Last reviewed 30 March 2021

With much speculation about the future of bus and coach travel, it is a good time to take stock of the potential opportunities to assist businesses recover. In the second part of his review, Tony Francis examines how the better use and distribution of bus service information can help secure the future of road passenger transport.

The increasing uncertainty of business

There is still much uncertainty about the extent to which local bus services will recover post pandemic and current indications suggest that peak-hour commuting will not fully bounce back. For example, HSBC plans to reduce its office property by 40% and Lloyds Bank is set to reduce its own assets by a fifth, while BP and Centrica no longer expect staff to attend the office on a full-time basis.

Additionally, we are already aware of the declining fortunes of the traditional retail outlets which have been key destinations for many bus passengers in off-peak periods and while public transport usage will be encouraged as part of the campaign to achieve net zero emissions, the emergence of all electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, along with reduced peak demand may dilute the need for “mass transportation” altogether. Although the recently published National Bus Strategy (NBS) brings hope for the future, the added pressures on public finances are likely to be present for many years ahead and there is no guarantee as to the level of government support, if any, that will be available for local bus services.

Despite this background of uncertainty, however, the bus business has shown particular resilience and agility during the pandemic, especially to reflect changes in demand as well as destination. Much effort has been dedicated to informing passengers about the services being provided, although in a recent survey of transport professionals conducted by CitySwift, a fifth of responses expressed a need to find better ways of informing passengers about service changes.

Providing bus service information

The key to customers using public transport is information about the services on offer, the cost and, vitally, how to pay. Significant efforts have been made to develop interactive websites covering individual operators and these must be commended. In many communities, there are various operators involved in providing services and, for the newcomer, it can be a potentially daunting experience to seek out the required information.

It is appreciated that certain local authorities, often through Traveline, have valiantly sought to provide comprehensive travel planning information and, alongside good examples from many smaller undertakings, individual bus groups such as Arriva, and Stagecoach produce elaborate websites covering their own services nationwide. There are also exciting developments concerning the Bus Open Data Service, allowing information on all services to be held and used collectively.

For those who are IT aware and keen on public transport travel, these are undoubtedly valuable resources and such travellers certainly need to be retained but there is also a significant market of people who are currently car dependent and who could be attracted to bus travel. Rather than regular commuting, much of this custom may be occasional “one off” trips where the car would still be relied upon for longer journeys and with walking or cycling used elsewhere. In order to capture the 60% and more of all travel that is made by private transport greater efforts therefore need to be made.

Targeting new travel opportunities

There are various categories of travel, each of which requires a different approach.

Rail travel, for instance, remains attractive for long distance journeys and many passengers will require additional journeys to get them to and from the railway station. There is thus a case for linking with train operators to promote the sale of “door to door” ticketing with full details of the bus sectors made available. Currently, few stations have comprehensive details of nearby buses and thus, for a traveller arriving at a new destination, there is little positive encouragement to seek out a service to take them onwards. This is surely a matter for further investigation, especially by bus operators and local authorities in conjunction with rail companies.

Then there are the many local journeys made in and around our communities each and every day. Some at least could easily be made by a local bus service but there is often little widespread knowledge of the available network. More can possibly be done through personal visits to major employers and key leisure and hospitality providers, along with designing bus marketing material targeted at particular communities. Whilst there is much current reliance on web and social media based information, success could also be achieved with printed material, perhaps sponsored by third parties to offset costs. Additionally, while bus stops might indicate the presence of a bus route, they seldom give assurances as to when and where any service operates. A first step here would then seek to link up with the front line of government (Parish and Town Councils) as a means of gaining local knowledge and also, vitally, disseminating bus service information.

Securing a prosperous future

Despite significant recent threats to the prosperous future of bus transport, there is some cause to be optimistic and as part of the move towards zero emissions, the CitySwift survey highlighted that the bus sector expects the further extension of bus priorities, local and road congestion charging along with more support for active travel planning and enhanced integration of transport modes. This is further reinforced by the introduction of the National Bus Strategy. A secure future may then be possible for buses but knowledge of what services are available needs to be shared with a much wider audience, enticing those who have never used buses, if passenger numbers are to be significantly increased.

In seeking to maximise new business it is important not to neglect the present passenger base and the excellent studies by such organisations as Transport Focus and Bus Users UK provide invaluable insights into how to retain existing customers and provide the foundations for growth, but any wide-reaching review of increased business also needs to take a deeper look into the much bigger and uncharted market dominated by the car.

See also — Securing a future with school transport.