My Other Half knows how to press my saloon bells. “It’s a bus”, she often says. “They’re all the same”. Well….
But I elicit bus opinions regularly from her. She’s a commuter, owns a car, but often uses the bus and train to get to and from work. The kind of person the industry needs to keep on board.
This evening, I received some rather annoyed texts. After a long day at work, her bus hadn’t shown. A frequent user of the mobile app with live departures, one such departure had shown up not as “real” time, but “timetabled” time. And the journey was missing. “Why show it on the app and the departure screen in the bus station if it isn’t running?” she protested. She knows the difference between “real” and “timetabled” departures, but points out that where I work – on the railways – the timetables are always “real” time – and that they actually show “cancelled” when the train is cancelled.
Also a problem was the coldness of the bus station, with an unscheduled wait of around 20 minutes for the next service. Notwithstanding the complexity of providing heated bus stations, it was again commented on that on the railway, she can wait in a heated waiting room.
There’s quite a bit of food for thought here. In a world where people are making multi-modal journeys to get from A to B (and increasingly C & D as well) – and is acknowledged by fledgling ideas such as Whim, bringing all modes simply together – the bus here, this evening, is looking yet again like the poor relation.
We’ve had electronic “real” time displays on railway platforms for years. Bus equivalents are still, in chronological terms, a recent phenomenon. When the bus ones work – and that same info is placed in the palm of your hand as a mobile app – it’s incredibly useful. But you have to trust what you’re looking at. Working on the railway as I do, I know people generally trust the information they are seeing in real time. They may not appreciate delays, but they can see – with confidence – what is going on. I don’t get that same feeling of trust from the bus world’s travelling public. And this is mainly due to the regular mix of “real” time and “timetabled” time. Do people readily understand the difference between the two anyway?
Tech is a force for good, in the main. But if we want people to use the bus more often, trust in the product, and appreciation of it is absolutely vital. So I have a question for the bus industry. If the railway can show cancelled journeys for the benefit of it’s passengers, why can’t bus?
My good lady’s cancelled journey this evening would be known by someone in authority at the bus operator. We have phone apps and digital displays in bus stations. We surely have the wherewithal to override the list of departures and add “cancelled” and highlight it in yellow, or something?
Now of course, there will be a million and one reasons why you can’t do that. Lack of resource. Lack of access (will the likes of Transport for West Midlands allow bus operators to override their tech system? Fat chance. The operators aren’t even allowed access to a timetable case in a bus shelter!). Lack of business case to support a human being able to input such information. Where is the case FOR doing something like this?
Again, we must look at the discerning traveller, and the ever-increasing options they have. After a long, hard day at work, a cold, unexpected wait nearly drove my Other Half to the nearby taxi rank, even though she pays £99/month for bus/rail/Metro access. In the end, she hung on, lambasting this state of affairs to me, with me not even trying to defend it.
I think we all accept buses will break down, or be missing a driver, or have some other reason why a particular journey won’t happen. That’s life. But communication – in this ever-increasingly connected world, is more vital than ever. If a bus is listed as departing (as scheduled time, amongst a list of real-time departures) at 18:25, people will expect it to be there. When it disappears off the screen without so much as a sarcastic cyber-wave, people; a) won’t like it, and; b) have less faith in the digital information next time, “real” time or “scheduled”.
If other modes of public transport, such as rail and tram, can do info on cancellations as a matter of course, why not the bus industry? I can hear the arguments now. “Far more bus journeys than rail/tram”, they’ll say. But how many cancellations are there? And if we want people to increasingly use buses as a wider public transport v. Private car “offer”, everything about people’s bus journey has to impress them, from reliability, to value for money, to comfort, to a real advantage over the car, to the very latest information about cancellations and journey options. When someone at the bus company knows a journey isn’t going to run, it should be as simple as tapping a few buttons into a tablet to get that information out electronically as soon as possible. It would give people that same confidence they already have in the worlds of rail and tram.
I shall leave the last word to my Other Half. For a regular public transport user – and car owner – it is rather damning: “To be fair, I expect buses to be ****. They have just fulfilled my expectations today”. If that doesn’t motivate those of us who work in, or care deeply about, the bus industry, I don’t know what will.