I’ve just watched an advert for Uber on the telly. It was one of those mini-epics that pulls at certain heartstrings. In it, the ever-busy career Mum manages to get home via our hero in the driving seat of the cool mini-cab (if I can call it that) in time to see her offspring. You can do it all with Uber. There’s no doubting the power of this disrupter. I use it on occasion. It’s ridiculously simple and fun to watch, as the little Uber car on your screen cruises the streets to where you’re waiting. No faff.
Buses are so yesterday, aren’t they? Driven by surly, burly blokes, regularly late, with routes that go on forever, and populated by dodgy losers who have no other transport options.
We know at least some of the above isn’t always true. But over the last 40-odd years, the bus industry has allowed this hugely damaging perception to evolve, barely threatening to seriously rewrite the narrative.
It’s hugely challenging to turn the ship around. An often hostile press easily finds ever-willing “wronged” passengers and local politicians who can spot a voting opportunity at a hundred yards (especially around local council election times) to paint a picture of the damned, waiting for a perpetually-late or non-existent service. Yet the industry itself has to take at least part of the blame for where we now find ourselves. For too many years, there’s been an undercurrent of “take it or leave it” from too many parts of the bus world. An “understanding” that many of it’s customers have only one choice – and they’ll have to be back tomorrow, despite the rubbish service. This doesn’t exist everywhere, but I still see too much of it. It isn’t explicitly termed, but it’s definitely there.
Uber has come pretty quickly to the table. So has the upsurge in cycling. A resurgence in light rail is popular. The bus industry, despite being on a downward trajectory for far too many years, now finds itself not only increasingly challenged, but faces a fight for it’s very existence in coming years, if it’s not careful.
There’s lots to overcome. Operators aren’t in control of their entire “offer”. We might like to compare a bus operator with a supermarket – and it’s often interesting – but Tesco has absolute control of everything you experience, once you walk through the door. A bus operator has virtually no control over the one thing that dominates people’s bus experiences – reliability. Congestion is costing us dear. And another USP of the Uber experience is that they can often dodge jams by turning off down side roads, etc. Another is the commercial bus operator’s whole business plan. The concessionary bus pass is a terrible mess, from a funding perspective. It’s social benefits are priceless, but it’s back office funding streams are hugely disruptive. And finding drivers is increasingly challenging. We’re never going to really get over the fact that the hours can be anti-social, but do we value drivers with remuneration that reflects the professional, often challenging role of the driver? I’m no accountant, but huge pay rises won’t be possible, and again the business model won’t allow it – but when you see some operators “proudly” advertising rates that don’t even get near shelf-stackers in budget supermarkets, you have to ask who is going to be attracted to that?
Bleak? From one side of the mountain, maybe. Insurmountable? Not on your nelly.
Challenging, it might be, but the industry needs to big itself up. Like it’s never done before.
There’s a lot of good practice around. The UK Bus Awards highlights much of this, and I genuinely bristle with pride when I read the booklet of winners every year. The industry I love as a passenger CAN and DOES get it right. The winners get their five minutes of fame in the local press – and that’s where it ends. The trick is to get that feelgood feeling into the mainstream at every opportunity, every day, every week, every month. A co-ordinated mega-push that says that this isn’t a down-trodden industry, providing services of last resort, but a vibrant mover of people that is efficient, attractive and value for money. It is relevant to people’s daily lives. It deserves a serious spot in people’s mobility plans, alongside rail, alongside Uber.
There will be the inevitable ridicule. But look at “Britain Runs On Rail” as a campaign. It says “we’re proud”. People might hiss at stories in the Metro of “commuter hell”, but here is a definitive lesson in positiva from another part of the public transport World.
The bus industry has many a great story to sell. But there is no campaign that is co-ordinated to string it all together. And certainly not one that builds on something like “Catch The Bus Week”, which, for all it’s great intentions, still feels ultimately like a novelty week that ends with everyone taking a huge sigh of relief and agreeing to do it all again, same time, same place, next year.
The bus world needs to stop feeling sorry for itself, stop the underlying arrogance that says “take it or leave it”, and start shouting and letting it all out, so that people who currently don’t “bus” might – just might – start thinking about trying it.
And that’s where operators also need to try like never before to make every journey one that people leave, thinking, “yeah, using buses is part of me, part of my regular routine”. It’s one mega-package that needs the following all on board;
– Senior managers
– Middle managers
– Other staff
– Passengers – as champions of the cause
But more to the point, it needs the commitment – both financially and in hearts and minds – to keep on hammering away for the long-term.
If there’s been suggestions from within the bus industry that industry body CPT hasn’t been banging the drum loudly enough, then it’s time for it to provide the wherewithal to emulate the likes of the FTA.
Buses. Are. People. They have been since the days of horses dragging them through the streets. But today’s buses largely have an image problem. It’s time for an endearing campaign to make them relevant once again to the masses. Shout, bus industry. Shout. Let it all out.