Twenty years ago, I found myself working in my company’s Manchester office for a week. One morning, the regional sales manager and I had an appointment in the city centre. In our suits and carrying briefcases, we did what anyone would, and headed for the tram. It was the natural thing to do.
But later, I wondered: had we been in a different part of the city, without trams, would we have got the bus? The answer was no chance. Successful business people don’t arrive on the bus.
It was an example that’s stuck with me of the image problem that buses have. If buses are to remain part of the solution to making our city a better place, we need to give them a better image. We need to get people using the bus because it was the right thing to do, the easiest thing to do and the fun thing to do. We need to try to make buses cool. So how can we do this?
Fundamentally, rail transport has a social acceptability which buses typically do not have. If we ever get a tram (or ‘light rail’) system in Cambridge, we know that it will come with clear route maps from the start. It will almost certainly have smart ticketing and not complex fares needing to be explained and collected by the driver. The vehicles will have multi-door entrances and exits, minimising the time spent at stops. This all creates an image of efficiency which buses need to emulate.
Technology is making buses cleaner and greener, with a lot more in store, so buses could be the responsible way to travel. Smartphone apps should soon tell us when we need to leave home to get the bus, so buses could be the least stressful way to travel.
If the bus stops had shelters, greenery and were highlights in the streetscape, it might help to make buses a more enjoyable way to travel. Let’s try to make taking the bus something we’re proud to do in our city, just as we’ve done with cycling. Attracting more people on to existing buses this way is much better value than building busways at a cost of several pounds for every journey that will ever be made on them.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 7 June 2017.