare zones in the West Midlands is a further example of this.

Whilst I’ve knocked the idea that congestion is the only thing that matters, my argument isn’t so simplistic to suggest that it is irrelevant – far from it. Making bus journey times faster, more consistent and more competitive with alternative modes should (all other things being equal) make bus services more attractive and should help drive patronage upwards. This is why back in 2014 we were the ones that initiated the joint work with CBT, CPT and Greener Journeys on making the case for bus priority schemes and setting up the bus priority works website. It was also instructive that, despite the rhetoric about the importance of bus priority at that time the industry was unable to furnish us with any evidence about the benefits of any schemes to them that we could highlight in the materials and on the website. Since then the evidence base is now in much better shape and as UTG we continue to support bus priority schemes.

However, supporting individual well thought through bus priority schemes (which often combine with wider street works to benefit local residents and retail as well as cyclists and pedestrians) is very different from the rhetorical open ended demands that urban congestion be eliminated for the bus – otherwise the bus has no future. This just isn’t going to happen because busy cities will continue to have busy streets. Streets which will also have less space for vehicles of any sort as more space is given over to space for people. Urban cycling is also going to grow, and better provision is going to be made for it. More people walking and cycling is a good thing overall . People are going to want to use taxis, and shops need deliveries.

Like the Rev. Awdry story about Henry the Green Engine refusing to come out of the tunnel because it was raining, some in the bus sector are refusing to come out of their tunnel because of all the horrid cars

Having said that the bus can and should get a better deal on the streets – but it isn’t suddenly going to get its own way everywhere, every day. And proponents of the absolutist arguments on congestion know all this anyway (hence the lack of detailed proposals). So the danger is that it becomes nothing more than an all purpose excuse and a cop out. Like the Rev. Awdry story about Henry the Green Engine refusing to come out of the tunnel because it was raining, some in the bus sector are refusing to come out of their tunnel because of all the horrid cars.

When there is so much in a deregulated, and mostly uncontested industry, which is entirely under your control (and which has worked elsewhere) it seems rather convenient that the one thing holding you back is out of your control. Plus if they really meant it about congestion then it would be nice if there was more industry support for poor old local government over taking on the powers to enforce yellow boxes and other moving traffic offences. This would be instantly good for bus reliability without the need for any time consuming new infrastructure.

In avoiding simplistic solutions our report put forward three factors which seem to be present (singly or in multiple) where bus use is high or growing. Firstly, where car use is expensive or difficult. Secondly, where car ownership is low and there is a strong culture of bus use. Thirdly, where significant and continuous research and development has been put into ensuring the nature of the service matches the needs of the local market. Hence growth has happened in some surprising places (including Jersey and the famous 36 on the Harrogate to Leeds corridor) as well as in some of the places on the top 10 buses list.

We intend to do more research to test these ideas further. Factors one and two are not always easy to replicate but factor three (the research and development) is applicable everywhere. We need more priority for buses on our roads. But this is an industry that also needs to give more priority to research and development and on getting under the skin (rather than concentrating on the spin) about what’s really driving patronage trends.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport. The PDF of the article can be downloaded here: Buses – it isn’t all about congestion‘.