If bus operators want customers, then they need to provide the right information


This not a new topic but one that remains resolute despite being a basic requirement – the lack of reliable information about bus services. Getting it right is not a technical challenge given the digitisation of data but the essentials are still missing from many services. If information is missing or wrong, no-one will use buses; user expectations are high but met with indifference, confusion and with some notable exceptions, mediocrity.

In the beginning

Some operators manage to provide the basics, although it tends to be local authorities that provide better, more comprehensive coverage of what operates where. Bus timetables are often confusing at the best of times with regular seasonal changes, timing variants and temporary alterations. All this lends itself to the digitised world in which large databases can be updated easily, or so we are led to believe. However, information for potential users is not provided in the way it should be, particularly if we want more people to transfer from car to bus, most of whom won’t have a clue where to start.

Let me explain by example. Our daughter is now at university and despite a jaundiced view of buses – First wouldn’t pay back on an annual ticket to get to school despite one term being cancelled with no buses running and wanted an argument instead – she intends to use buses to get around Greater Manchester for her placements connected with university. She is familiar with some parts of the area but not others and has a number of destinations to get to such as hospitals and district health centres, some just once and others more regularly, interspersed with teaching sessions elsewhere.

There is a realisation that there are lots of operators which don’t mention anyone else’s services

So begins the quest to find out which buses go where and when. There is a realisation that there are lots of operators which don’t mention anyone else’s services. This is compounded by Vantage services being operated by First and Magic Bus being part of Stagecoach. Overcoming this by finding a comprehensive view requires use of the Transport for Greater Manchester’s online journey planner. This is lacking because, as with other journey planners, it assumes you know where you are going in some detail before you start interrogating it. To find out how to get from one area to another is something of a challenge because there is nothing useful such as a map of routes that relates to real life – in fact, finding an area map is impossible because there doesn’t appear to be one. How basic is this?

With a lot of digging, it is possible to discover Go North West’s network but finding out about selected routes is difficult, even where they have some sort of part-comprehensible timetable attached. Google Maps is a useful source for locating bus stops and services but this shouldn’t be the first line of enquiry. It’s got to the point that the railway has reached with so many possibilities that none of them make sense and it takes longer to find out about a service than it does to make the journey.

Secret pricing

Having identified what the options might be, the next challenge is to find out how to purchase a ticket, particularly if the journey is needed for several successive days. This really is a secret because there is no mention of fares anywhere other than day tickets and season tickets of various sorts. On top of this is a helpful comment about smart cards needing to be ITSO-compliant. The range is bewildering – some two dozen possibilities at least for Greater Manchester – depending on whether it is operator-specific, multi-operator or tram plus bus, peak but mainly offpeak, excepting bus/train options which remain elusive. Actual information about peak services and fares is hard to come by. There are bus and tram options for all ages (except anyone of working age who isn’t a student) but identifying if they are good value or not is impossible because there is no indication of what typical fares from A to B might be. The only way of finding out how much single and return journeys cost is by waiting at the bus stop until the bus arrives then negotiating with the driver, hardly a 21st century sales experience.

All this is singularly unimpressive. It is incredible that for a product that really needs customers, there is such patchy information about what is on offer and how much it costs

All this is singularly unimpressive. It is incredible that for a product that really needs customers, there is such patchy information about what is on offer and how much it costs. This is a truly messed up opportunity because operators, local authorities and others all want more people to use buses but can’t organise themselves to provide clear and simple messaging. What is worse is that if information about bus services is comprehensive, adopts a customer-led approach and is intelligible then everyone benefits – users, operators and society. We hear a lot about technology but here it seems not to be a technology challenge but an institutional one. Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has pushed buses up the agenda and no doubt franchising services would help coordination and information availability even if it doesn’t generate more users. The technology is in place but despite years of trying, agreements on ticketing still can’t be secured.

The problems that potential users face is not confined to one conurbation; while some areas get it right, others do not. New Year’s Day is an example where it could be expected that bus services are altered. One of our local providers, First, had a comment on its website to explain that due to technical difficulties, the information it provided could be wrong; in other words, the information available is entirely useless. A nearby bus stop which normally has a variety of services includes a real time display which announced that users should refer to timetables. A real time display of services a few feet away from the stop was carrying on as usual with its rolling list of possibilities, none of which were running. In fact it turned out that there weren’t any buses at all and the local depot’s doors were convincingly closed. This isn’t about staff having a deserved day off on a public holiday, its about failing to tell anyone with even a hint of robustness. Ironically, the only buses in evidence were rail replacement services because there weren’t any trains running either due to engineering works.

Enabling change

Every policy statement talks about shifting car users to buses but very few have any commitment towards measures that achieve it rather than through rhetoric. This works on the principle that if it is said often enough then someone will believe it (as practised by Trump and aped by the current UK administration to plaster over its blunders). The image of bus services has taken a huge battering, not helped by people who don’t know any better, epidemiologists included, advising people to shun public transport. An essential initial step is simple messaging and we all know what happens when simple messaging is messed up.

Bus services shouldn’t be a secret, the intimacies of which are only revealed to a dedicated minority of users

Bus services shouldn’t be a secret, the intimacies of which are only revealed to a dedicated minority of users. Even where efforts have been made, the message is diluted such as big graphics on buses telling you that services run ‘up to every ten minutes*’ for which the asterisk advises that this isn’t always the case and that the 47/47B/48 doesn’t run on Sundays; rarely is it mentioned that pricing compares well against public car parking and it certainly won’t mention that it takes longer on the bus because the highway authority is frightened of upsetting car users by introducing bus priority measures. No wonder that those sacred car users remain defiantly unmoved. A reliable bus service is a good proposition provided that all its components are delivered effectively including the information available beforehand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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