Buses are brilliant! They help to reduce road traffic, they provide jobs and they enable you to get pretty much anywhere in England without too much cost. Even if you drive, taking the bus now and then can let you look out the window, rather than all the stress of driving.
Better Buses, Better Cities is the ultimate guide to improving bus services, in your area. Rather than being an afterthought of town planning, transit expert Steven Higashide says a successful bus system needs to put buses first at the heart of the community, making complex transit systems easy to understand, keeping buses on time and using new technologies to benefit all. The US city of Boston has done this, with amazing results.
Buses have been around since 1830 in England, when they were powered by steam. Double decker buses (like the famous red ones in London) did not come until around 80 years later, and were for all (the word is short for the Latin word ‘omnibus’). Horses would drive some buses, but their welfare was often an issue, and actually campaigners helping them led to the formation of groups like the RSPCA. Simple living Pope Francis often took the bus when in Argentina, and only gave it up due to security, when he moved to Rome.
Today’s buses are a mix. No one can argue that the bus service provides an essential community service. And (although it takes eons), National Express coaches work out much cheaper to travel long distances than by train. But here we’ll look at the standard bus (which is the main way towns should be investing in travel, community buses do great work but are usually reserved for vulnerable members of the community, and often run by volunteers).
Problems with Existing Bus Services
- Some people don’t feel safe at bus stops, especially at night. One little bus stop with a poorly lit station is not good. This solar bus station in Poland is safe, cheap and eco-friendly.
- Over 60? You get a free bus pass. Use it to travel (off-peak) around town or anywhere in England. Read Bus Pass Britain for ideas on where to go. Most bus drivers allow well-trained dogs, although some dogs may not love to travel on buses. Use your discretion (especially for dogs who may pee or poop during a journey). You don’t want to get into unpleasantries with unsympathetic people, who don’t like dogs (strange people). Dogs Trust has info on this.
- The buses themselves are often a bit rickety, and that doesn’t help with roads full of potholes. In Italy, buses are modern and smooth, thanks to huge investment (workers are paid more to work at night, and repairs last years, not dug up again a few months later, like happens here). This is partly to do with better weather, but northern Italy is not much different in climate to England, so who knows?
- Better ticketing systems abroad mean no faffing around. It works like a dream on the mainland continent, with prices dirt-cheap and good discount schemes for seniors.
- Buses are used far more in Europe, with none of this ‘only people who can’t drive or who’ve lost their license’ mentality’. Everyone travels by bus now and then, even if they have cars.
- The buses are often cleaner and run on green energy, unlike some of the still polluting buses here, which can almost create smog.
- Buses in English rural areas are scant, and sometimes non-existent. You may even need a taxi to get to the bus stop! Some towns still have a ‘wiggly bus’ that uses GPS technology for users to ‘hail the bus’ so it stops on demand, a bit like a taxi for the community. This enables people to travel where and when they want. And gives local jobs (safe, as head office always knows where the bus is).
- The other main issue why people don’t use the bus is that the journeys take so long. Sometimes it’s good to be slow, but not that slow! Obviously stopping off is good, but the time it takes to get to one town from another, often means it would be quicker to walk!
How to Make Better Buses!
- Invest in good clean electric vehicles that are quiet, smooth and more disabled-friendly. And long-term, less costly to run. Many services use big buses that lie almost empty. It would be better to have a fleet of more smaller buses, that ran more frequently.
- Install better ticketing systems that are not so complicated. Explorer tickets are good if you’re going everywhere, but work out very expensive, if you only want to travel a couple of stops down the road. Get the pricing fair, with big discounts for those who uses buses frequently.
- Install solar lighting for bus stops. This saves money and comes on automatically at dawn and dusk, making the bus stop a safer place, and also enables drivers to see people waiting at the bus stop, to reduce accidents. The same solar power can also be used to light up timetables, so people can easily see when the buses are arriving. Get a good graphic designer to make simple bus timetables that are understandable (they are complicated to nearly everyone, let alone people with poor eyesight or dementia).
- Start a wiggly bus, that uses GPS technology to meander through villages to pick up people on demand. This can be one bus that saves money long-term, and enables all residents without cars to get access to transport, without having to shell out for nonstop taxis.
- Make the journeys quicker, by doing research on which stops can be eliminated, and which routes can be improved.
Improving Bus Services in Cities
The Big Lemon (Brighton) used to fuel on donated chip shop oil (the shops would get free ads on the bus). Today it is creating England’s first fleet of electric buses, and also hosts parties and events. With no shareholders, it’s funded by community bonds and runs on solar panels affixed to the roof. Its free Community-Led Transport Guide can be downloaded from the site, to help others start something similar. You can even nominate a group to be whisked away for a day on the ‘Happy Bus’ though trips are restricted to Sussex, or else the solar panel would run out of charge, on the way home!
Trimet (Portland) is known as one of the world’s best bus services, situated in the eco-friendly state of Oregon on the US northwest coast. The service combines buses, trams and trains, so one ticket means you can interchange. The service is modern, cheap and quick and most seniors and disabled travellers get big discounts. In addition, people new to the system can get a walkthrough with volunteers, until they feel at ease. All the signs and walls have Braille, so blind people can travel without worry.
Most of the buses run throughout all areas of the city every 15 minutes, every day. Why? Because the people who run Portland design first for people, not cars. One of the main issues with a city is moving people from place to place. So if you want to get it right, you have to invest more in buses and trains and trams, than in motorways and car parks.
To compare, the population of Portland is roughly that of Sheffield. Portland has almost 700 buses, and that sounds like quite a lot! Yet one local newspaper in Yorkshire reports that the bus service in Sheffield is now so problematic, there are calls for it to come back under public control. At a guess – it probably doesn’t have 700 buses running!
Enrique Peñalosa is the former Mayor of the city of Bogota in Columbia, and has served twice as the city mayor, as well as attempting to become one of the world’s first Green Party presidents (he lost, and says his profession is a politician – but not a very good one, as he keeps losing elections!) A few years back during his first stint, he made headlines worldwide, when he ripped up the budget to build more roads and instead built cycleways and bus services, and gave extra money to build green spaces for children. He obviously wasn’t popular, but turned a gridlocked crime-ridden city into one that was almost car-free.
An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars. Rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation. Enrique Peñalosa
Helping Homeless People Through Buses
Buses 4 Homeless is a great idea, which takes unused London buses and equips them with beds and kitchen areas, so that homeless people can sleep, eat and get their lives sorted out. All 8 pods in one bus are equipped with power, individual lights, pull-down shutters for privacy and blackout curtains. There is also a fully functioning kitchen where the homeless people can prepare meals and chat, in the evenings.
Many people are appalled that some councils install ‘hostile architecture’ (like spikes on bus shelter seats, so that homeless people cannot sit or sleep on them). This is not just wrong in that it does not solve the issue, but also means older and disabled people have nowhere to sit, while waiting for a bus. One campaigner held up a placard that said ‘What kind of society do we live in, when homelessness is solved with spikes?’
The pods above were created by an architect who was appalled at other architects designing spikes in bus shelters, so that homeless people find it impossible to sit down and sleep. His pods blow hot air through pods attached to existing buildings, as a temporary yet safe and comfortable solution, for people to sleep until they find somewhere to settle long-term. Other forms of ‘hostile architecture’ include seats with armrests in the middle (so people can’t lie down).