5 steps to better buses: The bus industry manifestoPete Adney | September 04, 2015
As those of you who know me will be aware, I am proud to identify myself as a bus man. I’ve worked in the bus industry for close to thirty years, and as such I am extremely passionate about all industry trends, events, news and – most importantly – the people involved. Anything that stands to significantly affect the sector, therefore, can usually grab hold of my attention.
The results of the recent 2015 General Election are going to have potentially far-reaching consequences for the bus industry – and public transport in general. And with austerity set to bite public departments even harder I’m sure I am not alone in wanting to see the government recognise the importance of public transport by investing in it rather than cutting it.
Buses make a vital and significant contribution to the economy, yet so often they appear to be overlooked by policy makers and underfunded by government. I think it is worth bearing in mind the words of Claire Walters, Chief Executive of Bus Users UK, who said: “If society is to benefit fully from what the bus has to offer then the UK Government needs to take action.”
This subject got me thinking about what the Government could do to ensure society realises the benefits that genuine investment in the bus sector would bring. So I’ve been thinking about what I would do if I were able to inform and direct government policy.
While this is obviously a hypothetical situation, I do think there’s value in highlighting some policies that could really benefit the bus industry. So, without further ado, let me introduce to you my proposed bus industry manifesto:
1. Longer-term investment
It is my belief that the best way to grow a business and develop an industry is to increase research & development and to encourage a longer-term planning horizon. If more structural investments can be made, then I believe that the benefits for the industry could be significant.
For example, bus companies and managers often recognise the benefit of investing in high-quality IT systems and technology – such as Wi-Fi; cloud technology; RTPI; and journey-planning, to name but a few. Technology brings very real benefits to bus operators in terms of improved fleet safety, as well as increased efficiency and long-term economic benefits through greater passenger numbers, ticket revenue, and more cost-effective modes of working.
When you think about this over the long-term, instead of the typical short-termism, you can see the logic behind such an initiative.
Indeed, evidence suggests that short-term thinking is bad for the overall economy – so by enabling operators to focus their energy and efforts into developing their company – and the bus industry as a whole – we can usher in an era of prosperity to the industry; built on long-term benefits and profits to shareholders; managers; employees; passengers; and also UK society.
2. Tax relief for regular bus users
Governments around the world are looking for ways to improve safety on their roads, while also meeting environmental targets and ensuring the mobility needs of their citizens are met effectively. Because of this, sustainable transport initiatives are increasingly being promoted. However, as we discuss in this article, a challenge governments and campaigners often face is encouraging the public to make use of buses and other forms of public transport.
I believe one of the most effective ways of increasing ridership – and also passenger retention – is by highlighting the economic benefits of taking the bus instead of the private car.
Because of this, I think the government should offer bus users a loyalty card, which would accrue points that would equate to tax relief for that person.
Not only would this encourage people to use the bus more regularly – and thus increase revenues for bus operators, while also helping the government meet environmental, public mobility and road safety targets – it would also present an opportunity to invest in modern technology, such as ETMs and software that could track and monitor passenger usage of buses.
This would give bus operators and local authority transport planners invaluable information about areas that have higher ridership figures, for example, and can thus tailor services and schedules far more effectively.
3. Reinstate the fuel-duty rebate
As many bus industry professionals will know, the fuel-duty rebate (FDR) was a vital part of running an efficient, profitable organisation – since it offset the significant impact of fuel costs. The new bus service operators grant (BSOG) was cut by the last coalition government by 20%. As a Guardian article noted, this has seen local authorities reduce funding for bus services, and more than 2,000 routes or services have been lost, according to the Campaign For Better Transport.
Yet cuts to this funding is counter-intuitive, because bus services provide vital stimulus to the economy as a whole. Indeed, as Greener Journeys notes, bus commuters generate over £64 billion economic output every year, and £27.2 billion a year in value for the retail and leisure industries. This value stands to be significantly reduced if cuts to the BSOG continue, which is why I advocate the reintroduction of the full FDR – to the 100% level last seen in 1994.
This would ensure bus routes can be maintained or reintroduced where they have been cut. And it would also enable bus operating companies and local authorities to invest money otherwise spent covering fuel costs on other vital systems and services – and indeed make the previously outlined investments in modern technology, which can bring numerous benefits to all involved.
4. Enhance passenger information and increase accessibility to buses
Effective passenger information – that is information which is accurate, reliable, consistent, and easy to access – goes hand in hand with increasing bus accessibility. We’ve started to see changes in the way people access information, with shifts away from printed publicity and toward smartphone apps, mobile websites and social media.
To ensure the industry is equipped to effectively work with these trends, the government should encourage and support investment in modern, high-quality information systems, which can meet the needs of passengers while also providing benefits to operators.
For example, integrating previously disparate systems, interfaces and platforms, such as real-time data, fixed route schedules and live travel disruption services, can streamline operations while also improving data quality and consistency by removing data duplication and risk of human error. This in turn improves the quality of the information passengers receive, which can encourage members of the public to use – and then re-use – the bus.
Meanwhile, by increasing the number of stopping points and improving the facilities at these bus stops in strategic areas, such as close to shopping and business centres, I also believe we will see a real boost to local economies. Indeed, this builds on the evidence in Gloucestershire, where the local council notes how “statistics show the value of transactions in town is greater for bus users than car users – in short, the people spending their money here and helping local businesses and the local economy to grow are bus users.”
In order for the UK to keep benefitting from the economic stimulus of bus users, it is imperative that we ensure the travelling public have access to the information they need to plan their bus journeys and make informed travel decisions; while also providing them with the facilities and services they need to take the bus again and again.
5. Mandatory industry forums and conferences
I think one of the most valuable and productive ways of improving the bus industry is a simple one. And it’s based on the belief that collaboration and communication are paramount in building a sustainable industry that works for everyone involved – from vehicle manufactures through to bus operators, local authorities and, of course, the passengers themselves.
By arranging mandatory industry forums and conferences, in which members across the bus industry attend and actively participate, I believe we will help revolutionise bus services. Just think how valuable input from real bus users could be to manufacturers – who might not consider how the layout of stairs on double decker buses makes it difficult for elderly passengers to access the top floor. Or how useful it would be for bus operator partners to share best practices and ideas – ensuring productivity, efficiency and revenues are maximised. And also how worthwhile it would be to have local authorities working closely with bus operators in sharing AVL, real-time and fixed-route data – so that the quality of IT systems and services is improved.
In many ways, what I’m suggesting isn’t radical; rather, it is founded on the simple principle that we are all part of the bus industry family – and each of us therefore has the potential to share unique and valuable insight into how we can ensure the UK has the sort of high-quality bus industry it deserves.
I believe that by signing up to this manifesto, the Government will be able to maximise the significant economic, societal and environmental benefits of bus services. Indeed, it is critical that buses form a crucial part of government policy. As Claire Haigh, CEO of Greener Journeys, said: “Every pound invested in buses is an investment in the future of Britain’s communities, high streets and city centres, young people and our future prosperity.”
Of course, the steps I’ve outlined are only a few pledges of potentially hundreds, which would all serve to improve the UK bus industry if adopted by the government. So what pledges would you bring? We’d love to hear your thoughts on what other points we should include in our bus industry manifesto – after all, it’s a manifesto for all of us, so we all have the right to contribute. Please do get in touch in the comments section below.