Saturday 2nd April 2022
Twitter followers will know I was privileged to be asked into TfL Towers (Palestra in Southwark) on Tuesday afternoon to share ideas on how to improve revenue and grow the number of passengers using its bus network based on best practice pursued by the country’s leading bus companies in the provinces which I become aware of through being secretary of an industry ‘think tank’ group called The Ten Per Cent Club (named after the idea passenger numbers can be increased by ten per cent with the right approach).
I asked Twitter for suggestions and ideas I could pass on and many thanks to all the Tweeters for the huge number of responses. It was great to receive so many.
I appreciate the following may be somewhat repetitive following my review of TfL’s Bus Action Plan a couple of weeks ago when some of the following points were also made, but it just goes to show a few key actions could see the problem sorted.
It turned out the project being examined is whether contracted bus companies running TfL’s routes can be given incentives to grow revenue and improve the passenger experience and if so how. This of course is a tricky one as the whole basis of TfL’s franchise model, and the one most admired by envious politicians and officers in PTEs/Combined Authorities chomping at the bit to also introduce franchising, is that it’s one simple utilitarian, homogenised network with every bus painted red; every fare a flat fare, every bus route having buses running the full length from Origin A to Destination B, no recognition of any other operators network tickets at the fringes (eg Intalink Explorer in Hertfordshire) etc etc.
Giving some flexibility to contracted bus companies and tapping into their commercial expertise could drive an E400 through those sacred cow principles which have served TfL for so long. Who can forget the early days of London Bus tendering with its mishmash of operator liveries and variable standards across the capital? It wasn’t a good look.
But it doesn’t have to be as extreme as that. The best bus companies in the provinces, and no coincidence they’re the ones which are most successful at growing the market for bus travel and gaining passengers, understand the value of branding, especially route branding. This can be done in a high profile way and still make buses look part of the overall network.
The original high profile Brighton & Hove Metro branded network for routes 1, 5, 7, 25 and 49 used colour coding for each route which powerfully conveyed their attributes (frequency and destinations served) as well as still obviously being part of the overall network. Similar examples can be found very successfully in Nottingham, Oxford and Reading.
TfL’s dalliance with route branding in recent times were derided for being amateurish and ineffective. Trials in Barkingside and Hayes were, frankly, embarrassing with route number stickers placed over windows and a general unprofessional image. Fortunately these ‘trials’ now seem to have ended.
Sullivans have made a brave attempt to brand the three buses they use on local route 383 but it’s not exactly revolutionary. But imagine if a revolutionary approach was made to introduce high profile professionally designed route branding on many of TfL’s key routes along trunk corridors it would make a huge difference to how the bus network is perceived by potential passengers rather than it conveying a utilitarian boring red with a plethora of different route numbers.
Older readers may recall London Northern’s Red Express branded journeys on route X43 along Holloway Road in the 1990s. A very successful way of promoting buses performing a different function to an all-stops-tedium alternative. Today’s equivalent limited stop routes X26, X68, X140 and 607 fail to sell themselves in the same way, if at all.
Many Twitter followers mentioned route branding as a suggested way to improve things – including reference to the erstwhile hugely popular Red Arrow brand – as well as other related ideas including improving destination blind displays – by using electronic displays to good effect with updated via points perhaps – and extending Countdown displays where there are still busy stops without.
By far the two other most often quoted suggestions were firstly bring to an end the routine practice of holding buses along a route “to regulate the service” adding to the perception of just how tortuously slow a bus journey in London is. This needs a whole rethink on the way performance incentives are paid; making them customer orientated rather than operational orientated. How can it be sensible to hold a bus at the bus stop before the final destination at Brent Cross shopping centre “to regulate the service” yet it happens regularly so the operator doesn’t incur a penalty for arriving into the terminal point early. I’ve sat on a full bus for five minutes at that location in the past.
The second most quoted suggestion in replies inevitably was the lack of a bus map. I’ve written about this many times before and my views are well known. For as long as an Underground map is regularly printed and widely distributed despite being a much simpler network than the bus network and having no end of variations available online (maps showing toilets; showing lines in tunnels or above ground; showing walking routes etc etc) with there being nothing even online for buses (and with the number of ‘spider maps’ rapidly diminishing leaving some major areas – eg Wood Green – completely map less) I will continue to make the case. Again, it’s no coincidence the most successful provincial bus companies at growing the market all produce bus maps. They just wouldn’t conceive of not doing so.
Transdev Blazefield have recently reported in a survey of 500 passengers , 1 in 4 used printed timetables for their primary source of information while 73% believe the company should continue producing them.
Enlightened bus companies also produce other helpful information to encourage and guide passengers. TfL do a first class job with directional signs throughout the Underground but as you come to leave stations there’s no clear indication where to go for the nearest bus stop or what the bus routes are, another point well made by a Twitter respondent.
Decent 24 hour priority lanes for buses also got a lot of mentions. There’s a perception too much road space is now given over to ‘active travel’ modes which although have seen growth are still a small proposition of total journeys compared to buses – by far the most used and popular mode. And that’s not to forget the walking routes to and from bus stops, and the need to make them safe and convenient observed by another commentator.
Much higher standards of interior design and comfort of buses used on TfL contracts – much better than the toe-in-water improvements for the buses now being introduced by Abellio on route 63 – would be a major step forward to really demonstrate buses are not a utilitarian experience but something enticing and attractive.
It was a wonderful opportunity to feed such views into the TfL bureaucracy machine. It will be interesting to see where their review takes them. Maybe one day we will see a TfL produced bus map.
Or maybe not.
In the meantime Mike Harris has come up trumps and produced a printed version of his network map to the 1970s design. It’s right up to date to today too. You can order a copy at the bargain price of £2 with profits going to the British Heart Foundation at busmap.co.uk. A Night Bus map is also available for £4. They’re well worth purchasing.
And the frequency cuts to central London bus routes continue. From today long standing route 12 (Dulwich to Oxford Circus) reduces from every 7-8 minutes to every 12 minutes and route 171 (Bellingham, Catford Bus Garage to Elephant & Castle) which until June 2019 ran through to Holborn reduces from every 8-9 minutes to every 12 minutes. Both cuts taking a further nine or so buses out of the network.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS. As perviously advised, a revised timetable is now in operation with the next scheduled post hopefully on Tuesday 5th April (Covid after-effects still causing minor disruptions to normal service).