Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Incredible Invisible Bus!

Whenever the news is on TV and some reporter is bringing us more depressing figures from the High Street, they’re normally standing in one. Whilst the local Councillor waxes lyrical into the reporter’s microphone, inevitably a bus whizzes past in the background. You can’t miss buses. They’re large things that bring lots of people into town for all sorts of reasons.
But to many movers and shakers, they’re invisible.
Take a walk along many a High Street in Britain today, and you can see a problem. The economic crisis has taken its toll, with several large well-known brands now but a memory. Online shopping too has taken a firm grip on people’s purchasing habits. So the challenge is on to revamp the traditional High Street. How can we breathe life into our traditional town centres?
The self-styled “Queen of Shopping” Mary Portas created a TV show out of it. She also caught the ear of Government with a report containing 28 recommendations.
But incredibly, the bus is nowhere to be seen.
Lest we forget the statistic that buses bring more people to the High Street than any other mode – including cars. 40% of trips are by bus compared to 30% in cars.
Portas talks only about “free controlled parking”. This may seem logical as a response to the damage done by free parking at out of town shopping centres, but actually all it would do is create even more congestion and pollution by encouraging more car journeys into town. Difficult as it may seem, how about redressing the balance by introducing car park charges at the out of town establishments?
The Chairman of Wolverhampton Business Group is also lobbying for cheaper parking charges in the City – the same Gentleman also wants bus lanes removed and last year appeared in the local press stood on the side of the road taking pictures of buses in order to count how many people were on board to supposedly prove his point.
So, despite bringing more people into town than cars, the bus remains largely invisible to many and seemingly not part of the solution.
Which is a pity, with so much potential to attract more users, and thus footfall in our depleted town centres.
But is this, in part, because the bus industry doesn’t shout loud enough?
Look at any town centre bus operation. It will have its regulars. But the challenge is surely more users. Hassle-free travel. No eternal hunt for car park spaces. And that’s just the start of it.
Imagine a town centre where the bus runs past loads of queuing cars, in its own highly-policed lane. Where the fare is cheaper than the car park cost. Where, instead of driving around endlessly wasting fuel looking for a space, you’re perusing the internet on your phone or tablet via the free wi-fi. Where buses are frequent and on time because of good bus priority, and are luxuriously comfortable.
You can, of course, find this is some towns and Cities. But there are plenty more where there is work to be done.
Bus operators not only have to shout more about the benefits of using the bus to the town centre, they have to create long-term relationships with the people involved in running the town. Buses mustn’t be seen as some form of last-resort travel option on the peripheral corner of the big picture – they must be regarded as central to the revitalisation of our struggling towns. It requires investment by all parties – operators with attractive, reliable vehicles, and authorities with brave policies that give buses priority to provide excellent service.
At the moment, there are too many “invisible” buses.  

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