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 just this, with spectacular 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.
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
- 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 disecretion (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 (and roadworkers are paid more to work at night, so don’t disrupt the roads when potholes are filled, and unlike here, never seem to be dug up again a few months later, the repairs last for years). This is partly to do with better weather, but northern Italy is not much different in climate to southern parts of England, so who knows?
- Better ticketing systems also take place abroad. You have no faffing around, the system works like a dream all over the continent, and prices are dirt-cheap and with good discount schemes, especially 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 take into account rural areas. One really common problem in England is that the bus services in rural areas are very scant, and sometimes non-existance in villages, where you may even have to take a taxi, to get to the bus stop. Years ago, one town in England had a ‘wiggly bus’, a great idea that could be emulated elsewhere. The bus basically ‘wiggles’ through the villages and uses GPS technology for users to ‘hail the bus’ so that it stops. It’s more like a taxi for the whole community, and enables people to travel where and when they want. It gives local jobs, and is safe as the 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!
- Some people don’t feel safe at bus stops, especially at night. One little bus stop with a poorly lit station is not good. And as a sidenote, people are appalled that some councils are installing ‘spikes’ on bus seats (or making them unable to sit on), to discourage homeless people from dossing down for the night. This is wrong on two counts: it stops older and disabled people from having somewhere to sit at the bus stop. And a sidenote – where on earth are homeless people supposed to sleep, if not at a bus stop, when it’s raining and there are not enough local provisions?
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 easiliy 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.
Brighton’s Big Lemon Bus!
The Big Lemon is a real success story. It started out by fuelling up on donated fat from chip shops (who would get free advertising on the bus in return). Today it is creating England’s first fleet of electric buses, and also hosts parties and events. It’s a private company that has no shareholders, and is at the forefront of becoming everything a bus service should be.
It’s funded by community bonds rather than banks, and runs on solar panels affixed to the roofs. It has published a free Community-Led Transport Guide that anyone can download for free on the website, and also can offer training and mentoring to interested parties.
This company does things differently. You can even nominate someone or a group to be whisked away for a day on the ‘Happy Bus’ if you think they deserve it. All you say is where you’ll like to take them. When they choose the most deserving cases, off they go. There is no charge, but trips are restricted to Sussex, or else the solar panel would run out of charge on the way home!
Buses to Help Homeless People
Buses 4 Homeless is a London charity that takes used London buses and turns them into homes for people (rather than adding spikes to stop people sleeping in bus shelters). There are buses with sleep pods, kitchen/dining rooms, learning spaces and a wellness centre.
London social enterprise Change Please (that employs homeless people as baristas for mobile coffee carts) has recently unveiled 2 refurbished buses that tour the city, offering support to rough sleepers via free GP consults, haircuts, dental care, support opening a bank account, showers, therapy and employment help.
In Milton Keynes (Buckinghamshire), the old bus station is being revamped to become an overnight hostel for rough sleepers. It will provide beds for up to 18 people along with showers and access to a large kitchen and support workers. The ground floor will continue to support homeless people, during daytime.
Improving Bus Services in Cities
Can you guess who this is? Yes, that’s right, it’s the Pope! Simple living Pope Francis often took the bus when in Argentina, and only gave it up due to security, when he moved to Rome.
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