Wednesday, 6 July 2011

"Transforming" Bus Travel

It is a rather grandiose phrase, and one that is open to a hefty slap of "egg on face" if it doesn't produce noticeable benefits. Like First's "Transforming Travel" strapline, you only hope that there is tangible evidence of their forthright statement.
"Transforming Bus Travel" (actually a "mk.2 version" - the original was a couple of years ago) is the name given to an agreement between Centro and National Express West Midlands. It is a statement of partnership, designed to focus minds (and press releases) that will aim to provide real benefit to us West Midlands bus passengers.
Has "mk.1" had the desired effect?
You'd forgive most passengers as not being aware of such a deal. I don't mean that in a negative way, because for most passengers, the bus is a pretty boring means to an end - only the geeks amongst us take more notice of what goes on operationally.
One of the major parts of all of this has been the Network Reviews - a root and branch review of local networks in several areas, kicking off with my very own area - Dudley - in 2008.
A culture shock for many - vast parts of the network were ripped up, re-cast and glued together again. Did it work? In the main, it wasn't bad. The Black Country, we are told, had been losing money for years in bus operating terms, and the new network was designed to give it a fresh new feel, reflecting more accurately where people wanted to travel. It was bold, and seems to have largely worked. National Express did come along 2 years later, however, and significantly revise some operations again.
Elsewhere, Solihull seemed more of a challenge. Seen perhaps as more "middle England" (how could it not be with villages called the likes of "Catherine-de-Barnes"), there were more car-owners in leafy suburbs than the former industrial heartland of Dudley and The Black Country. Selling a "new" bus network here was always going to be a significant challenge. The jury remains out as to whether Solihull's network review worked.
Elsewhere, Walsall ripped up the numbers and started again. Perhaps the boldest move yet, passengers had to get used to single and double digit numbers instead of ones that usually started with "3xx". We're told that research proves that people understand bus numbers like "1" and "61" more than "361". Wolverhampton will go through a similar renumbering and restructure later this month. I'm not wholly convinced personally that the renumbering is in passenger's best interests, but I'll see in more detail what this "research" has to say.
But "Transforming Bus Travel" is about more than just network reviews.
This new version includes the reaffirming of the long-awaited "Oyster"-style smartcard (recently delayed due to software problems) and investment in GPS and "end-user" applications, such as websites and iPhone apps to actually see where your bus is in real time.
These 2 initiatives, for me, are going to fundamentally change the way us West Midlanders use our buses.
When I was flown to Ireland last year to road-test an iPhone app for Dublin Coach, it was a liberating experience. To use a service in an area I've never been in and have the confidence to see a little dot on my iPhone screen moving in real time towards my stop was not only fascinating (and very much a "boy with a toy"), it gave me real empowerment. It worked flawlessly (to even the most sceptical of users!) and I flattened the phone battery trying to find a problem. There wasn't one.
Now add to that a credit card-sized piece of plastic charged up with stored value and no expiry date. The freedom to use any bus operator that comes along. The real-time information at the stop, counting down the minutes until my bus arrives, or the freedom to hop on and off different ones to suit. This is washing away many of the gripes and confusion about using public transport that people keep telling me.
But although this sounds blindingly obvious, IT NEEDS TO WORK!
You may agree that it's obvious, but in my years of travels up and down the country, sampling all sorts of operators networks, technology fails on too many occasions. Yes, we all expect that everything fails sometimes. Buses break down, computers crash, etc. But many people are naturally "bus bashers", and line up regularly in the pub on Friday night to tell me so! I so desperately want to prove them wrong. I want people to have real confidence in public transport.
And yet when Councillor Jon Hunt, Centro's lead member for buses and Vice-Chair tells the Birmingham Mail that he's "especially excited" about the smartcard ticketing (as we all are), I'd be even more excited if, wearing his hat as a Birmingham City Councillor, he'd start giving us more bus priority and start effectively policing the poor number of existing bus lanes that we have in the City.
To "Transform Bus Travel" means commitment from the likes of Birmingham City Council too.
Cleanliness is also mentioned, which again is so vital for us local bus users. We are almost desensitised to rolling bottles and cans, piles of free newspapers and empty burger boxes and chip paper. No one says keeping the West Midlands' bus network clean is easy, and of course it is the sheer pig-headed, selfish attitude of some passengers themselves that creates this mess, but whilst there may not be an obvious financial benefit immediately to employing armies of cleaners, it surely adds up in the long run to more passengers willing to give public transport a try, when coupled to the other pieces of the jigsaw that is "Transforming Bus Travel".
There are plenty of people ready to knock public transport, but I'm a proud user of our network of buses, trains and trams in the West Midlands. Centro has done a good job with bringing "Network West Midlands" as a brand to locals. National Express West Midlands, as the largest operator by far, has pledged to buy 300 new vehicles as part of this new agreement, showing new confidence for an operator that, even fairly recently, appeared to be on a slippery downward slope. It's "new" livery may split opinion, but there's much to be said for it's comprehensive network and (still) some of the cheapest fares in the country.
I genuinely wish "Transforming Bus Travel" well in this, it's 2nd phase. Making public transport work for all is a prize well worth the effort.

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