The sad truth is that too many bus services are at best tolerable. We need to make them desirable if we are to achieve modal shift

A welcoming sight?

Travelling on a number of local bus services in the south of England with some industry friends recently, I was, quite frankly, very disappointed, rather downhearted and a little furious. Oh, the ‘services’ were fine – more or less on time, reasonably clean and all the drivers drove well and were pleasant and helpful. But, but, but, if we’re expecting hordes of people to switch from cars to buses to save the planet (which is one of the many things that has to happen, I hope we all believe) we need to put in an awful lot more effort to make the switch ‘desirable’ (to coin my phrase) for them. If these examples were anything to go by, that’s far from the case at the moment.

First of all let me be fair and say there are fabulous, shining examples out there where what I’m about to describe is very much not true, where style, comfort, excitement and desire are in abundance (many due to our efforts, he said modestly) but not these, nor many others I’ve also been on recently. On this trip the buses were, in the main, drab, dull, lacklustre and completely undesirable. Not everything was gut-wrenchingly hideous but it was dispiriting in the extreme. Engineer’s grey (not nice toned greys either) was everywhere; sometimes floor to ceiling, plus seats as well – soul numbingly depressing. And chipped paint everywhere, especially around the doors – hardly showing much care or pride in the product or its presentation – unforgivable and scary.

Seats themselves weren’t particularly comfortable either; many were crammed in too close to the row in front and don’t even think about the back row as being anything resembling seats you may want to sit on. Who in their right mind would want to switch to something bum-numbingly uncomfortable? Even the most evangelical climate warriors will find it hard to consider such a change a realistic choice.

Seats should be comfortable wherever they are on a bus, not merely a statistic in a specification. I understand the desire to keep prices of new buses affordable, but to sacrifice passenger comfort to the degree it has been on many standard models really does fly in the face of what buses are actually for; and is insulting to passengers, too.

Several buses didn’t just rattle a bit, they rattled a lot – loudly, continuously and frighteningly

Several buses didn’t just rattle a bit, they rattled a lot – loudly, continuously and frighteningly. On one, a Mercedes belonging to major group (this is a bus usually praised for being better in this area), the constantly clattering roof panels were making such a din that the lady sitting in front of me was visibly alarmed and tutting loudly. That journey between Guildford and Woking she’s unlikely to look forward to next time and, more than likely, she’ll try and find another way to make it that avoids using a bus at all. That is shocking, but all too common. Just about every bus also suffered from that awful noisy juddering and shuddering of the doors every time we went over an even slightly rough bit of road.

I have spoken to engineers who have explained the problems of low floor bus construction, but I also get the perception that no-one in the purchasing side of bus companies or from the manufacturers puts elimination of rattles very high on the agenda. I suspect many of them rarely travel on a bus that regularly, and some never, so they are unaware of just how much the cacophony of rattles is something that makes bus travel not particularly pleasant, very irritating and sometimes quite scary.

And talking of noise, even with electric propulsion, passengers are still subjected to too many high-pitched whines, whirrs and whooshes from not very well designed (harmonically speaking) gearboxes, axles and all manner of ancillary fans, and bits and bobs. Shouldn’t sophisticated harmonics theory and practice be part of every engineer’s education? Make the effort, guys (that includes all genders); I reckon you could exponentially improve the aural environment for passengers using your brain power and dogged determination.

Nothing to do with the build of the bus but, I can only conjecture, everything to do with the lack of care or lack of ability by bus company management from boardroom to depot level, was the state of information available. On the same company’s buses as the frightened Guildford lady, we spotted notices on display that were years – yes, years! – out of date with telephone numbers no longer valid. That’s uncaring and demonstrates a criminal disdain for your customers, let alone your brand. Then there were notices half covering old notices – absolutely shocking and hideously scruffy. And what about those ridiculous ‘service change’ A4 posters with lots and lots of tiny print of convoluted hard-to-follow over-wordy attempts to explain such changes, many of which were hard to comprehend and impossible to remember. To cap it all, most were stuck in a place where only the person sitting close by could read them, hardly a shining example of how to communicate.

And in several bus stations, or bus boarding areas, information was on display but a new user wouldn’t know how to begin understanding any of it. It was a case of going up and down looking at each display in turn until, pot luck, you find the timetable or departure list you want. But you’d have had to know in advance the route number and ultimate destination, otherwise you’d have great difficulty in finding the right one. On too many occassions, the displays were counter-intuitive, as whoever programmed the software was merely a programmer and not an expert in communication graphics. They were no better than technical spreadsheets. If we want people to switch to bus we have to seduce them by making it as easy as possible for them to ‘read the menu’ in a way that makes it easy to understand and is actually attractive so they are drawn to it in the first place.

When someone makes a journey by bus (or train for that matter) our duty is not just to get them from A to B in one piece. That person is not a lump of unfeeling cargo, they are a customer, a sentient being with hopes, fears, dreams and emotions. They are giving up 10 minutes, half an hour or a lot more of their lives to us. It is our duty to make that 10 minutes so thoroughly enjoyable that they can’t wait to come back and pay to spend more time with us, over and over again. That is good business sense as well as simple good manners. It’s also a good thing to do if we are truly serious about encouraging more people to use the bus instead of going by car. We are, aren’t we?

And talking of cars, we are currently being bombarded with adverts for new cars, new cars to lease at very attractive prices, secondhand cars that you choose online and are delivered you your door (and they’ll come and take it back if you decide you don’t like it), and a lot of them look pretty stylish too. The commercial channels are awash with them and, of course, they’re shown on empty roads and the people enjoying a rose-tinted lifestyle. Uber are telling us not to catch a bus. Mercedes Benz had an advert on a hoarding in full view of train passengers telling them they’d have a better journey if they bought a Mercedes.

We REALLY have to make an enormous effort to make the bus attractive in every way. Low fares and good frequencies aren’t enough on their own

Government at every level isn’t helping, instead churning out sound-bites and hot-air talk. Tory councils on the south coast have ripped up bus lanes (and stated they’re not against them so long as they never impede car drivers). Many also bring in free car parking “to stimulate local economies” and talk about not putting restrictions on the hard done by motorist. Those gloves are off; we REALLY have to make an enormous effort to make the bus attractive in every way. Low fares and good frequencies aren’t enough on their own.

How do we respond? Here’s a chilling thought. It was reported to me that a group senior management figure was overheard to say something along the lines of, “There’s no point in putting any effort into making the bus attractive because the person has already decided to catch a bus.” Yes, they’ll also try never to make that decision again … And tell all their friends how crap it was. Really good management thinking, NOT!

The above comment gives a strong hint as to why buses can present such a dull face; the wrong people with no flair for design or visual chutzpah make the wrong decisions. Not to sound too unkind, but an accountant, engineer or managing director is mostly designed by the gods to have other wonderful skills and best not let loose on things they are were never intended to be let loose on by those same deities. It’s foolish that they are. I mean, you wouldn’t expect your brilliant local plumber to use his expertise in domestic boilers to be able to perform brain surgery, as an extreme example. You wouldn’t put me in charge of keeping your buses on the road, to use another one. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume I know one end of a spanner from the other, whether imperial or metric! The aphorism,”shoemaker, stick to your last,” can be so very true.

I know things have been tough of late for everyone, but now is the moment where we can really encourage people to think about the bus as a viable option. But it’s got to be one hell of a lot better than rather too much of what’s out there at the moment. It really has.

About the author: Ray Stenning is the award-winning Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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