Bus Back Better: Improving the passenger experience

Boris Johnson is keen to get England back on the bus. Bus Back Better, the National Bus Strategy for England, aims to reverse patronage decline and make buses the mode of choice for everyone.

In the fourth and final part of a series on how the National Bus Strategy can be successfully delivered (read parts 1, 2 and 3), James McCarthy, Head of Operations at CitySwift, explains how passengers can be placed at the heart of the plans.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants passengers placed at the heart of the plans laid out in England's National Bus Strategy. In his foreword to Bus Back Better, he writes: "We want simple, cheap fares that you can pay with a contactless card, with daily and weekly price capping across operators." 

He also believes that bus networks should ‘feel like networks’. "With," he continues, "easy-to-understand services, consistently high standards and comprehensive information at the touch of a phone."

Everything within Bus Back Better is about trying to make the experience better for passengers. And making the experience better will lead to growth.

"Research shows that many people have negative perceptions about buses but are often pleasantly surprised when they try them," notes the strategy. "We, as Government, have a role to play in promoting the use of buses, to attract both previous and new users onto buses, working closely with the LTA (Local Transport Authority), bus operators and trade bodies to reverse the decades of decline in customer numbers."

"Research shows that many people have negative perceptions about buses but are often pleasantly surprised when they try them."

It's a laudable goal and one we should all fully support. As we all know, improving buses can not only help unlock congestion and promote economic growth, but it can also play a significant part in helping decarbonise economies and improve air quality in our towns and cities.

But of course, the world has changed since the arrival of Covid. We often hear about 'building back better' and it's undeniable that society has changed and will change even more in the weeks and months ahead as lockdowns loosen and society gets back to normal. The way we work, shop and play have inevitably changed for good.

That's where CitySwift's expertise can help. We were one of the first companies to fully embrace and develop a platform to explore the world of passenger behaviour. 

This means we have a plugin-and-play system that's ready to go that can help bus operators and Local Transport Authorities get the very best from their bus networks in this new era – and fully grasp the opportunities offered by Bus Back Better.

Fully understanding bus networks is going to become incredibly important as we emerge from lockdown. People within the bus industry have known their networks like the backs of their hands for decades - and there's no denying the considerable expertise the industry has - but right now there's an incredible amount of uncertainty.

The CitySwift bus data engine can forensically analyse where passengers are going – are they still travelling to and from city centres? Are they still going to and from business parks? Are they still doing it at the same times? There are network nodes that we had a preconceived understanding of before the pandemic, but they may not be the same anymore. It’s important to scrutinise those demand patterns.

But what relevance does this have to the aspirations of Bus Back Better? Well, the technology can also play a part in reversing that ‘decades of decline in customer numbers’ claimed in the strategy.

The way we can do that is by helping the industry to compete with the car. So how do we do that? Well, one way to pleasantly surprise new users is by offering competitive journey times. 

We can identify if there's demand for, for example, an express service, or whether resources would be better concentrated on certain segments of any given corridor in order to make a service truly 'turn up and go' (incidentally another aspiration of the strategy). 

It means a better passenger experience by meeting the needs and aspirations of bus users, while also better matching the resource requirement.

That tech will also place operators and LTAs on bedrock for the future growth espoused by the strategy. 

Our bus data engine eats patronage and demand data and combines it with information from a variety of sources – would you believe it even digests how busy the local coffee shop is likely to be at 8am on a Monday morning or how many people are likely to pop out for a few drinks with friends after work on a Friday evening? All this in a bid to better understand buses!

So we have a good idea of the likely behaviour of passengers from across society and we can identify networks that meet their aspirations and service their emerging travel patterns. But it's important to note that this data is purely 100% demand-derived – it is route agnostic. It is about the A to C journeys; not just the A to B. We are seeing where people are going to and from and it’s about changing the network to meet that need –  and we’re using the very latest data and AI-derived insights to do it.

We are seeing where people are going to and from and it’s about changing the network to meet that need –  and we’re using the very latest data and AI-derived insights to do it.

The world has changed. It’s clear that bus networks will have to change too. Not only to meet the needs of passengers but the wider aspirations of the bus strategy too. We have a unique opportunity to create bus networks that work for all and offer a compelling alternative to the private car. Data tools will be at the heart of creating that compelling alternative.

James McCarthy is Head of Operations at CitySwift. Read parts 1, 2 and 3 of his series on the National Bus Strategy.

Learn more about CitySwift’s specialist bus data engine, request a demo or contact us to discover how CitySwift can help you Bus Back Better.