My youngest child, Sienna,has embraced the bus as the tool to help her expand her horizons. I hope it becomes a lifetime habit

We need to find more young bus users, and keep them

We may have finally cracked it! My 16-year-old daughter Sienna is a bus convert! Last week she passed a 458 to Staines in the street and pointed to it and said, with a sense of possessiveness and pride: ‘That’s my bus!’ Better still, her bro (17) and sister (20) show absolutely no signs of wanting to learn to drive. These are good times in the Warner household!

I’m particularly excited because Sienna is generally one who likes to follow fashion and wouldn’t dream of doing something if it was out of sync with her peer group or would make her stand out as a bit nerdy – whereas I used to play Subbuteo, spot trains or collect Chaka Khan CDs when I was her age. So, if she’s converted, then her mates probably are too. However, I need to understand how it has come about and whether this is a template that gives hope to us all in the bus sector.

As with all things associated with bringing up kids, the role of the parent can never be underestimated but it’s possibly about doing those things that actually don’t cause rebellion. So, all the while that I would be vocally extolling the virtues of travelling by bus, buses were boring, weird and something that was adult territory, rather than practical and funky. Like with all teenagers, if you tell them to do something, they will undertake the exact opposite and the shutters will come down, so in some respects, you’re better off telling them that buses are no-go areas.

In Sienna’s case, it came naturally, she likes being self-sufficient and enjoys her own company. Whereas her siblings might be the last to wake up in our household, she’ll be up and out before all of us. She enjoys being inquisitive, working it out, Googling to find the Surrey council website with a download of the 458 timetables and working out how she will go about her trip. We think that the youth of today want it all on a plate, but to an extent, the complexity of making a journey, of connecting routes, interchanges, times and fares are what got me so entranced by transport and navigating all this is a sense of independence, wonderment and achievement for teenagers suddenly finding their freedom. I see with all three of them, their sense of pride when coming home from a day bobbing around all parts of London.

I’m not saying that the prospect of travelling on the 458 defined her choice of future education but it’s part of the overall experience and sense of independence, freshness and adventure

It’s also interesting to see how actually what we consider to be a distressed purchase is actually part of the overall experience and a key choice factor when teenagers make big decisions. Sienna has turned down a place at the excellent local private school to go to go to college in an interesting location. On some days that journey will involve a couple of buses and maybe a train. It will mean new scenery, new coffee shops to hang out in, and the opportunity to widen her social circle considerably while studying interesting new subjects. I’m not saying that the prospect of travelling on the 458 defined her choice of future education but it’s part of the overall experience and sense of independence, freshness and adventure. In the same way, it’s interesting how into adulthood, folk talk nostalgically about their commute by bus to school or college. I recall more about the 61 bus to Chislehurst from 1984-1990 than I do about the school itself and that’s not just because I am a transport weirdo.

But to make bus travel for youngsters who aren’t perhaps as inquisitive or up for a challenge as my youngest, there are some pretty obvious steps to be made. Making Traveline more visible, well known and accessible, as a National Rail Enquires equivalent for bus, would be a starting point to avoid folk having to Google ‘bus from Shepperton to Staines’ (or wherever would be a start). So too, awareness of the local county council 16-18 student card
– it took her college to let her know about this, and even then a rather complicated process for her having to list options on which routes to select as her preferred ones. I then had to suggest that this was most likely irrelevant but a way of the scheme allocating reimbursement to operators. Transparency around the end-to-end fare would also be helpful – I genuinely had no clue whatsoever what it would cost until she made her first trip.

Then there’s the issue of drivers. In our house (along with other teenagers I’m told), there’s a whole lingo and one is ‘NPCs’ (‘non-playable character’) which in essence refers to ‘bots’ – people in the background, almost like ‘extras’ in a movie, but who keep things moving to serve you, but do not interact. Uber drivers are seen as classic NPCs, because they turn up, say your name, drive and drop you off and that’s it. No one holds it against them for their automated role and expectations of them doing any different are low – indeed, it’s almost an irritant if they want to distract you from daydreaming out of the window or on your phone. However, bus drivers are viewed negatively if they are ‘NPCs’ – for the hassle of having to find a bus stop, wait for a bus, understand the fare, be surrounded by other customers and on an old bus, they are expected to at least interact, be friendly and simplify the journey experience, as has happened hitherto with my daughter and her ‘favourite driver’ – a smiling, caring and engaging lady.

As bus drivers have improved over the years and so too customer service across society – certainly from the 1970s and 1980s – Generation Y and Z can’t understand it if they come across a rude one, now and then. It’s just not acceptable to them and they can’t get their heads around it. If I recounted every instance of a rude driver on the 61 to school in Chislehurst to my parents, back in the day, then there would have been a conversation more evenings than not, but a lack of customer care from drivers was just accepted practice. Now, if it happens, there’s a tale to be told at home from the kids. What seems clear though is that bus drivers need not lapse into ‘NPC’ territory.

Other customers play a role too. In teenage speak, “goofy” is to be avoided. I am regularly chided for being goofy which is, in effect, someone who is incredibly naff both in attire, and body language and is, well, a bit of a hen-pecked wimp. I’m told I don’t present myself confidently, in a statesmanlike way, have weird mannerisms and I guffaw at my own comments nervously. In effect, I’m not one to be seen in public. I’m not suggesting that bus companies try and purge from their vehicles fellow goofy people, but we should seek to attract the full demographic and gender spectrum of society. Maybe a marketing campaign with famous young celebrities, a poster pin-up boy and girl as the faces of travelling by bus would be helpful. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, like a party or nightclub – if you have the ‘in crowd’ there, then that pulls more and more like-minded folk and soon it’s the hippest joint in town. The problem of course with youngsters is that beauty and perfection are everything and whilst this is wrong and totally discriminatory, it is what it is sadly and extends everywhere they go – be it the bus, club, coffee bar or retail outlet. You never see teenagers hanging around the local charity shop or model railway exhibition for a reason.

So, what next for my daughter? After the initial buzz of excitement borne of a few late summer holiday bus trips to the shops and now to college, how does travelling by bus remain cool and solos over Uber or the car (I’m told that solos means better than, since you asked)? On a wet Tuesday morning in November when the novelty has worn off, will the bus have sustained a consistent service experience – can it genuinely play the long game?

In many other sectors, we would also, round about now, expect a company to become aware of the sudden interest of a new customer and reach out and celebrate it and try and trigger some positive advocacy

In many other sectors, we would also, round about now, expect a company to become aware of the sudden interest of a new customer and reach out and celebrate it and try and trigger some positive advocacy. However, at the moment, we’re still unsure as to whether a season ticket can be purchased with her Student Card, rather than day fares and whether in doing so she can also purchase a point-to-point ticket. How cool would it be for her to receive an email or pack in the post cheerfully thanking her for being a bus convert and then reaching out, classic CRM style, to find out more about her and provide offers and tips tailored to her interests, alongside an incentive to tell her mates the benefits of travelling by bus and getting them on board? In fairness, many bus companies attend Freshers Fairs and have impressive introductory packs, but colleges and schools with sixth forms seem to be forgotten. Sienna should be living ‘rent free in the mind’ of the bus company, as the expression goes – in effect, constantly being thought about by them, without her knowing.

A word too about Uber. My son and elder daughter view travelling by Uber as an integral component of their lives, whereas Sienna, who is slightly younger, almost prefers the bus because it is different to Uber and therefore, her form of transport. When she starts to go out later to parties, restaurants and nightclubs, then I suspect Uber will come into play. I do believe that the situation isn’t binary and that both Uber and buses can reside harmoniously. I also think that as an industry, we should also view Uber more as part of the public transport landscape and not as a threat. I wonder whether bus companies that cannot afford to run services late in the evenings or on Sundays could arrange tie-ups with Uber (and other taxi companies) and there could be some form of co-marketing. Anything that encourages folk to go out more and also not to purchase and use their own car has got to be a good thing.

I do genuinely believe that car ownership is going to be in decline for the first time in decades. There’s far less of a clamour among my kids and their peers to learn to drive

I do genuinely believe that car ownership is going to be in decline for the first time in decades. There’s far less of a clamour among my kids and their peers to learn to drive. Back in our day, peer pressure forced you to take out driving lessons the moment you turned 17, almost a rite of passage. I don’t see that now – the cost of petrol, insurance, lessons and buying a car is so prohibitive and with Uber accessible and easy to use, alongside a genuine improvement in the quality of branding and on-board experience on buses (even if networks and frequencies have declined over time), mean that youngsters are less bothered about driving. It’s also much harder to pass a test than before (speaking as someone who has failed four times and never passed), with the slightest forgotten look in the wing mirror causing you to fail!

There is, of course, the whole environmental issue – the youth of today appear to be far more cognizant of a carbon footprint than they did when I was a lad. Quite frankly, and maybe I hung around with the wrong crowd, we didn’t give two hoots and I swear in all my time at school and then further education, I never came across a fellow student that ever mentioned the importance of the environment. Remember these were the days when there were no such things as recycling – we just shoved everything in a dustbin and left it at the end of the drive once a week to be taken away.

I’m wary that teenagers have fads – interests come and go, and so too routines. For now, I’m quietly celebrating bringing up one of my kids the right way and Sienna seems to be enjoying bus travel. I’m going to monitor the situation carefully to keep her on the straight and narrow, so this enthusiasm keeps going. It would be good if our local bus operators could give a helping hand with some pro-active engagement and marketing, alongside the service being tip-top, day-in, day-out going forward. I’m crossing my fingers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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