Why Don’t We Just…

I’ve been reading a bit about “populism” recently. It’s seemingly how we got Trump in power, Brexit and Nigel Farage as one of the most recognisable political figures of recent times.

Populism is one of those topics you can talk about forever, without a definitive outcome. But it’s also potentially damaging, because it often simplifies things down a “if only we did this” argument. And this even filters through to buses.

Heaven knows I’ve been having these discussions all of my adult life. Even before “populism” was a thing. But as everything on the road grinds to a halt, and then pollutes the air, killing thousands of us prematurely, “why don’t we just” takes on a new significance. In a world of social media and one-liners, it’s too easy to suggest “if only we did it like this” is a solution to all of our woes.

Mooching through the transport press, I came across this: “Why don’t we just…bring our buses into public control”? You can read it here. It is written by Pascale Robinson. The article, I guess, is written sincerely. It asks a lot of questions borne out of frustration with transport in Greater Manchester – and could apply to any urban city-region. There’s a fair bit of inaccuracy in there too (such as “you cannot have a smart ticket which lets you get on any bus or tram in one City” – sorry Pascale, I have one such smart ticket in my wallet right now – and “many bus companies hate the idea of a daily cap on spend” – so why is National Express West Midlands promoting contactless payments with exactly that “cap”?) I could go on, dissecting several more comments Pascale makes.
But the problem the UK bus industry faces (amongst many) is that these often wildly-written articles aren’t rebuffed, firmly, with clear reasoning. And without that response, the arguments start to take hold.

I recently attended a conference on trams. Everyone loves trams, and there’s no denying that they are really effective people movers and possess a certain “sexiness” which is akin to comparing buses and trams to me to Brad Pitt (but don’t forget, girls – Brad can’t drive a railcar…). But I also detected an element of open hostility towards buses – even from tram industry experts. Pascale thinks I can’t hop from bus to tram to train, whereas I can – and often do. It may not be so seamless in some parts, but in Brum I do it most days. And whichever mode I’m on at any one time is what suits me best at that moment. That’s how we have to view public transport – people increasingly want their mobility to be simple, effective and relevant to them. But there’s too much “demonising” of buses in particular, both for the wrong reasons, and also from people who should frankly know better. On the flip side, some parts of the bus industry also have to up their game.

In the battle against “why don’t we just”, we need to effectively and robustly knock down the false arguments that keep popping up, identify that the likes of congestion can’t be solved by giving the local authority the keys to the bus depot and that if we REALLY want to effect modal change for everyone’s benefit and health, we need to have our politicians making tough choices and offering people a real, quality alternative – and be frank about where we’re currently failing.

Why don’t we just do that?

Advertisements

Who Can See The Cars?

Politicians really ought to have a special Specsavers session just for them. Because it appears that, whilst they can clearly see a bus – maybe a Euro 6-enginned or hybrid clean one – spotting huge numbers of unrestricted private cars and vans idling away in never-ending congestion seems to be proving problematic.

Take Sir Richard Leese. He’s Manchester’s Council Leader. Maybe he’s a bit ruffled by the arrival of Andy Burnham as the City-Region Mayor, with ideas for buses of his own, but the local paper has uncovered potential plans for kicking buses out of Piccadilly Gardens. And it’s all based around the environment.

The state of our air in large urban areas is a concern. It becomes an even bigger concern once you start looking at how many people actually die early due to the effects of poor air quality. You’d think the politicians would be on to it.

But politicians are in the game for the short-term. They may be forgotten heroes the next time the polling station opens for business. And one of the quickest ways to aleinate the electorate, supposedly, is to stop them going places in their cars.

That’s why I sit in conferences year after year listening to grandiose schemes for City Centres that have artists impressions of green spaces and cyclists and pedestrians and happy children and motherhood and apple pie. Who can see the cars?

And yet, having attended one of my first conferences as a wide-eyed teenager, I now find myself in my late forties still turning up, still looking at the glossy brochures, still listening to a brighter tomorrow. And still, when I leave the conference, and watch many of the attendees get into their cars and I trudge off to the bus stop, I find myself in my natural environment as a bus passenger, stuck in stop-start congestion. Cars as far as the eye can see.

In Manchester, Sir Richard seems to think it’s the bus’s fault that air quality is crap around Piccadilly Gardens.

Now granted, if you’ve ever stood here and watched the magic roundabout of Mancunian bus services, there’s a lot of double-decker action going on. But here’s the rub:

The bus industry is largely cleaning up it’s act. Vehicle emissions are cleaner than ever. And moving up to seventy-odd folk on one vehicle is surely better than seventy-odd individuals in seventry-odd cars all idling away in never-ending congestion? I’m no expert, and I never even made the sixth-form at school, but even I can see that.

If I can see the cars, how come Sir Richard can’t?

Manchester’s Metrolink trams are excellent. And you have to say hats off to the City for what it’s achieved in creating the tram network – it far eclipses anything my home City of Birmingham has managed to achieve thus far. But politicians have to learn that trams can’t go everywhere. They may be shiny and swish, and people love them, but they come at a premium. They’re great, but they’re only a (relatively small) part of the public transport offer. Sorry guys and girls, but the good old bus will have to be retained for quite a while yet.

The painful thing for those in power is cars. Maybe that’s why they choose not to see them. If a few very environmentally-friendly buses are choking the good folk of Piccadilly Gardens, what might cars, vans and rest of an episode of Wacky Races be doing across the wider City?

There’s no doubt there’s a job to be done when it comes to the image of the bus, and I don’t mean employing Ray Stenning and thinking job done (although it’s a pretty good start). But that image needs to be the full offer. And that’s why it’s so disappointing to hear a politician like Sir Richard – who ought to be at the forefront of helping buses to provide the best service that they can – coming out with comments like he has.

He has the power to give buses priority, to promote public transport in all of it’s various forms and to tackle damaging congestion, not by hanging the blame for Manchester’s air quality on a busy bus terminus in the City, but by asking fundamental questions about how to tackle stationary lines of traffic to improve that pesky air quality.

First, he needs to see the cars.

Read the Manchester Evening News report here.

Sunday Morning Nightmare

Sunday morning. I have a vision of what England should be. Church bells gently chiming, birds singing in the sycamore tree. Ella had it right.

Actually, you’re more likely to encounter some aggression-fuelled argument over a car-parking space on Sunday mornings by me. It’s November as I write this, which of course means we’re fully into “Christmas” mode. And after a long, hard week at work, what better than to spend the morning of the Sabbath in the vast car park of your local shopping complex enjoying the appalling air quality of thousands of cars all circling around for an elusive (free) car parking space, in order to spend your hard-earned on festive tat?

The other week, it was little better. In my local High Street in Stourbridge, where a similar never-ending game of grab the space ensues, I was treated to more Neanderthal fist-waving from irate motorists arguing with each other about where to leave their hulk of metal. This is what we’ve become.

I relate this appalling tale of woe as I’ve been watching a six-minute video on the Guardian website entitled “Why We Should Be Paying More for Parking”. It’s all very enlightening, and makes entire fools out of most of us who drive cars. You can watch it here Pay MORE for parking, I hear the inner petrol head inside you shriek? No way, Jose. Indeed, my local authority here in Dudley have dangled the carrot of FREE parking on council car parks for two hours, in order to stimulate the High Street.

I get it. It’s politicking at it’s most simplistic and vote-grabbing. Why shouldn’t the council give us something back? And with punch-ups on the car park at Merry Hill’s vast shopping centre for what is already free parking, why should we pay for similar fisticuffs on council facilities? I’m seemingly the only one who has ever argued against it. “It revitalises the traditional centres”, my local Council Leader tells me, over a pint. I do see the point. But it’s desperate stuff. I do understand the worry of local business owners, desperate to stem the loss of trade to folk clicking on Amazon, and others having a Sunday morning brawl up Merry Hill. When I was on the radio, I stuck my neck out and suggested the aforementioned shenanigans on Stourbridge High Street ought to be curtailed once and for all by pedestrianising the lot of it, to create an ambient boulevard, free of polluting cars and mouthy motorists threatening to chew my ear’ole off unless they can park right here, right now. You’d have thought I’d asked to see the Queen pole dancing. Local shopkeepers queued up to tell me how I’d got it all wrong, and that they needed the steady flow of cars to keep trading. Maybe it hasn’t dawned on them WHY a lot of people prefer to walk around the shops – perhaps up Merry Hill – where there aren’t cars attacking them from all angles?

Even one of my bus driving pals throws his hands up in the air and tells me it’s still a society in love with it’s cars. Even if they’re slowly killing us early.

The Guardian video shows us the folly of our ways, and how it could all be different. It isn’t easy. The mindset needs a thorough overhaul. Likely? Not when the council is throwing free car parking like sweets in a kids playground.

I sat through a gruelling 8-hour conference on what devolving powers to local Mayors might mean recently (the things I do for fun). And while it became apparent that it’s all about economic growth (stupid), where were the definite priorities for tackling congestion? There came none. HS2 is a big thing, and rightly so. Connectivity is vital. But jumping in the car and congesting our local environment “because it’s what we’ve always done” has surely got to be tackled? If the big, fast train set is coming, and the excellent tram systems in our City areas are to be enhanced, we’ve still got to do the hard things politically. I still see too many “park here all day for £2”-style banners dotted around car parks uncomfortably too close to city centres. What bus lanes we have are never effectively policed – and when they are, it’s like howling wolf in the local press and on Facebook, as if those in authority should be out “catching real criminals” instead.

The problem lies with politicians scared witless (my spell check corrected me) of motorists with votes, opposition politicians all too eager to encourage votes next time around by becoming the motorist’s “friend”, and, actually business, who, all too often, fail to recognise that public transport users bring real value to their operations, and it actually isn’t all about families in their 4×4.

At conferences, and inside glossy brochures looking at utopian futures of city centres, the line is always peddled (excuse the pun) that cycling has to be pushed, and that tram and rail are what moves people. Hardly ever do I see those with real influence wax lyrical about the bus. It’s also about autonomous cars, electric cars and “walking strategies”. Sometimes I grab the mic at such gatherings and ask about the elephant in the room. Not the rotund bloke in the corner who enjoyed a bit too much of the buffet, but the bus. The huge number of buses in our cities. The ones that bring huge numbers of people in, The ones that get stuck in never-ending congestion and end up being beaten over the head by people who think that if only you gave them to the council, it would all be alright again. The people on the panel visibly squirm when you ask them about buses, because they aren’t sexy like trams. Trams are great. I love them, because they ARE sexy. But they’ll never go everywhere. And, actually, I despair of transport people who want to pit trams against buses against trains against bikes. It should be public transport, working together, providing seamless, effective, relevant mobility solutions against the car.
The bus industry, and transport as a whole, needs to keep on hammering home a message, that if only it had the tools, it could do an effective job.

The Guardian video guy makes a point that it’s no good being “anti-car”. I suspect he’s right. It’s actually about making fools of people sitting in endless, polluting congestion watching clean, swish, cost-effective, and – dare I say – “sexy” public transport whooshing by. It’s about getting public transport users closer to the shops and attractions than cars can. It’s about costing an absolute fortune to park if they insist on driving right in. It’s about having limited car parking space, rigorously enforced, so that driving is always the wrong choice. It’s about believing that driving a car into the city centre is polluting us, and actually costing us our lives too early.

I wonder how many politicians and business leaders are with me?

We’ll All Miss The Bus (Timetable Booklet)…

Word reaches me from “cider country” that the long-established timetable booklet has perished.

Sad, but not totally unexpected. A quick Google to confirm this finds an inevitable “letter to the Editor” of the local newspaper, expressing outrage. In fact, the author of said letter reckons the local authority couldn’t “give a monkey’s”.

I’m not even sure Herefordshire Council have any monkeys left to give.

It might be simplistic of me to throw out there the £30bn or so the Chancellor has thrown at motorists in the recent budget. Or perhaps the nineth year on the bounce fuel duty has been frozen for “hard-working families”* (*motorists with votes). Maybe I’m also being simplistic when I suggest that bus users are, as usual, being treated like second-class citizens, compared to motorists.

Of course, a few of us are actually both. But the reality is, as ever, that once motorists have their vehicle, they see little point in “paying again” to use public transport, compared to the perceived simplicity of hopping in their car.

Despite the effort in some parts of the bus industry to make their services simple, effective and price-competitive, there remains a general mystique about bus services. Much of that is based around the timetable. And, often bizarrely, it’s like trying to pull hen’s teeth to actually get hold of a timetable online quickly and easily. Some company and authority websites remain inexplicably difficult to navigate.

Look, I know it isn’t “sexy” or “cost-effective” or a “good use of taxpayers money” to print an old-fashioned booklet full of bus timetables (according to cash-strapped local authorities with little budget for such “frivolities”), but it’s all really part of why the bus still isn’t regarded as a serious alternative for many people’s journeys.

What about if we said we weren’t building any more roads? (because we all know that as soon as this expensive asphalt is laid, it quickly fills up with traffic). Or maybe we were going to build a load of bus priority, with heavy fines for offenders, rigourosly policed? Maybe parking your car in town would soon be more expensive than a bus ticket? (Hey, in Dudley we have started encouraging more car journeys – and more pollution – by giving motorists 2 hours free parking…)

And what if we saw local authorities being given funding for serious partnerships with private sector bus operators, who are commercial experts in their field, to really offer a viable alternative to endless queues of cars, all choking us to a potential early death?

And….what if the local authority kicked off all of this renaissance in the bus by having the funding to produce a bus guide that effectively and simply explained the local network in a comprehensive form?

Now THERE’S an idea….

A Snap of Sn-ap

I’m lurking at a draughty bus stop opposite the shiny retail heaven that is “Grand Central” in Birmingham (also contains rail station, don’t ‘cha know?). In the retail window adjacent, someone looks blankly at a scan-yourself machine. I too have a somewhat blank expression. Amongst the throngs of local bus passengers, I’m awaiting a Sn-ap coach to London, for the princely sum of a fiver. But what exactly am I looking out for?

Sn-ap is “on-demand, digital coach travel”, according to the website. “Pocket money prices” is another catchphrase. It appears that I’ve missed out on my “first journey free” offer, but a fiver is hardly going to break the bank. I’ve just paid more than that for a bacon bap and cup of tea.

It’s all about the text

Twelve hours ago, my slumber was interrupted by a text message from Sn-ap. I’d already registered my phone and verified it, and this text carried simple, clear instructions where the coach was going to pick me up, with a link to click on to show the location. Next morning, I’m at said bus shelter when the phone bleeps again. It’s “Carl from Solus Coaches”, with his coach registration number and another link to click on to track progress in live mode. Clicking on it reveals his previous movements, and what appears to be something akin to a 150mph sprint up the Aston Expressway, as the “live map” obviously speeds things up. Carl is now parked around half a mile away.

Screenshot_20181026-094051_Samsung Internet (1)

The “Sn-ap map” on your phone, showing live tracking

All this is immensely helpful and reassuring. Add to that, when he finally appears in his anonymous white coach spot on time, the only reference to Sn-ap is something relatively small in the window. You can’t miss National Express and Megabus; Sn-ap is something a little different.

Carl already has my name and details on his gadget. All I have to do is confirm my name, he nods, and I’m on.

20181026_102150 (1)

Solus’s Mercedes-Benz Tourismo on Birmingham-London

Premium Coaches

Sn-ap promises “access to premium coaches usually reserved for elite sports teams, executive travel and luxury tours”. The partners involved in Sn-ap so far certainly does read like a list of well-respected operators, with the likes of Redwing, Oxford Bus Company, Reading Buses, Astons, Johnsons, Prospect and numerous others. This Solus vehicle – a Mercedes Benz Tourismo, formerly carrying National Holidays livery, but now plain white – is very well-appointed. “Drive” by The Cars is one of several 80s hits subtly playing in the background. The legroom isn’t great (although, being 6’7”, it rarely is) and there’s no Wi-Fi/charging, but I’m being carried to our great Capital for a fiver, so I’m not complaining!

There are 9 passengers as we depart the stop. One slight concern is that the stop in question (NS3, opposite Grand Central, for those in the know) is a very busy stop, and the road is quite narrow at that point, so there’s potential for a few problems if the vehicle isn’t quickly loaded and away.

Then we’re off around some of Brum’s suburbs, picking up other Sn-appers. 1 joins in Moseley, while 3 more hop aboard in Selly Oak, so it’s a reasonably loaded trip, as we hit the M42 50 minutes after departing the City Centre.

The motorway monotony… and a sweet-treat!

The monotony of the motorway prevails. Several coaches pass on the opposite carriageway, with our driver happily reciprocating their jolly waves. It’s all very bog-standard, as motorway travel is.

As we glide into central London, a young man appears, carrying a small bag. I think maybe he’s going to ask me for a tip for the driver, in the finest traditions of coach travel’s heyday. But ,actually, no. He wants to know what I think of it all. I tell him all is very good. Lack of Wi-Fi doesn’t really bother me (and with people increasingly getting more and more data included in their phone plans, I think it will increasingly become less important), but I’d have liked to have seen a charging point. That apart, it was a fiver well-spent. He smiles and gives me a free keyring and small bag of sweeties – something I’ve experienced before on Germany’s ICE train. Maybe Sn-ap’s CEO and founder Thomas Ableman – formerly of National Express and Chiltern Railways – knows a thing or two about delighting passengers with little things like this…

20181026_123508

Sweetie-treats!

My Sn-ap arrives only around 10 minutes late, given the usual appalling nature of central London traffic, and my terminus is a bus stop just opposite Euston station. I’m a satisfied virgin Sn-apper! I’m immediately asked on the text to “rate my driver” in classic Uber style, which I do, over a pint at the nearby Euston Tap.

Sn-ap! I’m left behind!

But for the purposes of research (and the lure of cheap coach tickets) I’m back on getasnap.com to see where else I can go. This isn’t National Express. Destinations are limited, days limited and times often seemingly quite odd, but I spot one from Birmingham to Leicester on my day off from work, so I decide it’s time for another ride.
This time, I don’t get the 12-hour reminder text – it’s only 3 hours ahead. Three minutes before, I get another text as I wait in the same location. It’s “Liam from Roberts Travel Group” and he’ll be on his way shortly. Again, I can track his progress via the Sn-ap map.

And then something bizarre occurs.

I notice from the live map that Liam is actually parked up barely a few hundred metres from where I’m standing. I presume he’s about to drive around the block to pick me up, but instead, I watch with increasing incredulity as the coach joins the Aston Expressway and onto the M6!

The Sn-ap website has a contact number, so I call it, where a polite gentleman listens as I tell him my Sn-ap is hurtling down the motorway, minus me. He tells me he can see it on his tracker too. I’m apparently the only person booked on for the journey, and he apologies profusely and asks me to hold whilst he contacts the driver. A few moments later he tells me that the driver is coming off the motorway and returning to Brum to pick me up!

Around half an hour after the original departure time, Liam arrives in another very smart vehicle (a Yutong TC9) and he can’t apologise enough. There’d been a mix up over the departure location, and because the fares are so cheap, Liam explained that people sometimes don’t show up.

20181105_122756

Robert’s smart Yutong vehicle

I am indeed the only user of this particular run, and Liam chats away, full of enthusiasm for Sn-ap, and for his job in general. He’s managed to turn a negative into a real positive, and he’s a real credit to both operator Roberts Travel Group and to Sn-ap. The Sn-ap control also call back to apologise again and check that I’m actually on the coach.
Arrival is at Leicester’s St. Margaret’s bus station, where Liam tells me his next trip is a schools run, and that he’d been to Scotland recently – a coach driver’s life is a varied one! He apologises again for the mix-up and I wander off into the bus station to plot my journey home, again a satisfied Sn-apper.

Conclusion

Sn-ap is an interesting addition to the coaching scene. Formed in 2016, it isn’t really on the mass radar – yet. But driver Liam told me that, whilst my journey was empty apart from me, he’d seen steady growth on several other journeys that he’d driven for Sn-ap. The dozen or so people on my journey from Birmingham to London – despite a huge array of rival coach and rail offerings – suggests that tech-savvy folk are becoming aware. By limiting trips to where demand really exists, rather than blanket daily timetables, cheap fares can be offered, but not at the expense of bargain-basement vehicles. I well recall the novelty of chugging down the motorway on an ancient ex-Hong Kong double decker which I’m sure never got over 40mph when Megabus first launched. My then-£1 ticket offered a certain amount of smugness compared to National Express passengers, who glided by – but had paid more. Today, passengers expect more. Cheap doesn’t have to mean basic, and while Megabus has moved on to provide much more attractive vehicles, Sn-ap is actively making the point that these super-luxury vehicles can be ridden for dirt-cheap prices a central plank of it’s marketing offer.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, no Sn-ap mobile app – but the website works perfectly for mobiles, so, like Megabus – which also doesn’t have an app in the UK – it’s not entirely essential.

The departing coach without it’s only passenger was a schoolboy error, and I’m not entirely sure what might have happened had the coach possessed more travellers – turning back to pick me up might not have been a reasonable option. But Sn-ap and Liam the driver turned this mishap around brilliantly, and I remain a very satisfied happy Sn-apper!

Happy Sn-apper
• Great booking process, with reassuring texts and link to live maps.
• Super-luxury vehicles
• Cheap prices

Sn-ap to do
• No Wi-Fi / charging facility on board
• Birmingham City Centre departure point not the best location
• More awareness needed

Full details are available on the Sn-ap website: getasnap.com 

20181105_134708