It’s fascinating to lose yourself inside the very excellent work that Transport Focus’s Bus Passenger Survey provides (disclaimer: I used to work for them years ago, but don’t let that sway you). In several ways, it either reaffirms your thoughts about a certain operator, or actually surprises your inner prejudices…
Take the other day. I caught a bus out of Wolverhampton, homebound, with the good Lady. She is a regular bus commuter, although not on this section of route, which takes one of the main arteries out of the City, along Penn Road. It was a typically miserable day, rain coming down, the evening peak setting the scene for a crawl out of town that was, actually, slower than walking pace. We were aboard a 16 year-old double decker.
Inside, I was decrying the state of progress. The dual-carriageway awash as per-usual with single-occupancy cars, “white van man” and anything else on wheels that might ascertain a similarity with a slow-motion version of wacky races. Of course the bus was the villain – no one giving us an inch whatsoever when trying to escape a layby. Goodness only knows what that might do to a petrolhead’s street-cred.
Suddenly, my girlfriend pulled her bag away from the window. “Uurrgghh”.
“What?” says I. Something’s dripping on her bag. She is mildly unimpressed.
Hmmmm. I look around at the ambience. It’s actually something I’ve rarely taken a huge amount of notice of, seeing as I’m that used to elderly Dennis Tridents on my local route. But it’s depressing. Enthusiasts might look fondly on a good old workhorse, still earning it’s keep, plodding the streets of the West Midlands after all these years. But look at this. It’s actually dripping spots of dirty rainwater onto passengers.
Elsewhere, I’d already moved a three-quarters drunk bottle of cider from the seat. This after our driver had stood on stand for a good 8 minutes in Wolverhampton, determined to keep us standing in the cold whilst he mooched about inside, perusing the Metro and taking a look upstairs, but obviously unable to remove cider bottle for himself.
The interior décor of our bus looked very tired indeed. Does this translate itself into the company having one of the lowest scores of anywhere in the country for internal cleanliness in the Transport Focus survey?
My girlfriend is resigned to sitting in buses in traffic. She only uses them to and from work. The internal presentation (and dripping water) is what caught her eye, whereas I seem to be subliminally accepting of this poor presentation and more frustrated at what is never-ending congestion and the lack of wherewithal from our elected representatives to actually do something meaningful about it!
So it’s all about perceptions. And we’re both right. And I guess it’s difficult to gauge opinion amongst everyone else on the top deck as to what really matters to them. Are most of my fellow travellers regulars who accept their lot and dream of a day when they might never have to use the bus again? If so, what a damning indictment of the bus industry.
This is not to have an easy pop at National Express West Midlands. In recent years they’ve tried hard. New Platinum vehicles are a step-change in quality to what West Midlands bus users are used to. New travel areas might be adding to the potential for unnecessary confusion, but they might also be saving people money and making bus travel look a bit more attractive in the whole.
But whilst I’m getting all excited about “Whim”, and it’s launch in the West Midlands that encourages people to ditch the car and use just about anything else on wheels – and consolidate it into one package – we must all remember what the “offer” of public transport actually looks like. And if you’re used to sitting in traffic in your own tin box, and the bigger tin box has no discernible benefit in beating the jams, and then drip-drips something wet and dirty onto your expensive jacket or handbag, you might just conclude that in your car you’ll stay.
In the absence of real demonstrable “benefits” of using public transport, it really is all about perceptions…