How often do you get unwanted phone calls asking you about PPI, offering you a phone or Sky upgrade, or a myriad of other things. How often do you get stopped in the street by market researchers wanting to know your opinion on everything from deodorant to the price of onions. Bloody annoying, but obviously gets results or they wouldn't do it. Now how many times have you been rung up, or stopped in the street, and asked about your local bus service, and what would encourage you to use it more/at all? No, me neither.
I saw a Twitter poll over the weekend that was asking what was the most important aspect of bus travel. The options were reliability, punctuality, price of fares or leather seats/WiFi. Well hang on just a moment, but the most important aspect of a bus service is actually having a bus in the first place. You can have an interior to rival Buckingham Palace but if it doesn't run where you want, when you want it's as good as useless. This is the lesson that the vast majority of operators still have to learn. In this day and age, when people have a choice, you simply can't sit back, set up a route and expect the public to come to you. You've got to be different, think outside the box - take the service to them rather than assume they'll come to the service.
So how DO you attract new custom to fill those empty seats? Bus operators seem to think in completely different ways to most businesses. If I'm going to open, say, a fish and chip shop, then where do I want to open it. Right next door to an already successful chippy might not be the best place. You might get a few folks try you out of interest, but on the whole people will stay with what they are familiar with - it's the nature of the beast. Yet how many operators set up a route in direct competition to another operator assuming that everyone will immediately jump ship, well bus, and desert the operator that has been serving them for years. It seldom works. Unless the new operator undercuts your fares by 60% and you don't match them, of course, thus becoming a laughing stock and driving your operation over a cliff.
Why do they do that? Why are the only seemingly viable new routes those already with bus services when we have lost in excess of 3,500 bus routes in the last 8 years. The population is growing, not shrinking. The answer, as alluded to above is because no one bothers to ask the public where and when they want a bus service. Every year we get operators proudly boasting customer satisfaction figures as published by Passenger Focus, who survey thousands of bus passengers to get their opinion on everything from the standard of the seat to if the driver's tie was straight. But hang on a sec - these folk are ALREADY ON THE BUS! They have already decided that the bus is the most convenient way for them to get around - hooray! So this annual love in doesn't do anything to fill the empty seats, it just says that 93% of the 6 passengers on that double decker were happy. Line up those bonuses!
Why aren't Passenger Focus stopping thousands of people on the street, calling up random people, in other words making a bloody nuisance of themselves finding out why people DON'T get the bus, and what would entice them on. I can guarantee "because the bus doesn't have WiFi" wouldn't enter the equation because neither has their car you're trying to get them out of. It's damn useful once you're on the bus, but that's not going to be a reason people switch modes. Having a bus go where they want, when they want, at a cost effective price will, but how do you know where these people are and where they want to go if no one asks them?
The successful operators are the ones who listen to their market, realise that some people get held up at work, or like to stay to socialise, so making the last bus at 1730 is of no use to them. Chances ae the cost of the taxi home is more than their weekly bus ticket so may as well use the car. It's pointless encouraging passengers to use a half hourly double decker service to get into town if you then expect them to use an hourly single decker service on the way home as the deckers are tied up with school work. If you have two operators on a route passing a holiday camp which one is going to attract the custom - the one making the effort to go into the camp, or the one forcing the unhappy campers to cross one of the busiest roads in the county in order to reach the bus stop? Are passengers more likely to catch the bus to the train station if the buses connect with the trains or if they miss each other by 5 mins? As for DRT it's utterly useless if you have to rely on it. Impossible for commuting, and not knowing if you'll get a journey when you want it is an awful way of operating. Pot luck doesn't work in transport.
It's no use bleating, as one operator does frequently, about the small remuneration on Concessionary passes when you charge fare paying passengers the earth to make up the shortfall without making an effort to encourage more on. When did you last get a flyer through your letterbox with a 50% off voucher for a bus journey? How many other industries do you see having exclusive offers for "new customers"? Not buses that's forsure.
So that's the rant - so what are the solutions. Well there are many, but I'm blowed if I'm going to give them away here just for operators to nick them and use them as if they had thought the idea up. That's already happened more than once. I don't get paid for this blog so my ideas don't come free as well, but believe me they would bring results if, and only if the majority of operators change their way of thinking. If they don't then the bus industry outside major towns and cities is dead in the water, and will probably never resurface. I am available for consultation. Nothing to lose as more and more buses are running around with fewer and fewer passengers on them and businesses are going to fall.
But I will give you this for free - if customers are already using your business regularly then they are happy. It's not them you have to ask what's important, but those people NOT using your business, as it's those people who will increase your income. If you are an operator using Twitter it's unlikely any of your followers are non bus users! Numerous other industries recognise that, hence the annoying texts and phone calls, so why not the transport industry? Lethargy, pure lethargy.