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It takes hard work and dedication to attract new customers on to buses. So why do we so often fail at the first hurdle, the bus stop?

 

Some bus operators see the value of bus stops and take responsibility for them – others don’t

 

If you had a shop and the council came along and dug up the pavement in front of it so that people couldn’t get into your shop and left it like that for days, or months, you’d rightly be up in arms and trying to get something done about it. So why, when a council no longer has enough time, money or resources to maintain bus stop infrastructure and information, do some bus companies either not notice or just shrug their shoulders? That’s pretty crap management in anyone’s book, and certainly insulting to passengers and to our industry.

A bus company might say their job is just to run the buses. Oh please, wake up and smell the coffee

That’s exactly what I discovered recently in a corner of England, far, far from London. Google Maps still had symbols showing bus stop locations and information about what buses go from there, but on the ground you search in vain for where you should wait for the bus, for there were no bus stops left standing in many locations. And some bus companies are blissfully ignorant of this fact. When we need every passenger we can find and when we are trying to elevate the bus to at least an acceptable form of transport – and some of us a desirable form of transport – this constitutes a gross dereliction, I’d say. A bus company might say their job is just to run the buses. Oh please, wake up and smell the coffee, for god’s sake, my dearest darling hearts. You mean all a retailer needs to do is open the shop door? That’s not how it works, any more. I’m not sure it ever did. We just used to get away with it.

I have heard stories of more progressive bus companies asking local authorities to let them put up excellent material at or on bus stops that informs with style and helps entice/persuade/lure customers on to buses. The response was a firm ‘No way!’ – but the council itself said it wouldn’t put ANYTHING up, because it had neither the manpower nor resources to do it. There’s something deeply worrying about that approach to deliberately not promoting public transport and then not allowing others to do it either.

There were, a couple of months ago (very likely, still are), bus maps up in a corner of one county in the south east of England that were wrong – THREE years wrong in fact (can you credit it?) – and the local authority said it hadn’t the resources to replace them or the money to get them updated. The local bus company said as it wasn’t its responsibility there was nothing it could do (or would do, is what it meant). So, collectively, let’s tell our customers lies. Really good business model, guys and girls; you’re really doing your customers and the industry proud, NOT.

In Tenterden, Kent, a colleague of mine spotted a bus timetable for buses heading in one direction displayed on a bus stop for buses going in the opposite direction. How can so-called public transport businesses allow or even do this? Slapdash, unthinking, irresponsible, stupid… are just four words that come to mind. I’ve heard bus company people say:
“It doesn’t matter; our regular customers know where the bus goes from.” So, you’re not really interested in getting new customers then?

It’s also all too easy to assume we always carry the same customers day in, day out, ad infinitum. But anywhere there is churn, some places more than others. It always used to be reckoned, on average to be about 10%. People change jobs, change their travel patterns, change sex (it’s a modern world; get used to it), move away or die, and others move in. We have to do everything we can to attract new customers all the time. So why do we fail them at the first hurdle, the very point where they need to access the bus?

A common excuse the average person on the street gives for not using buses is, “I don’t know where they go.” So let’s not tell them, eh?

The bus stop is a great point of sale, not merely a nuisance utility bit of street or roadside clutter

I say let’s tell them whatever they need to know to make choosing the bus an easy and obvious choice. The bus stop is a great point of sale, not merely a nuisance utility bit of street or roadside clutter. It should be an attractive beacon of invitation that announces a portal to the system, gives clear, precise information about the system it allows access to (what buses go where and when from it, how and how much you pay, in a form that is easy to understand), and actually encourages you to use that system. It should be welcoming and give confidence to the customer that it’s easy to use and good to use. It’s more or less common sense, isn’t it; basic good business sense, basic public service sense. Future technologies must be allowed to help this. It’s not all about what’s under the bonnet.

Some scheduling systems purport to be able to churn out roadside information, but most I’ve seen only really tell the waiting customer how the buses are scheduled. What I mean is that it is data driven, not customer focussed. An example being because there is a ‘field’ for a route number, if it is only a number 16 that goes from that stop, that number is repeated on every departure time, an unnecessary visual fidget that compromises quick understanding of the information. Likewise, those awful chronological lists that make you have to look elsewhere to see if the 10:46 number 203 goes to where you want it, or do you have to wait for the 216 at 11:05. And if only final destinations are listed on the separate route list, how do you know if it goes to your intermediate destination? It’s not good enough to say that’s all the system will do. Change the ruddy system.

There is really a golden rule that you should never make customers have to keep cross-referencing different bits of information or, worse – and I’ve seen this happen – make them do mental arithmetic to work out the actual time the bus goes. A shocking example of this was a series of departure times listed, only to be annotated that these were the times from the terminus and you have to add six minutes to these times to get the true times that buses left this specific stop. I was told by a ‘defender’ of this way of presenting information that, “if people want to catch the bus, they can work it out for themselves.” You couldn’t make it up, could you? And they get paid to turn away customers… lovely!

One reason that it is sometimes woefully bad in some areas is that people working within bus companies don’t get out and about anywhere near enough on their own (or others) buses to see what it is like on the ground and out in the field. Then there is the ridiculously short-sighted, insular “not my responsibility, mate” attitude. But it is our collective responsibility to get people on to public transport. What the chuffing ’eck are we doing it for otherwise?

It really can be the details that make the heart-warming difference; the touch points rather than the grand gestures. So, the comfort of the seat can have a greater impact on a customer’s positive relationship with the bus company than the fact that the bus has a Euro 6 engine (do that as well); the warm welcoming smile from the driver on a miserable day means an awful lot more to a customer than the corporate message about how much you spent on new buses. And, likewise, the reassurance offered by stylish presentation of accurace, easy-to-understand, easy-to-read, helpful information at bus stops, in bus stations and by the roadside. You can’t afford not to do it.

 

About the author: ay Stenning is the award-winning Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector. Email ray@best-impressions.co.uk

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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