Blog post:

The image of the bus: Time for an extreme makeover?

Pete Adney | March 23, 2015

Tags: Public transport | makebusesgreat |

Having been part of the bus industry for so long, I have seen countless changes down the years – some so subtle that perhaps only the drivers would notice them. But collectively these tiny changes have resulted in a big change in the public perceptions of buses – sadly not always for the better.

However, in recent times I think the trend has shifted back towards more positive changes, and I actually think we are now in a period where the image of bus travel is improving once again.

Before I go any further it is important to note that this assertion comes with the caveat that perception of the bus does of course vary with region. The obvious example here is London, where bus travel is a different proposition to other parts of the country.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the physical appearance of some of the new buses seen on the streets of London. Those new Routemaster buses are so much more attractive than those found elsewhere, and I believe this has a profound impact on the perception of bus travel.

Photo of a new Routemaster
Image by Aubrey Morandarte

To illustrate, think of the study by the Scottish Government, which found that newer buses were viewed more positively by passengers because they looked modern and were easier to get on and off; whereas older buses, described as looking ‘run down’ and being ‘wee rickety things’, were viewed as unsafe, unreliable and not user friendly.

The new Enviro 400 MMCs rolled out by National Express West Midlands for the Stourbridge to Birmingham corridor have been very positively received by bus users, but of course investing in new buses requires funds that many operators – particularly those operating rural services – simply don’t have. So what else can bus service providers do to improve the image of bus travel?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear me mention technology as a tool here, but I’d argue there’s a huge role to be played, because more often than not it’s less about physical appearance of the bus and more about the service offered to passengers that truly matters.

Technology can help operators to build lasting, trusting relationships with their passengers; or to use passenger movements to tailor services to actual demand. In other areas, driver training tools can be used to increase passenger safety and the quality of the overall experience.

The trend towards on-board Wi-Fi is already playing a big role in the changing perceptions of public transport. If you look through a passing bus’s windows, the chances are you will see passengers with their heads bowed, looking at their phones or mobile devices.

The ability to be online anytime helps people stay connected in an increasingly digital world; enabling them to conduct professional work, and communicate easily with their online networks. People can build their own little world on a bus, which they just can’t do in a car.

If we want our buses to attract young professional passengers – who will in turn reinforce a positive image of bus services simply by travelling in this way – we must provide a service they need and are happy to use – and that means investing in the technology that helps them stay connected to the digital world.

But whatever approach we take, the key is to focus all our attention on providing a great service to passengers.

For a fantastic example of how this has been done, check out this case study about Strætó: an operator that succeeded in transforming the way bus travel is perceived in Reykjavik. Though a different country, many of the challenges Strætó faced would be familiar to many UK-based operators – and I’m sure we can all relate to a 25% passenger increase!

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About Pete Adney

Pete Adney has worked in the bus industry for over 30 years: as a driver, inspector, assistant manager, manager, and business analyst. In his present role for Trapeze he forms the crucial connection between what the bus sector needs and technology can provide: on a daily basis that involves everything from system specification to implementation. He prides himself on strong customer relationships and feels fortunate to have been part of the bus industry for so long.

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