Buses are all about bums on seats. Or, more specifically, getting a good commercial return from your services (seeing that, in theory, you could fill a bus full of “bums on seats”, but if all those bums belong to concessionary pass holders, the return may not be great…)
Making bus services simpler to understand is, of course, a large part of attracting new users. The look of bewilderment on the faces of potential new users can lead to the abandonment of the bus as an option before any “wooing” with posh seats and Wi-Fi has even begun.
What to make of the seemingly current trend to re-number services down to single or double-digit route numbers, in order to “simplify” matters? I’ve rambled on about this before. The enthusiast in me isn’t particularly keen – bits of history are eliminated for a start, and for those of us who DO understand the local bus network, the potential for a reverse-effect is very real – new users might well find it simpler – but us “old heads” have to learn it all again!
But if I remove the “enthusiast” cap, I’m fairly open-minded to what this “simplification” can achieve. Having a “Worzel Gummidge” approach (2 heads) is important.
Two recent observations, whilst just idling around my local Black Country network recently stand out. I like to arrogantly think I know my own patch, so I pretty much switch off when getting around my area.
However, standing in Dudley bus station awaiting an 87 the other day suddenly nudged my conscious state. The 87 stand is often used by incoming drivers to unload. On stand, just arriving was an 82, having weaved it’s way around several estates from Wolverhampton. Next up was my bus, about to load – an 87. But my 87 carries route branding for the 87 – and it’s sister route 82. But it isn’t the 82 that’s just come in from Wolverhampton. It’s the 82 from Birmingham to Bearwood, which the 87 shares out of the 2nd City to form a common headway before they go their separate ways. It’s attractive for the good folk of Birmingham – but if you’re trying to make sense of the Dudley network, you’re being exposed to two separate 82s!
I don’t know if this matters. Are people confident enough to know that the 82 coming in to Dudley from Wolverhampton is not the 82 they see plastered on the side of the 87 bus? Of course the regulars are, but what about newbies to bus travel?
The second bit of “simplification-that-may-not-be-simple” relates to at-stop information.
A recent round of evening tender changes has resulted in a few operator swap-arounds. So new at-stop timetables have been put up by what used to be Centro (now “Transport for West Midlands” or “West Midlands Combined Authority” or still “Network West Midlands” – too many “brands”?).
We now have the splitting off of the daytime and evening frequency on 2 routes, with the evening and Sundays put onto another timetable. A third timetable by a third operator during the day adds to the potential confusion.
Now, it may be that “computer says no” when it comes to the simple combination of all three routes into one timetable (after all, they’re all going to the same destination) but is it not beyond the wit of mankind to override the dreaded technology and make something dead-simple for passengers to refer to? Or is that a “resource” issue again?
Either way, it still isn’t as simple as it could possibly be for our intrepid new bus user. The chances are, they’ll probably shrug their shoulders and creep back to the certainty of their car, and if the likes of taxi and Uber-like entities reduce their fares by much more, how will buses attract new users?
Bells and whistles are great – but its that old chestnut the “jigsaw” that is undoubtedly key. Fit together the pieces of smart, attractive buses, proper meaningful priority in congested areas, good value fares and “simple to understand” nuts and bolts, and there’s a fighting chance.
Unfortunately, there are too little areas where all the ducks are lined up for this to happen. And frustratingly it’s the really simple things that still aren’t being done.