Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Why Are Glaswegians Not Using Buses Anymore?

I think few people would disagree that Greater Glasgow has too much traffic.  Huge sums of money have been spent on major road projects in recent years, such as the M74 completion, and the M8/M73/M74 junction upgrade, which have made some improvements in getting traffic in and out of the city, but the city itself still seems to be choked with traffic almost all hours of the day.  Even East Kilbride has seen traffic increase, and again most plans to cope with this seem to focus on road expansion - notably plans to turn Stewartfield Way into a dual carriageway.

It's likely not surprising to you that I don't view road-building as a long-term solution.  For decades now, governments have promoted new roads as the solution to traffic problems, and in every case it has inevitably led to some short-term improvements, quickly lost as traffic increases further until the new roads are as clogged up as the old ones.  Any real plan to tackle traffic has to address modal change - getting people out of cars and into more sustainable modes of transport.  But this highlights a real quandary - Glasgow is, even more than other areas, seeing massive declines in the usage of its bus services.

Transport Scotland's statistics show that the number of bus journeys taken in the "South West and Strathclyde" region peaked at 234 million in the financial year 2008/09.  By 2015/16, this figure had fallen to 169m, an overall decline of 28%.  By contrast over the same period, the South East region covering Edinburgh's sphere of influence only fell from 170m to 165m, a 3% decline.  The North East, Tayside and Central region fell from 66m to 61m, an 8% decline, and the Highlands and Islands region held steady on 14m.  England's cities follow a similar trend to the rest of Scotland of gradual decline (with the notable exception of London where bus usage continues to expand rapidly, now accounting for over half of all England's bus usage), but Glasgow really sticks out as the city with the sharpest decline.

Rail is coping slightly better - Strathclyde Partnership for Transport's statistics show that rail journeys across the Greater Glasgow area are generally increasing at an average rate of around 2% per year, but those figures still leave a significant overall fall in public transport usage.  Looking at East Kilbride specifically, the ORR statistics show that in the 2008/09 to 2015/16 period, the number of journeys starting and ending at East Kilbride railway station increased from 1.07m to 1.14m (~1% increase per year), while journeys to and from Hairmyres increased from 0.53m to 0.72m (~5% increase per year).

So, in a situation where ideally we should be moving people from cars to public transport, it seems that the overall trend actually seems to be going in the other direction.  And while the increase in rail usage is positive, it does not make up for the loss of bus patrons, and also potentially generates problems down the line if Glasgow's rail network starts to push the capacities of its current infrastructure.  So, Glasgow needs to convert car users to bus users - how can this be accomplished?

The bus operators themselves obviously seem to have some ideas in terms of recent innovations.  Live bus times are finally operational in Glasgow, over a decade after they came into use in Edinburgh, so at least the operators seem to have realised how important it is to passengers to know exactly when their bus will arrive.  The new Glasgow Tripper ticket is an attempt to tackle the lack of integrated ticketing in Glasgow, though it's still in early stages and only offers day tickets at present.  There's also been a notable push in upgrading bus shelters, and in the provision of additional features such as free onboard wi-fi.

But do the operators' actions match with what people actually want out of public transport services? Earlier today, I asked friends and contacts from around Glasgow that, if they weren't using buses, what factors were accounting for that decision.  The answers came in three main categories:

1. Fares
Naturally, cost is a prohibitive factor.  My respondents recognised that bus probably was the cheapest way to travel but as one person put it, the difference was insufficient to "compensate for the inconvenience" compared to the ability to just jump in a car.  Many people complained about the price of single fares, though none of the non-bus-users mentioned considering the much reduced long-term cost of using a season ticket.  Additionally, there were complaints about the lack of information about fares - someone not wanting to take a bus when they were not able to see in advance how much it would cost, and someone else who had previously had trouble with incorrect fare advice from drivers.  One person said they were put off by the need for exact change, but noted the recent improvements in terms of contactless payments.

2. Comfort and Safety
Many respondents noted that in their past experiences, buses were just too unclean.  In fact, uncleanliness came across as the mostly commonly held and most passionately expressed complaint.  Some also expressed concerns about the cleanliness of other passengers on the bus, and there were worries about the transmission of colds and the like.  A number of respondents, all female, also complained that there were occasions where they had felt unsafe on a bus due to the behaviour of other passengers on board, especially if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  A respondent with a disability was worried about being bullied by other passengers while travelling.

3. Availability
A lot of respondents were just making journeys that they felt did not have a viable public transport option.  Either the bus route was going to take too much longer compared to a journey by car, involved too many changes, or would involve too much walking at one or both ends of the journey. 

So, what are the options available to tackle such problems?

If we take London as our role model to follow, since it is by far the most successful part of the UK in growing bus usage, the key would seem to be to take a lot of the administration of services into public control.  Indeed, the relatively small decline in bus usage seen in Edinburgh could also be taken as evidence to the advantage of that, since Lothian Buses is a publicly-owned bus operator.  The TfL model uses private operators, but sees fares, routes, frequencies and vehicle specifications set by TfL planners, who then put out contracts to tender to privately-owned operators.  The advantages of this are obvious - public control of fares prevents prices from becoming excessive, public control of routes ensures that all areas are served at the frequency required, instead of the current situation where the most profitable routes see frequent services while less profitable areas are cut back to minimal subsidised services, and strict bus specifications ensure standards for bus capacity, age and cleanliness.

Imagine if we could have SPT or a new dedicated body analyse transport patterns across Glasgow and then lay down a network plan based upon where people need to go, rather than where it is most profitable to operate.  And furthermore, a fully integrated and regulated fares system so that public transport is acceptably and clearly priced, ideally with a modern Oyster card-style system that avoids all need to worry about finding spare change or choosing between different ticket types.

London is taking measures to improve safety too - increasing usage of CCTV, ensuring drivers are well trained and supported in dealing with problem passengers, placing wardens at central bus stops after dark, and so forth.  Glasgow should look at adopting similar procedures to ensure passenger safety.  Just ensuring that safety concerns get reported and then appropriately handled by the police would be a great deterrent in preventing anti-social activity in the first place.

So, it is clear that bus usage is declining sharply in Glasgow, that this is negatively impacting attempts to reduce traffic, and so that we need to find ways to increase its appeal. 

Attempts to increase its appeal will need to focus on ensuring fairer fares, giving people a clean and safe journey experience, and ensuring that public transport networks are set up to meet passenger flows rather than profit margins.

The success of TfL's planning structure in London suggests that a similar structure would work here too, and therefore we should look at bringing control of bus operation into public hands, either directly as is the case with Lothian Buses, or through tendering of regulated services as is the case with TfL.

What is your experience with bus services in Glasgow?  If you use buses, how would you encourage others to do the same?  If you do not uses buses at present, what would convince you to do so?  Please leave comments below!

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