25 June 2020
Q&A David Beer, Senior Manager at Transport Focus
Transport Focus is a watchdog that carries out a survey of 40,000 bus passengers every year across England and Scotland and in urban and rural areas. This year services have seen serious drops in passenger numbers during lockdown. But what can the bus operators do to get them back, and what are passengers looking for when they use the service? We spoke to David Beer from Transport Focus to find out.
What are the takeaways from your annual bus survey?
We need to get a real measure of satisfaction and the surveys show that operators are, generally, meeting expectations. For example, nine out of ten passengers are satisfied with their overall journey but when you start talking about punctuality it’s only three-quarters. Then only two thirds of people think they get value for money. When you are talking about commuters and young people), the levels of satisfaction get even lower.
Why is that?
Young people want the bus service to be as easy as ordering a pizza. They have some anxieties when it comes to travel and don’t really know where to go to find the information: it’s all a bit of a closed book to them. When you look at other experiences such as booking cinema tickets or ordering a takeaway, the systems are really intuitive and there’s minimal interaction or little scope for getting it wrong. Young people need the systems to be designed better and the bus industry could do well to learn from other sectors.
What else can bus companies do to improve the experience?
Any operator has to resolve issues with timekeeping and give people useful real-time information at stops, and on board. Drivers need to be approachable and able to give information to people about when they get to their destination. People need to know how they can get the best ticket for them and what discounts they are entitled to.
What about improvements to technology?
We know from this year’s annual Bus Passenger Survey that if you put audio-visual information on board, it improves people’s satisfaction by a matter of 20%. That sort of ready real-time information is important both on board and at bus stops. You want reassurance that the bus is on its way or, if it’s delayed, what that delay might be. Passengers need that information before they leave home.
Bus companies are learning from the likes of Uber, which tells you where the vehicle is, what it is and what you will be paying in advance. And it’s not just about the timeliness of the bus arriving, it’s also about knowing what the journey time will be.
In response to the crisis we’re seeing more bus operators introduce the technology we’ve been pushing for. With better and new use of apps, there are a host of factors: there’s the availability of seats on-board and the availability of the space for wheelchair users. Even down to when the bus was last cleaned! We shouldn’t forget the role of the bus driver too. Drivers are ambassadors for the industry, and they can make a real difference, where they can make a journey not just satisfactory, but enjoyable too.
Is it just about giving a smile then?
It can be, but it’s also about the information. We know that passengers want to be informed and it’s often up to the bus driver to provide that. We know from other surveys that passengers want to know why the bus is sat is traffic, for example, and why they may not get to their destination on time.
They might want advice from the about where they can get off and indicate if they are getting near to the stop. They need to know about how to pay, whether it be contactless, or cash or what’s the best ticket to buy.
In terms of value for money, it’s not just about the price of the ticket, it’s the whole experience.
What about third-party information providers? Bus apps, for example.
The information doesn’t need to be provided by the bus company themselves and the continued rollout of the ‘bus open data’ programme between the Department for Transport, third parties such as transport apps including Moovit and Whiz, and the bus companies is really important. But as ever with information, the data has to be correct and checked when it’s pumped into the system for passengers to use.
Some people are reverting back to their cars following the lockdown. What’s your take on that?
We have carried out research each week on peoples’ experiences and what we are seeing is that the majority of people are returning to driving. The number of people who are happy to return to public transport is only about one in five and that means there’s a real need to build that trust again. Face coverings are mandatory, and people want to be reassured that everyone is doing that. People need to know what to expect when they board a bus. The information about things like that and social distancing must be crystal clear.
Our research has shown that nine out of ten people are questioning the feasibility of social distancing on buses and that’s why people need to know what the guidelines are. The use of hand sanitiser is another way of getting people’s trust back in the services again.
Half of people surveyed think they might not go back to public transport at all and that creates a headache for the DfT and local authorities in terms of congestion. However, innovation can rebuild passenger trust as long as the basics – punctuality, comfort, flexible ticketing, clarity over fares and excellent drivers who show they care for their passengers – are in place.