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Seeking opportunity from adversity

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Opinion
Seeking opportunity from adversity

No-one was happier than Alex Hornby when Boris Johnson announced that the Government was dropping its ‘avoid public transport message’ in England.

The Chief Executive of Transdev Blazefield, which operates buses across the north of England, felt that the message was ‘London-centric’, designed to avoid scenes of crowded buses and trains in the densely-populated capital as the nation emerged from lockdown.

It contrasted with his own company’s experience, which was that there was ample spare capacity on their buses even after people started to return to work.

Clean, safe and ready to go

As one of the industry’s strongest communicators, Alex and his colleagues had come up with a simple slogan that buses were ‘clean, safe and ready to go’ if people needed to use them. Videos featuring real customers and real employees supported that message.

The aim was to reassure bus users and to make the experience as normal as possible. There was none of the yellow and black tape that some other operators have resorted to.

“We haven't gone to all the effort we've gone to for the past five or six years, the attention to detail that we've put into bus design, to make our buses then look like crime scenes,” Alex explains.

“And so we made our messaging very human, very gentle, and it was all about giving the customer confidence and comfort in coming back to the bus. It has helped to create a bit of a balance against the London-centric messaging that was coming out.

“And so we made our messaging very human, very gentle, and it was all about giving the customer confidence and comfort in coming back to the bus."

“I get that there was a worry about what happens if buses get full, they become unsafe, and then because the frequencies are low they're going to be driving past people, but we just simply have not had that issue here.”

“I get that there was a worry about what happens if buses get full, they become unsafe, and then because the frequencies are low they're going to be driving past people, but we just simply have not had that issue here.”

Breaking down negative perceptions

The people who use buses tend to like them, but bus operators have always battled against negative perceptions among those who don’t. Alex fears that the lockdown experience may increase the stigma attached to bus travel by making people more fearful of being in close proximity to others. The fear is that many will feel more secure with the personal space offered to them by the car.

But breaking down negative perceptions and winning people over to bus travel is Alex’s mission in life. He points out that the seating spacing is already relatively generous on his company’s vehicles. For example, the double deckers on the flagship 36 service, which links Leeds, Harrogate and Ripon, have just 63 seats – far fewer than some other operators.

In addition to the positive messaging, Transdev employed the use of technology to reassure passengers. It added a new feature to its websites and ‘Transdev Go’ mobile app that shows passengers how many people are already on board the bus they plan to use. The technology is powered by customers themselves, who can post information on whether their bus is becoming busy directly onto the new system, helping others to make informed choices before they travel.

CitySwift has helped Go-Ahead Group and National Express West Midlands to develop a similar capability, instead using our data engine and artificial intelligence to offer predictions about how busy a bus service is likely to be at every stop it makes.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Alex thinks this kind of innovation will remain useful after the current crisis has ended. “I think it was a Churchill quote, wasn't it - 'Never let a good crisis go to waste',” he says.

“Many of us have wanted [to offer this kind of information] for a while but Covid has accelerated that and it's accelerated the supplier industry, which has risen to the occasion ... Because of Covid we've got it quicker, because the capacity and who else is on the bus is now as important an issue as what time the bus turns up.”

“The capacity and who else is on the bus is now as important an issue as what time the bus turns up.”

Alex agrees with the prevailing view that the Covid crisis will accelerate the pre-existing shift to greater home working. Transdev Blazefield responded to these changing work patterns by introducing a new ticket bundle range, where passengers can buy bundles of days and bundles of journeys – offering them a discount for travel that is regular but not centred on a Monday-Friday commute.

“Sadly for the bus industry and sadly for anyone in transport, the days of people going to work five days a week, or going to the shops five days a week, those days have gone now,” he concludes. “Flexi-time, and people working from home, these were the kind of issues that I think we were facing before this [crisis] happened – but it's just accelerated that.”

Not one for being despondent, he’s eyeing the potential opportunities. “Rather than see it all as a threat and a challenge, I think we have to see it as an opportunity,” he urges. “How do we adapt our product to suit the needs of the new traveller?”

“Rather than see it all as a threat and a challenge, I think we have to see it as an opportunity. How do we adapt our product to suit the needs of the new traveller?”

Active travel can’t do the heavy lifting

Alex is fearful that efforts to reallocate roadspace towards active travel (walking and cycling) could make it harder for buses to access town and city centres, but believes that logic must prevail because active travel “can't do the heavy lifting”.

“Not enough people are able to cycle and walk,” he explains, “so mass transit - ie. buses - has to play a role if we are to reduce congestion and improve air quality, and stop the threat of the motor car dominating cities.”

"Mass transit - ie. buses - has to play a role if we are to reduce congestion and improve air quality, and stop the threat of the motor car dominating cities.”

Believing in the bus

Transdev Blazefield is now carrying 40% of the passengers it did pre-crisis, and the number is rising. Once the immediate crisis has passed, he is confident that buses will again be recognised as the answer to so many of the challenges we face.

“Before this [crisis] happened we had a Government that really believed in the bus, which was really exciting,” Alex recalls. “And they believed in the bus because they recognised that we were the answer to solving congestion and improving air quality, and improving economic activity in towns and cities. That hasn't changed, surely now there is even more impetus for the bus to deliver on that.”

"Before this [crisis] happened we had a Government that really believed in the bus, which was really exciting, that hasn't changed, surely now there is even more impetus for the bus to deliver on that.”

Alex warns that the threat that we now face is that congestion will return and air quality become poorer than it was before the crisis, potentially creating “worse problems than what we have now with a virus”.

He concludes: “It's great to see electric cars and low emission cars, absolutely, but that won't solve congestion. And I think congestion is the thing that does choke towns and cities. They're the things that don't allow us to move freely whereas the buses and mass transit will do ... We have the power to bring the people to towns and cities in a much easier way. That's the job we want to get on and do.”

We have the power to bring the people to towns and cities in a much easier way. That's the job we want to get on and do.”

Bus Network Development Strategy for the ‘New Normal’