Mon, 23 May 2022

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By Sam Lowe
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What do bus passengers want?

What do bus passengers want?

Transport Focus

7 min read Partner content

To boost bus patronage we must understand what matters most to passengers.

For over twelve years now Transport Focus has been gathering evidence to effect change for bus passengers in England outside London. Our role is to advocate for passenger interests to get better services that meet their needs. This also involves understanding the barriers for people who do not choose to use their local bus service. As part of this we must understand passengers’ priorities for improvement and what would boost satisfaction with their journey.

We have used this evidence to help the improvement of local bus services up and down the country. We now have a central role in speaking up for bus passengers as we make the most of the opportunity presented by Bus Back Better, the Government’s first National Bus Strategy.

Our work looks at making sure local bus services meet passenger needs and identifying how they can be better. We want existing passengers to be encouraged to make more journeys by bus and those who are currently non-users to give bus a go. We have put together guidance documents and run webinars on them to help local authorities write their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) and Enhanced Partnership proposals to reflect passenger interests.

Following the interruption of our Bus Passenger Survey due to the pandemic we’ve been trialling different ways of getting passengers’ views. We hope to launch our new satisfaction survey a bit later in the year. These findings will help support the bus industry in delivering improvements set out in BSIPs. In the meantime we are publishing weekly surveys on satisfaction on both bus and rail. These are mostly reported at a national level but there are common themes which can help local transport authorities put together their plans.

Bus patronage understandably plummeted under lockdown restrictions and is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. It is important that operators can take this chance to understand what is needed to win back lost passengers as well as work to attract new ones.

National Bus Strategy work

We understand that improving bus services is a continuous process and we are in it for the long-term. BSIPs include targets up to 2029-30 and Enhanced Partnership Plans are likely to be made for at least five years. Bus franchising will take years not months to be fully introduced and start to make an impact.

The high attendance at our webinars, (148 at our most recent one) shows the value we have added to the decisions being made. And we have worked particularly closely with the alliances, steering groups and forums we sit on in the West Midlands (which we chair), Liverpool City Region, the North East, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and Cornwall.

We will continue to advise on the Bus Passenger Charters which all partnerships are expected to produce. These should be short, punchy documents setting out what passengers can expect every time they use the bus and what they should do if their expectations are not met.

Drawing on our passenger research, we will work with operators and authorities to refine ways of monitoring performance against BSIP passenger growth, punctuality and reliability targets. This will help ensure that they offer sufficient granularity to identify areas which require changes to the plans to be more effective. We will ask questions on whether investment has been effective in driving up standards and look at how progress is measured and communicated.

We’ll continue to work with authorities and operators, offering bespoke passenger research and advice as they seek to deliver on their commitments and meet their targets.

Top ten measures to improve bus services

We pulled together the main conclusions from our extensive national bus passenger research into one document on what improvements passengers want. These are:

Buses running more often – improving frequency and boosting services. Reaching smaller towns and villages and improving connections to other forms of transport such as train stations.

Buses going to more places – new extended routes and a more stable network by limiting changes to the route. Also asking passengers before making changes so they can have their say.

More buses on time/faster journey times – achieving punctuality targets and looking at better road management and enforcing bus priority.  

Better value for money – more information on what ticket types are available. Lower, flat and more integrated fares. Using price capping or flexible tickets and keeping the option to pay by cash.

More effort to tackle antisocial behaviour – using CCTV and improved lighting, enforcement and include safety in how buses and bus stops are designed.

Better information at bus stops – having an up-to-date timetable at every stop. Giving information on real-time bus arrival times.

Accessible buses – space for at least one wheelchair or buggy and if occupied providing alternative transport options. Providing audio-visual information and giving staff customer service training.

Cleaner buses – enhancing cleaning regimes and committing to removing graffiti regularly.

Weekly insight

We have been running our Bus User Weekly Survey since October 2021. This is where we ask passengers about their experiences of travelling by bus outside London and how satisfied they were with their most recent bus journey (made in the last seven days).

We look at the views of approximately 500 bus passengers each week. Passengers tell us how satisfied they were with their overall journey along with a range of aspects including the punctuality of their service, the value for money of their ticket and a number of Covid related measures.

We’ve seen that more people are travelling for leisure now. It’s clear that buses can’t depend on commuter travel in the same way they may have done previously, however this does lead to opportunities to promote using buses for other activities. This also brings about the potential of people who hadn’t previously used the bus giving it a go. We want to encourage operators to do all they can to make sure these passengers have the right information to be able to travel with confidence.

Satisfaction with bus journeys remains relatively high. There is an opportunity to both improve and capitalise on this. We have consistently said that those who use buses like them, the challenge is to encourage non-users onto the bus and give them a good experience so they keep using it.

We look at satisfaction rates relating to the driver, frequency, journey time and personal security. Frequency of buses jumps out with 19 per cent very and fairly dissatisfied. Other factors received far smaller dissatisfaction percentages. We have often pointed out to operators that getting the basics right through frequency and punctuality is key. Now it is more important than ever to make sure passengers get the services they need.

We have fed back to operators on how to make tangible improvements for passengers. There are some clear themes which will resonate across the country, or at least will be worth looking into to find what passengers want.

Conclusion

This is a pivotal time for the bus industry. With both the funding and promise from the Government there is a chance to make improvements to buses and bring about real change for passengers.

Buses provide crucial access to jobs, education, healthcare and other essential services. It’s also important to note that key workers relied on buses and other public transport throughout the pandemic to get to their jobs. Having punctual, reliable buses that go where people need will encourage use and get non-users to get on board.

In addition, with the Government’s decarbonisation and clean air agendas aiming to achieve significant changes, buses can also provide a much-needed alternative to car trips.

There will be decisions to make on where funding goes and Transport Focus will be making sure that the passengers are at the heart of that.

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