Buses, bums-on-seats and behaviour change: Some observations on boosting sustainable transport use

By Rebecca Joyner

7 April, 2015

Last month Transport Focus (formerly Passenger Focus) published the results of the latest Bus Passenger Survey (BPS). One hot topic in the industry is how to encourage more travel by bus. Work we have done recently at BDRC Continental throws some light on the issue.

The case for bus travel
The latest BPS shows that things are improving - 88% of bus passengers are satisfied with their most recent journey, up from 84% in 2012. That’s great, but policy makers need insight about the feelings of non-bus users if more people are to leave their cars at home. In particular it is important to attract more paying customers (not just free pass holders) so that bus operations are commercially viable. Low profit bus routes which are fully or part-funded by local authorities can be at risk from budget cuts. Often, these are the routes which act as lifelines to local amenities. Ensuring that there are enough bums on seats to run a good profitable service on major routes means that funds can be put into lower passenger-volume but important routes.

Greater use of public transport also benefits the environment, takes the pressure off road capacity and sustains economic growth, as Jon Lamonte, TfGM Chief Executive, commented recently.

Improving bus services
So how do we get people to use public transport, including buses, more often? Improving the service itself has to be part of the answer, and the Bus Passenger Survey is helping to drive this. First Bus UK made a range of service improvements following relatively poor feedback in the survey two years ago; the result has been happier customers and real increases in passenger numbers.

Improvements to local services can help to increase bus use. New ticketing such as smartcards and contactless payment, new or refurbished vehicles, better cleanliness, information provision, new routes and extended timetables can all contribute – depending on specific local needs.

There’s much more to it, though, than just improving services. We see localised variation but overall, bus patronage is actually flat-lining. BDRC has worked with several transport operators recently, as well as organisations like Transport Focus, to help understand ‘non-users’, and to discover what other factors might encourage greater use of public transport.

Breaking a habit
Our research has identified three key perceptual barriers to using public transport: price, service reliability and practical access to services (i.e. proximity and convenience). But often the biggest reason for non-usage, which can also exaggerate the first three, is habit. Some people just don’t consider travelling by bus or train (or tram, or bicycle…); they never have and, without big changes in their circumstances, perhaps never will.

So to increase patronage on buses (and other sustainable transport), we may need to think beyond bus services themselves. I suggest three main elements.

The first is education. The very process of using buses can be a source of anxiety if it’s unknown territory. The other two elements of changing usage habits are about making the choice to travel by bus the obvious alternative. Local authorities may need to make brave, if controversial, decisions to force people to reconsider their choices: using ‘stick’ rather than ‘carrot’ methods to encourage behaviour change. For example, restricting car parking in town centres (or raising prices) and congestion charging. There is a consensus forming among many involved in transport policy that such measures need to play a part.

People need to be incentivised to try travelling by bus for the first time. We’ve frequently heard people say they would definitely try the bus if they were given a free day-pass or a significant discount for a specific occasion. Particularly in the context of developments like smart ticketing, people get quite enthusiastic about this, and, combined with a discounted trial period, genuinely feel they could be persuaded to try the bus for a journey they now make by car. They may discover that bus travel is actually a lot easier and more pleasant than they perceived (the BPS indicates that people who actually use the services are fairly satisfied).

Make it an obvious choice
To disrupt a habit, the choice to travel by bus needs to be a real no-brainer. Providing wi-fi on buses and making sure the drivers are polite, even revolutionising ticket formats, can greatly improve the experiences of passengers. But on their own these measures will not motivate large numbers of new people to use buses. Bigger and braver actions will be needed to change habits: offering carrots, perhaps threatening a few sticks, and taking pains to educate.

Thoughts? Get in touch.

Rebecca leads the Transport team at BDRC Continental, which runs the BPS on behalf of Transport Focus. In Autumn 2014 we surveyed over 48,000 bus passengers across England and Scotland, and at the time of writing we’re partway through the Spring 2015 wave. We also run the National Rail Passenger Survey and the Tram Passenger Survey.

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