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  • Writer's pictureandrew ferguson

Why people don’t take buses – and what we can do about it

Let’s call the heroine of this epic voyage Alison, because she is, indeed, my wife Alison – it’s a true story, that happened a few months ago.

Like me, Alison is keen to use public transport when it’s feasible. There are a number of reasons for this – the green agenda being up there amongst them – but another reason is that, since moving from Fife, she’s not keen on taking our ageing car 40 miles or so round the Edinburgh City Bypass to visit friends and relatives by herself.

So, on one of my working days, Alison planned to combine two Fife things in one journey: meeting a friend for lunch in Kirkcaldy, and then going to a social event in Falkland late afternoon, where she used to volunteer, before returning early evening. The night before, she used a combination of the Stagecoach, Lothian Buses and Traveline apps on her phone to plan how to get there and back.

Things started well enough. She caught a Lothian 24 service from our flat down to the West

End, to make the first of her Fife connections. As anyone who knows Edinburgh knows, the city bus service is generally reliable, owned by a single operator, and frequent.

However, as anyone who’s ever waited at the West End for a bus will know, that stretch of Queensferry Street is, let’s say, sub-optimal as a transport interchange. Even in summer it’s a wind tunnel, dry and dusty. The forest of stop signs is often less than informative – certainly for out of town buses – and there’s no real time passenger information on them.

On this occasion, not seeing a sign for the (Stagecoach) X58, Alison decided she was better off at the bus station than taking her chances with little or no information as to when, or if, an X58 was coming. I’ve sometimes done the same thing: although the West End is convenient for other transport interconnections, with Haymarket and the tram being nearby, it can be a long, cold, wait.

On getting to the bus station, she learned the X58 had gone (despite her keeping an eye out for it en route, she hadn’t seen it). Deciding to rely on human rather than machine interaction, she went to ask the staff in the ticket office when the next bus to Kirkcaldy would go. They didn’t know. There was no one on the Information desk. Asking the driver of the X60 (another Kirkcaldy bus) when he was leaving she got the response it wouldn’t be any time soon, as it was broken down.

Eventually getting a bus that got her in 15 minutes late for her lunch date, Alison then headed back to Kirkcaldy bus station to get on a Glenrothes bus. The plan, based on her reading of the app, was to get off at Queensway, just before Glenrothes bus station, to catch the (Moffat and Williamson) 64 service to Falkland. When she checked with the driver, he advised her to stay on till the bus station. As it turned out, she decided to stick to the original plan (the bus was running late), got off at Queensway, and emerged from the underpass just in time to see the 64 going past at full steam.

It's a relatively short walk from there to Glenrothes bus station. She was now running an hour late, but she had a fair idea when the next Falkland bus would turn up. This was doubly lucky as there was no one to ask at the bus station, and no real time information about the buses on the notice board. In fact, there wasn’t even an old-fashioned printed timetable.

After the social event, one of Alison’s friends gave her a run back from Falkland to Glenrothes bus station. It was still summer, so a woman on her own was – relatively - safe in the early evening, although it’s fair to say waiting for a bus at Glenrothes bus station isn’t the most relaxing of experiences, given the recent propensity of local youths to use it as a meeting place for pitched battles amongst (mainly) themselves.

The (Stagecoach) X59 duly turned up, and Alison – by now a little wearied with the missed connections and the waiting – settled in for the express bus journey back. At some point the driver, for his own reasons, decided to put the lighting down to ambient levels.

This wasn’t too much of a concern for her until she got up and walked down the bus to get off at the West End; the driver didn’t stop, and when she asked why, was told that she should’ve ‘pressed the button’ – despite the low level lighting making it extremely difficult to see them (they’re pretty few and far between on these buses as it is) and it being blindingly obvious that she hadn’t walked the length of the bus just to get some exercise.

All in all, a round trip of around 80 miles with a couple of brief interludes for socialising took eleven hours. There were three bus companies and five buses involved. She used three mobile apps, none of which gave her the full solution.

Why am I telling you all this? Not just to have a rant (it probably didn’t help my wife’s mood when, in the middle of all this, I messaged her with a picture of me downing a Guinness with a friend in the relaxed surroundings of an Edinburgh pub). It’s because we both believe in public transport; use it when we can; and want to see it improved.

So what can be done?

Clearly the last driver could have handled things better, but in general bus company staff round here are generally pretty helpful and considerate, even if it’s the grumpy ones you tend to remember. Bus station personnel, too, are helpful – if you can find them. To be clear though, Alison’s experiences and interactions – or lack of them – took place at bus stations serving our capital city, and a town of about 50,000 people. How much worse is it in the back of beyond?

To be more positive, technology might prove the answer to some of the problems which, one missed connection and one grumpy bus driver aside, are down to lack of information. The problem with technology, of course, is that it costs money – and that’s over and above the ‘traditional’ budget heads of bus companies and local authorities.

However, money is slowly being invested in things that will help. My client, SEStran, has

been steadily putting such money as it has in real time passenger information in the south east of Scotland beyond the Edinburgh city boundaries for the last ten years (CEC have their own system, although we’re working in combination with them). The results of that investment are currently being rolled out across the region.

There is also Scottish Government money being invested – slowly, I have to say, partly because of the pandemic – in other tech solutions. Just in the past few days, we’ve heard that it will fund a SEStran project I’ve been involved in developing with colleagues. It consists of two elements. Here comes the jargon!

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is an awful mouthful for non transport nerds, but basically it means putting the passenger, and their need to get from A to B without use of a car, at the forefront, with all modes of potential transport capable of being seen, planned, booked and even paid for on a single app on a smartphone. The SEStran project will trial this, focusing initially on East Lothian, but looking to roll it out more widely.

A related development is the expansion of Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) beyond the traditional client group of people with accessibility needs to the public at large, with the ‘demand’ element again being accomplished by smart technology, at your fingertips, on the phone. When explaining this to non-transport people I usually go for the shorthand of ‘it’s like Uber, but for buses,’ to explain how the customer can now exercise control over where they’re picked up and where their journey can take them, rather than planning around the so-called ‘fixed route’ bus journey. It’s a concept which should work particularly well in rural areas.

Part of the SEStran project will be trialling this for the rural part of the Prentice 109 service between Humbie and Haddington. Instead of following a fixed route, that part of the 109 will become flexible, with people able to book so that it calls in close to where they live at a specified time. No need for conventional bus stops!

Lastly in terms of current developments generally, Transport Scotland are taking bids to the £500m Bus Partnership Fund, to find ways to make buses more reliable and congestion-free. Largely this is a ‘tarmac’ fund, intent on creating bus lanes and other priority measures on the ground. However, it also expects bus companies to sign up to a certain level of service.

Too little too late? Let’s hope not. The recent COP26 Conference has forced a focus on the sources of all emissions. The pandemic has crippled the bus industry, with patronage still well below 2019 levels whilst car use has returned to pre-pandemic numbers. That’s on the back of declining bus patronage over the past ten years. Something is needed to turn things around and get public transport as a viable, regular choice for far more people than previously.

It can be done. It’s just that time is running out fast.

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