The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) Big Conversation found that 72% of respondents thought they would benefit from a significant improvement in public transport. What sort of improvement did they envisage? The survey tested if people wanted more public transport (42% said yes), more reliable public transport (43%), real-time transport updates (60%), smart ticketing (56%) and bus priority at signals (58%).
‘More reliable’ is typically interpreted by GCP transport officers to mean less variability in journey times. That’s not actually what most people who use buses complain about. After all, if you get on a Trumpington P&R bus and sit in a queue through Trumpington, you know you’d have been in the same queue if you’d driven to the Grand Arcade car park.
Missing a connection because of delay is a bigger headache. It’s why people don’t like having to change buses. Stagecoach recently changed the service pattern for the 11 bus (Bury St Edmunds–Cambridge): there are now only three through-services each way; at other times you must change at Newmarket. If, say, you catch the 17:35 from Cambridge and it arrives seven minutes late in Newmarket, you miss your connection and have to wait an extra forty-eight minutes. The timetable even states, “we cannot guarantee onward connections for each journey.” How many times will you tolerate missing your connection before you drive instead (assuming you can afford a car)?
What irks people most of all is service failure: buses being cancelled or just not turning up (imagine if it’s your last bus home); routes being withdrawn or changed arbitrarily at a few week’s notice; or knock-on delays resulting from a much earlier incident.
These experiences are stressful and make people feel powerless. Research in New York city found that lower-paid workers were more likely than higher-paid ones to be disciplined or to lose their job for being late because of recurrent problems experienced with public transport.
People depend on public transport. We need a service level agreement that recognises this if we want more people to use buses. Next week I’ll be suggesting what that agreement needs to look like.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 4 April 2018.