Much has been said over the last year about how the public transport industry is recovering from the carnage wrought by the pandemic. Numbers of customers are building well in some instances, but patterns of travel have changed – possibly for ever.
We need to ask ourselves the question: Do we actually know what is driving people's choices in public transport here in the UK? Worldline commissioned research earlier this year to help us understand better what is really driving customer choice. Without understanding those emotional responses, much of the effort to bring those customers back could be misguided or wasted.
The research, conducted by Dr Stian Reimers, covered a wide range of people, and uncovered some expected results – as well as some surprises. Interestingly, following the pandemic, 22% of respondents said they would use public transport less, while 34% said they would use it more. And for our respondents, the environmental benefits of public transport didn't rank near the top of their priorities. In fact, it was seventh.
Cars were seen as 'convenient, comfortable and safe', while public transport was regarded as 'expensive, crowded and dirty'. It came as little surprise to find that paying for travel was thought to be expensive, complicated and confusing. Several people cited their belief that they never knew whether they had got the best price for their rail journey as a deterring factor.
Other off-putting factors were concerns over reliability ('will I get there in time?'), convenience ('is it easy for me to access?'), comfort and cost – often, these are factors which are addressed in private car usage. On the topic of cost, a recent tweet from a young woman named 'Hol' showed her dismay at being quoted "£260 for an open return from London to York, nearly 50 days in advance.... This country has lost its mind". For me, the long list of "Ahh, but you didn't....." responses, all offering slightly differing advice on how to get a better deal, is the problem. Why should people have to know the 'tricks and secrets' to get the best price on the railways? That is, as Hol points out, nuts. As well as bad for business.
It seems the spirit of Jean Paul Sartre lives on in the attitudes of a number of customers, who responded that one of the things that was putting them off was, quite simply, other people.
Despite all of this, people did say they were optimistic about both bus and rail. Other positive factors in using public transport involved having a poor experience of driving (possibly exacerbated by the current high fuel prices), a good past experience of using public transport, convenience (for those for whom it IS convenient), interactions with helpful staff members and price. Many people cited contactless payments, smartcards and app-based tickets as beneficial in their use of public transport.
The contradictions here are no doubt underpinned by personal experience – our problem is how we address the negative perception for those who feel public transport is too pricey, not accessible, too complicated, too crowded and just, not for them.
When asked what could be done to improve the experience of public transport, rather gratifyingly, people responded with suggestions similar to what a large number of us in the industry have been calling for, for years – and they are not exactly a surprise:-
Improve frequency – enhance the convenience and coverage of services to broaden their appeal
Increase reliability – don't be surprised if customers give up if they have a poor experience several times on the trot
Improve safety – in this respect, people are talking about personal safety and feeling threatened from time to time
Reduce overcrowding – not all services are over-crowded, even at peak times on some days, because commuting patterns have changed. But if you are forced to travel at a certain time, then that distinction will be meaningless
Make travel more joined-up – connect infrastructure and ticketing and make all services easier to understand, pay for, access and use. Sounds so simple and would solve multiple issues, but we seem continuously unable to do so
Reduce prices - the imagination being shown in Spain (free rail travel on commuter and medium distance routes from September until the end of the year) and Germany (the 9 Euro monthly public travel pass covering June to August) have driven initiatives we would do well to emulate
What are the themes here? Clearly, there is a substantial number of people who would use trains and buses more, or for the first time if they felt they were more convenient, accessible, easy to pay for and reliable. That is, if they kept The Time Promise, a phrase which Worldline uses to describe the commitment a transport operator makes to get their passengers to their destinations at the time they said they would.
The main theme that emerges is that there is nothing to do here that's impossible– all the objections and issues people felt they have are all addressable with commitment, technology and energy. And many of them will be solved if we use legitimately-obtained data more intelligently, more imaginatively and more responsibly.
But that's a story for another time.