Thursday, 28 April 2011

Round The Houses.....

One of the phrases that non-regular bus users use is "round the houses".
"The bus went all round the houses and it took ages...."
Of course making the network simple to understand is one of the great challenges for the bus industry. Here in the West Midlands, Centro's "Network West Midlands" initiative has worked very well in opening up what the intensive network actually looks like - and it is because we have such a web of services across Birmingham, the Black Country & Coventry, that it is often not easily explained!
There is some very good research that shows that bus users want frequent, direct services. That's hardly rocket science, as to attract new users, you have to provide them with something that isn't too far away from their existence as a car user.
But take the occasional user who hasn't got time for research and may be using public transport at short notice. They may be looking at the bus destination for where they need to go, jump on the bus and then - to their surprise - get taken "around the houses". A negative experience that might put them off bus travel in the future? You bet!
And yet the answer isn't relatively simple - apart from a good old bit of customer care.
"Round The Houses" services are important. They might not be attractive for commuters or high-frequency users, who do want that "fast" service. But many estate services are true lifelines for the people that use them, and very much deserve their place in the public transport matrix.
Given my day off today, and the glorious sunshine, the temptation proved too much - £3.80s worth of "n-bus" (all operator bus ticket for the Centro area) and I'm off riding to see what is going on.
I caught such a "round the houses" service - Hansons 124 from Dudley to Cradley Heath Interchange - via "the houses". Despite having a Birmingham-style number ("1xx"), this remnant from the days when the 124 did indeed serve the second city is purely a local facility these days. It also incorporates part of a route that sprung up in the heady days post-deregulation when converted bread vans provided minibus services to areas that had never seen such a thing. The old West Midlands Travel "Mini-Buzz" routes and Merry Hill Minibuses (complete with piped muzak and drivers with dickie-bow ties) seem a long time ago now, but quite revolutionary they were.
Hansons 124 these days uses mid-sized Darts, which carries its load rather well. The service - like many others of its ilk - seems to convey concessionary pass holders in the main. The lady driver scrutinises my n-bus ticket (issued on a previous journey by National Express West Midlands - and thus looks suspiciously like their own DaySaver) but she is very friendly and seems to know many of the passengers, waving them goodbye as they get off with their bags of groceries.
And isn't this what bus services are partly all about? You could feel the social worth in this service - which is simply not able to be valued in monetary terms.
Yet, say I was an irregular user. Cradley Heath on the destination display is probably around 15 minutes at most away from Dudley if you go by car. Despite the 124 going "round the houses", this journey takes only half an hour. But you see my point. It wouldn't necessarily tempt me to use it again if I was a busy person with access to a car.
This is partly where my earlier phrase" good old customer care" comes in.
On another Hansons journey I made the other week, I jumped on one of their services from Merry Hill to Stourbridge which I know goes "around the houses" (I was just curious to give it a go to see how well it was used). The driver actually asked me if I wanted Stourbridge, and told me it "went the long way around" (which I replied was fine). But that small piece of customer service might have proved to be extremely useful should I have been in a bit more of a hurry and an irregular user without knowledge of the Black Country bus network. I found it a very simple, but useful thing to ask.
Fast direct bus services are important in attracting new users. "Round the houses" services equally play their role in a social sense. Defining one from the other isn't always that easy for those not in the know. But buses are a "people" industry - and the more "people" that find them less of a mystery and more user-friendly and thus might use them more can only be a win-win for everyone.

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