After years of growth, bus patronage is in decline, locally and nationally, at a time when train patronage continues to grow. A concerted effort is needed to make bus travel more attractive. Slow and infrequent rural services, not running late enough into the evening, wildly unpredictable delays and cancellations, inconvenient ticketing, unclear and unattractive pricing for occasional trips, elusive and inaccurate information, inadequate and poorly maintained facilities at stops all contribute to the poor image and experience of bus travel.
Rural bus services traditionally cater mainly for the elderly (who are now eligible for free bus travel) and school children. Park & Ride, Guided Busway and a few other services (notably the X13 Haverhill–Cambridge) break the mould and provide a service appealing to commuters and others who have the option to drive. We should learn from these. We also need services to cater better for city residents.
This requires an examination of bus routing, timetabling, ticketing, and information provision. The aim should be to remove pain points in using buses, and make the experience as convenient and comfortable as possible. Done right, that will start a virtuous circle of greater patronage, leading to more frequent services for longer hours, making them attractive to more people.
For bus operators this means an opportunity for significant growth, giving rise to greater profits. This is the justification they need to invest in new buses and expand their workforce – all of which will be positive for the local economy.
What makes bus travel attractive?
Buses become the transport mode of choice if they are:
- affordable: typically cheaper than driving and parking
- reliable: punctual and very rarely cancelled
- flexible: multiple destinations easily reached (see below)
- available: runs when needed (see below)
- frequent: a maximum wait time of 15 minutes
- fast: comparable to driving and parking
- accessible: bus stops within easy reach of home and destinations
- comfortable: a delightful experience (see below)
This article examines techniques available to achieve these aims, and how they might be applied in Cambridge and the surrounding region.
For bus to become the sole or primary mode of transport for someone, it must be reasonably painless to reach multiple destinations from home: workplace, family, friends, health, retail, leisure. This requires easy and quick interchanging between services at no additional cost. Not having to return to the same location to catch a bus home can make buses more convenient than driving and parking.
It is important that buses start running early enough to get most people to work, and late enough for people to have some flexibility with their work and social plans. Anxiety about arriving late at work or missing the last bus home is a strong motivation for not taking the bus at all.
Many factors contribute to comfort: design, cleanliness, ambient temperature, noise, smell, ease of boarding, having sufficient space for pushchairs and luggage, and being able to board early if the bus is waiting at a terminus.
The ideal from a user’s perspective is to be able to catch a single, direct bus. A group of people at an origin (say, Cambourne) will want to travel to several different destinations (say, West Cambridge, Cambridge city centre, the Science Park and the Biomedical Campus). There are three options:
- Run a single service along a circuitous route via every passenger’s destination. This makes it painfully slow for many passengers.
- Run a separate service to each destination. This entails either reducing the service frequency or raising the fares substantially, as the ratio of passengers to driver-vehicle is now much lower.
- Run a service along a direct route via hubs where passengers can connect with other services. This means some passengers have to change bus. (We cover what hubs are and how they work in two separate papers: Travel Hubs, which considers rural and suburban hubs, and Cambridge city bus hub.)
Transport planner Jarrett Walker describes this as the Ridership–Coverage Trade-off. Different people have different preferences, and typically current bus users will prefer the option they’re used to. Nevertheless, option 3 is the most efficient and affordable way to provide a service that is attractive to a wide range of people, including commuters, and a viable alternative to driving.
Perople’s resistance to option 3 is often based on bad experiences of interchanging. Since almost no bus services in the UK are guaranteed to run, yet alone connect, people have a perfectly reasonable fear of being stranded. How many times will you stand in the rain for an hour, pay for a taxi or ask a friend to collect you before you vow never to rely on buses ever again? There is an urgent need for legislation to grant bus users more rights and to require bus operators to adhere to a basic service level agreement.
Once the maximum wait time to catch a service is under around fifteen minutes (four buses/hour), occasional users no longer need to consult a timetable. For regular users though, a reliable timetable is important if the maximum wait is more than around six minutes (ten buses/hour).
Early departure can lead to missing a bus. Although this is not permitted at ‘timed’ stops (indeed it can lead to a driver being dismissed), timings at intermediate stops are ‘indicative’. On routes with highly variable journey times, it may be necessary to designate more stops as ‘timed’, or adjust the published timetable appropriately.
Services running fast and direct not only makes them attractive to users, but also means an operator can run more services with the same resources: if an express service covers a route in half the time of a traditional stopping service, the operator can run the service with double the frequency at only a small additional cost.
Types of service
One of the key features of trains is that they move quickly between widely spaced stops along a direct route, making journey times comparable with driving. This is the model for most medium and long distance bus services, such as the X3 Huntingdon–Cambridge, X5 Oxford–Cambridge, X13 Haverhill–Cambridge, Citi 4 Cambourne–Cambridge.
South Cambridgeshire needs to be served by more express services, calling at conveniently located rural travel hubs, along direct routes into the city. These services should make limited stops on radial roads, and multiple stops on the inner ring road, permitting easy interchange with any other bus service (see ring-and-spoke routing above).
If, say, the Citi 8 were to run express from Cottenham, it could reach the inner ring road in 15 minutes and Emmanuel Road in 20 minutes (instead of 46 minutes currently). This could be achieved by replacing:
- eight stops in Cottenham with a one at a rural hub;
- fifteen stops in Histon and Impington with one at a rural hub and one at the Guided Busway;
- twelve stops in Cambridge with three express stops on Histon Road, one on Castle Hill, and three on the inner ring road up to Emmanuel Road.
Feeder bus services provide a public transport connection between travel hubs and the surrounding area. Unlike local rural services (see below), they do not enter the city, but rather connect people with express services at travel hubs. They serve people who are too far from a travel hub to walk or cycle and do not have access to a car, or who have limited mobility.
Compared with a local service, an express-plus-feeder service will be attractive to a wider audience, in particular to commuters, and will therefore be profitable to run at a higher frequency for more hours of the day.
Although people tell bus operators that they do not like having to change buses, if travel hubs are well designed, with clear information provision, and buses connect reliably, interchanging will be relatively painless and people will quickly appreciate the advantages gained.
Within Cambridge City, a feeder service would serve the city centre and other parts of the city not served by express bus services. Demand for this would mainly come from those with impaired mobility, so a small fleet of midi-buses should provide sufficient capacity.
An example of a viable feeder service would be one that circulates around the A505, connecting travel hubs at:
- Whittlesford Parkway (train station)
with the following destinations:
- Imperial War Museum at Duxford
- Granta Park
- Babraham Institute
- Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
and the following villages:
- Little Abingdon
- Great Abingdon
An example of a small-scale feeder/shuttle service would be one that circulates the Biomedical Campus, serving:
- Babraham Rd bus station
- Addenbrooke’s train station (when built)
- Addenbrooke’s hospital
- Rosie Maternity Hospital
- Businesses and research centres
- Long Road Sixth Form College
Local services (rural)
Most bus services run today are local services, following circuitous routes to pass by as many homes and amenities as possible. Because of the time it takes to cover a route, a local service requires more buses and drivers than an express service to provide a given frequency of service.
Outside of peak hours, when bus operators do not require most of their buses for express services, it may be possible to run a mix of local and feeder services. However the convenience of a local service in not having to change buses is offset by the lower frequency of service possible (because a local route takes longer to cover). This is perhaps a choice that rural communities could make (through their parish councils in consultation with local bus operators).
It may be desirable to route all local services via the three key destinations: city centre, central train station and Addenbrooke’s.
Local services (city)
Within Cambridge there will continue to be a demand for bus services on routes not served by express services (including within the inner ring road) and for stopping services on express routes. However, that demand is likely to decline as express services come on stream, and safer cycling infrastructure is installed. The main users will then be people with limited mobility, with babies and toddlers, or carrying goods, equipment or luggage.
It is therefore anticipated that local city services will be best provided at all times by midi-sized buses. These will have a much lower environmental impact (pollution, noise and vibration), which makes them more suited to narrow streets.
Community transport covers Dial-a-Ride and volunteer drivers using their own vehicles. It already offers a lifeline for people who have no other means of getting about, most commonly elderly and disabled people needing to get to medical appointments and social group meetings.
With the phasing out of local authority subsidies for bus services as part of ‘austerity’ cuts, the only bus services likely to operate in future will be those that are profitable, or that receive a subsidy from business (to assist their employees – see Works buses below). Therefore it is likely that more and more people will come to rely on community transport.
Community transport requires co-ordination, regulation and some funding. Co-ordination can in theory be managed online in the way that services like Lyft and Uber match drivers to passengers. Regulation is required to check identities of volunteer drivers, run Criminal Record Bureau checks (for clearance to carry children and vulnerable adults), and vehicle roadworthiness. Funding is required to assist social enterprises to purchase and maintain minibuses, and to reimburse volunteer drivers their fuel costs (though in most cases passengers should pay these).
As this is primarily (but not exclusively) a rural issue, it makes sense for community transport to be managed by parish councils, with some financial and administrative assistance from their district council.
Large employers sometimes choose to run a bus service for employees who do not have access to convenient and reliable public transport. While this is environmentally desirable, works buses can ‘hollow out’ the business for commercial bus operators in a similar way to Park & Ride sites close to the city (see the section on The hidden costs of Park & Ride in our paper on travel hubs).
It would be preferable if employers assisted a commercial operator to provide a service available to the general public, subsidising it during unprofitable hours or even providing finance to lease additional buses to increase capacity at peak times (reducing financial risk for the operator).
Since employers in the region currently spend over £1m annually to provide works buses and after-hours taxis for their employees, they have a strong incentive to find more cost-effective ways to assist their employees.
In our paper Can we do better than bus lanes? we examined the pros and cons of various methods of giving buses priority over other motor vehicles on congested roads. Research indicates that the effectiveness of bus lanes on existing roads is marginal, and comes at great financial, environmental, social and aesthetic cost.
We concluded that the best way to give buses priority within the city is through a combination of Smart Traffic Management and Inbound Flow Control, access restrictions to divert traffic away from key bus routes (such as the inner ring road – see Routing above), turn restrictions on key bus routes to reduce hold-ups to other traffic, and consistent enforcement of parking and loading restrictions on bus routes.
As discussed in our paper on travel hubs, it is essential that the locations where people wait for and leave buses are convenient and well-connected.
Research by TRL published in 1972 found that “tests showed the advantage of siting [bus bays] right at the junction so that they run into the stop-line. This makes it easier for buses to leave the bus bay and provides some increase in saturation flow; hence, it benefits cars as well as buses.” The location is also most convenient for bus passengers because the stop is adjacent to pedestrian crossings. Smart Traffic Management would make this possible, reducing to a minimum delays caused by buses stopping to load and unload.
A thoroughgoing review of bus stops is needed to identify the most suitable locations and appropriate facilities for the level of usage, including a shelter, real-time passenger information, and secure cycle parking. This review could be devolved to Cambridge City and parish councils to assist the County Council in prioritising the relocation, upgrading or refurbishment of bus stops. The review should be ongoing to ensure that facilities (e.g. cycle parking) continue to match demand.
Ticketing needs to be simple and efficient; prices need to be affordable, predictable and reasonably closely related to distance travelled. The current differences in ticket prices and conditions for Park & Ride and ‘standard’ services is seen by many as confusing and irrational.
Because of the delay (‘dwell time’) involved in handling cash payments, all ticketing should be electronic (as it is now in London), either using contactless payment card (a credit/debit card or a smartcard issued by the bus operator or local authority) or mobile phone payment. Fares are calculated by when and where a passenger ‘taps in’ as they board a bus and ‘taps out’ when they exit. (This differs from London buses, where a flat fare is charged for every journey, and so passengers need only ‘tap in’.)
The simplest way to structure ticket prices is by zones, as with the London Underground. We would like to see three zones in Greater Cambridge:
- Zone 1: Cambridge City and necklace villages.
- Zone 2: Up to around about 20km from the city centre (the distance of Cambridge to Newmarket)
- Zone 3: Further afield
Tickets should be available for travel within zone 1, zones 1-2, zones 1-3, and zones 2-3.
The cost of multiple trips should be automatically capped per day, week, month, half-year and year. This eliminates a source of anxiety in trying to predict what type of ticket will represent best value, and makes bus travel more attractive to people with varying work patterns and locations.
A single trip/fare must, for convenience and fairness, include a free interchange. This can be achieved by permitting a free tap-in within a specified time limit (say, 90 minutes) from the first tap-in. This would be available only for electronic tickets (in part because people could sell or give away part-used paper tickets).
Ideally, price capping should apply across all operators in the region, including train and pay-as-you-go cycle hire. That requires an independent ticketing system, similar to Transport for London’s.
One of the great attractions of trams is that they are quiet and non-polluting (overlooking how electricity is generated). In January 2018, Shenzhen in China was running an all-electric fleet of 16,359 electric buses. Electric buses are beginning to be brought into service in the UK, and several cities have been trialling electric double-deckers. The range is now close to a full-day’s service, obviating the need for top-up charging during the day. The total life cost of an electric bus is now comparable with a diesel bus, and that excludes external costs of diesel power – to people’s health and the climate.
Big versus small buses
A frequent observation is that buses are virtually empty most of the day, and that smaller buses would be more appropriate. An operator buys or leases a fleet of buses that is most cost-effective to meet peak demand. The two main reasons for choosing large (single- or double-decker buses):
- About 40% of the cost of running a service is to pay the driver, so the operator seeks to maximise the ratio of passengers to drivers.
- The operating costs (depreciation and maintenance) of standard single- and double-decker buses are much lower than smaller buses which are not engineered to the same level of robustness. A standard, heavy-duty bus engine has an expected operating life of around 500,000 miles, compared with around 100,000 miles for a minibus engine.
There is therefore nothing realistically to be done about buses running virtually empty during off-peak hours and against the tidal flow (i.e. leaving the city in the morning, and entering it in the evening).
However, we should acknowledge the heavy toll these buses exact on city roads and buildings, and their contribution to high levels of pollution in the city, especially in narrow streets with high-sided buildings, which trap pollution.
We should aim to exclude buses (and HGVs) over 7.5 tonnes from sensitive city roads such as Bridge St, Round Church St, Park St, Jesus Lane, Hobson St, King St, Emmanuel St, St Andrews St, Park Terrace, Silver St, Pembroke St, Downing St, and Victoria Rd. This can be achieved by our proposals to route express buses via the inner ring road and permit only midi-sized buses on other city routes.
One of the barriers to bus use is difficulty in obtaining essential information:
- what bus to catch at what time at what place;
- how to get to the initial bus stop;
- where to change buses (if necessary);
- which stop to get off at;
- how to get to the destination from the final bus stop;
- what type of ticket to buy at what cost (and with what restrictions);
- how to pay for the ticket;
- advance notice and real-time updates about service delays or cancellations;
Bus operators typically expect you to look in many different places for this information, including third-party mapping websites. Stagecoach’s app shows journey options and fares only for its own buses. The Greater Cambridge Partnership Smart Cambridge programme has set up a data hub which, in time, will make information about all bus routes, stops, ticket prices, and real-time bus locations in one place. The MotionMap app uses this platform, and it is hoped will in time offer similar functionality to apps provided by Transport for London, Citymapper, 9292.nl, etc. When access to the bus data is made open, as required by the Bus Services Act 2017, other journey planner apps will be able to incorporate it into their apps and websites.
Improving the image of buses
There is a perception (partly class-related) that trams are more attractive than buses. Rather than pander to this bias – potentially at huge expense – it makes sense to examine why the perception exists. Some of the commonly-cited objections are:
- Pollution from diesel engines is a danger to health, and the smell and noise is offensive.
All-electric buses, with quiet, battery-powered motors, will be commonplace within a decade, so this advantage of trams will diminish.
- Tickets are typically purchased before boarding a tram, or there is contactless payment.
Transport for London has proven there is no reason for buses to be different.
- Trams typically have multi-door boarding.
Two- and three-door bus models are available, bus operators tend to prefer single-door buses because they have higher seating capacity; it’s easier to prevent fare dodging; and many bus shelters and stations are not designed for multi-door operation. The advantage of having more doors, especially once ticketing is streamlined, is that dwell times can be greatly reduced, allowing buses to run more frequently, increasing the hourly capacity, for only a small increase in overhead.
- Tram routes are easier to understand and find.
Consistent, clear maps and signage, real-time passenger information displays, and online apps, like CityMapper, can make bus travel much more accessible. Naming routes can help too.
- The ride quality is smoother on trams, making it more comfortable and easier to read and work on a laptop/tablet.
The ride quality of a bus is largely determined by the quality of the road: roads on bus routes could be rebuilt to the same standards as a tramway, reducing wear and tear and improving the fuel economy for all vehicles.
- The design and décor of trams is often seen to be more attractive.
The challenge is for bus manufacturers to up their game!
- Bus windows often stream with condensation in the winter.
Buses should be fitted with a heat-recovery ventilation system, which extracts warm moist air and transfers the heat to cool, dry air drawn in from outside.
- Buses often pick up more dirt from the road in wet weather.
This can be addressed by running buses through a washer during off-peak periods.
Requiring bus drivers to collect fares, verify tickets and passes, account for all money taken, and spot fare dodgers adds considerable stress to their job, and increases the dwell time at stops. Instead, operators should employ specialist revenue protection officers with powers to impose on-the-spot fines. CCTV on board buses provides a means to spot and target repeat offenders.
In addition to the practical measures detailed above, operators can do more to incentivise people to travel by bus, for instance by offering:
- Free WiFi on buses and at travel hubs. This means people can work and socialise online without depending on patchy mobile phone coverage.
- Group travel discounts (emulating the rail industry).
- Special discounts at city museums, shops and other attractions (emulating the rail industry’s 2FOR1 offers).
- Reduced fares to travel to specific events and festivals that take place during off-peak hours.
- Well-publicised promotions to encourage people to try bus travel.