3 Trends Driving Change in the UK Bus Sector

At this month's UK Bus Summit, hosted by Transport Times, attendees were in agreement that the bus sector has to change if it is to serve the needs of modern society.

The event was attended by the key operators within the industry, along with government minister Nusrat Ghani MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Transport, who acknowledged that something needs to be done to "get customers out of cars and back onto buses".

Andy Farmer, ORM's Executive Strategy Director was at the Summit along with our client Neil Shah, Digital & Commercial Platforms Director at UK Bus at Arriva Group.

We spoke to them both to get the low-down on what's happening within the UK Bus Sector, and to find out how ORM and Arriva are working together to spearhead change within the industry.

What was the mood of the Summit?

Neil: "There was a real call to action. The industry is finally starting to realise that nothing is going to change if we keep doing the same thing over and over."

The UK Bus sector is at a crossroads then? What needs to change?

Neil: There was general agreement that we need to do something different and the focus was on three things:

  • The customer: How do we make things as simple and easy for passengers as possible?
  • Technology: How do we leverage the technology and innovation now available to us. What can we learn from other industries?
  • Clean air and environment: How do we get people out of cars and move them onto public transport, as cars not only pollute the environment, they cause congestion too.

What is currently stopping potential passengers from using the bus?

Neil: Transport Focus, who run the annual UK Bus Passenger Survey, finds that year on year the feedback is always the same.

Punctuality is the number one complaint. Passengers say that buses never run on time.

The second issue is around poor information. Bus users report that it's very difficult to understand bus timetables and ticket prices.

Finally, the other major concern is around service disruption. Travellers want and expect real-time alerts about delays.

Andy: Falling patronage is being driven by a range of different issues:

  • A move to healthier lifestyles (as people walk or cycle more instead)
  • Non-bus travellers (often wrongly) believe it is dirty, slow and offers a poor service
  • In general, people are put off by slow journey times and congestion, which in some cases is shrinking the accessibility of cities
  • Plus, outside urban areas either the infrastructure does not exist to enable alternatives to the car to be viable or a lack of political will to support bus as the best alternative to car travel

What is being done to reverse the decline in bus patronage?

Andy: There is a social, economic and environmental case for buses to take central stage in urban transport.

Socially, buses are often the only available mode for the young/poor/car-less, so they are important in driving inclusion and access to education and work.

Pollution wise, the work that has been done on low emission buses and new electric fleet means that they are better for the environment and urban health than the equivalent capacity of cars.

Examples from Belfast, West Midlands and Liverpool, show us that where there has been public / private investment not only in infrastructure, but also in incentivising behavioural change, that patronage patterns have changed. An element of social is required to some degree.

Belfast, is a perfect example of how public / private investment can rejuvenate bus patronage. A £90m investment into Belfast Rapid Transit's "Glider" service aimed at linking the city with the surrounding community, has been been successful because it was envisaged as a holistic solution, from the ground up.

The scheme improved roads, bus stops and integrated existing routes so that passengers could move from one side of the city to the other with ease.

It reduced the number of, and increased the distance between, bus stops, installed ticket machines at stops, and worked with the traffic management system to improve the flow of traffic. Buses now run every 7-8 minutes during the day, and every 20 minutes in the late evening.

Since the changes were made, journey times have improved by 20%. There are an additional 33,000 journeys taken per week, and a 60% increase in patronage, with 25% increase in older and disabled patronage. In addition to providing a better customer experience, the Glider service has improved fuel efficiency by 40% and reduced emissions by 90%.

What role can technology play in making bus travel faster / more efficient?

Andy: Technology plays an integral part in making bus travel faster and more efficient.

The more we digitise the purchase and journey management process, the more we can use data to understand customer patterns. This will have a two-fold effect.

Firstly, the more we know about who is getting on and off a bus, what their behaviours are and how much they are spending, the more we can use this data to predict demand and to better plan and shape bus routes and times, which drives operational efficiency.

Secondly, it also give us the opportunity to personalise the customer experience, both in terms of serving contextual journey information and travel purchase options, which drives greater engagement and patronage.

There are other benefits too: for example account based contactless payments and mobile ticketing reduces boarding times, which can have a significant effect on journey times.

How are ORM and Arriva Bus collaborating to improve UK Bus patronage?

Neil: Our ambition is for Arriva Bus to become the go-to place for every UK passenger.

We want to get to the point where any customer looking to use the bus, and in the future any mode of transport, will automatically think of using the Arriva app.

We are working with ORM to ensure our digital customer engineering right from the start. From the beginning we've gone right to the basics to address our customer's key concerns from the outset.

We want to make sure that we offer our customers the best service, via our app or a mobile experience, so that they'll keep coming back to us.

What are the fundamental elements to achieving this ambition?

Neil: Introducing an account-based system is integral to us realising our ambition. Once we know our customer's patterns, we can serve them personalised info based on the data and things we know about them.

Plus, rolling out an account-based system means we can tailor our proposition to drive more money for the business, which in turn leads to more investment in the networks and routes.

Once we have the data, we'll be able to see if we are running the best networks, whether we're stopping buses at the right point, and be able to analyse if we have too few or too many bus stops.

We know that the more insight we can glean about our customers and what they're doing, the better proposition we can deliver to them. That will feed into the agenda of making bus more attractive to car users, to stop congestion on the roads and to reduce pollution.