Feature: How better facilities and connected tech are bringing back the buses

09 August 2017

Travelling by bus isn’t, traditionally, a high tech experience. Historically, a typical bus journey may have involved standing in the rain, waiting ages for a late arrival and getting frustrated as other passengers fished around for their spare change.

But in recent times, things have evolved significantly. For example, today’s newest bus interchanges are evolving into thoroughly modern transport hubs.

Cardiff’s new bus station. due to open next year, looks more like a shopping centre and will incorporate student flats

While there are many towns and cities in the UK that won’t claim their bus station is an architectural gem, there are a few – and they’re built very much with the passenger experience and the needs of future generations front of mind.

The latest major city to benefit will be Cardiff, although the Welsh capital’s bus station development with plans agreed to speed up development just last week.

Plans for the new bus station were drawn up by a firm belonging to award-winning architect Norman Foster and will cost in excess of £100m to deliver. From a passenger’s perspective, it will be air conditioned, have free wi-fi and a selection of shops and bars.

Designed by Bblur Architects, Slough Bus Station is described by its creators as “functional urban sculpture”. The first phase of the new interchange opened in 2012. It has a textured aluminium skin that changes character under different light conditions and, in 2009, the concept was chosen for exhibition in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

It replaced a dark, unpleasant Seventies car park with undercroft bus facility that featured in the opening credits of the sitcom ‘The Office’, and is completely above ground, with built in café, office space, waiting rooms, wi-fi and toilet and baby change facilities. A 70-metre long double wave canopy provides permanent shelter for passengers and creates a new pedestrianised walkway for added passenger safety.

It’s in sharp contrast to one of the most unusual bus stations in the UK, which has also undergone a recent transformation.

Preston bus station in Lancashire is an imposing example of in-your-face Brutalist architecture, the 80-stand station was built in the late 1960s. It was threatened with demolition at the turn of the century, primarily due to the failed Tithebarn redevelopment project in the mid-2000s, which aimed to regenerate the city centre.

After unsuccessful attempts to knock it down, one of which happened before Tithebarn, the station was eventually granted Grade Two listed building status (the listing itself also took several attempts to achieve) in September 2013, cementing its position in the city centre. The station is currently in the process of being refurbished, with plans for a public square and youth centre on the site, to attract these key passengers.

Speaking at the launch of the 2017 Bus Passenger Survey earlier this year, the Chairman of passenger group Transport Focus, Jeff Halliwell said, “The work done to simplify and incentivise bus trips for young people is surely an area of key growth for the bus industry. We must encourage more journeys, by both existing users and the passengers of the future.”

It’s not only the interchanges that make a difference, either, with the connected generation now able to manage their bus travel more easily. With real-time travel information available via apps and contactless ticketing, the days of standing around waiting for three buses to come along at once are a thing of the past.

And in areas where such technology is used, bus passengers are returning in their droves. The Great British bus is making a comeback, with some major cities enjoying a growth in bus travel of almost 20%, bucking a national decline in bus travel in recent years.

Figures released earlier this year by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP), show a significant increase in bus travel in areas where new, modern and innovative services are helping passengers get to their destinations more quickly.

The Any Journey is Greener by Bus report revealed that regions which have experienced the biggest growth in bus usage include Bristol, with a 19% increase from 2009/10 to 2015/16; Reading, one of the first major cities to adopt an all-green bus fleet, up 17%; Milton Keynes, up 15% and Oxfordshire, up 12%.

Passenger benefits highlighted by the report were real-time travel information, integrated ticketing, improved seating, shorter journey times, better routing and bus priority measures such as bus lanes.

Meanwhile, in the Cheshire town of Warrington, over 46,000 people have viewed real-time bus information since the local operator, Network Warrington, launched its app back in January.

Councillor Hans Mundry, Warrington Borough Council’s Executive Board Member for Transport, said, “We are very pleased with the performance of our new real time passenger information system and especially pleased with how popular it has proven to be.”

“The investment that we have made in this system is further evidence that we are serious about increasing access to reliable information on sustainable travel options for our residents, businesses and visitors alike.”

Claire Haigh, Chief Executive of the Greener Journeys campaign, which aims to make people think more about using public transport, said, “We would encourage councils and operators across the UK to look at the innovative services, measures for tackling congestion and clean bus technology as a model for raising usage and sparking their own bus renaissance.”

With public transport seen as one of the key ways in which we can improve urban air quality, making bus travel attractive is increasingly important – and a high tech network is just as important in pursuit of that goal as the latest clean, green and high-tech vehicles themselves.