Understanding Why Some People Do Not Use Buses

This research explores perceptions of bus services and barriers to use amongst people who do not use buses often, and looks at what might encourage them to use buses more in future.



1. The Scottish Government commissioned this research to explore in depth the reasons why some people do not use buses and what might encourage them to do so. While there is considerable existing research on bus travel in Scotland, much of this to date has been quantitative, relying on survey data. Although very useful in measuring use of buses and other modes, survey data can be limited in the level of detail it can provide on why people use particular modes rather than others. This research was intended to address that gap.

2. Buses are the most commonly used form of public transport in the UK. In Scotland, there were 513 million passenger journeys on local bus services in 2007-08. 1 However, while the number of passenger journeys by bus has risen slightly in Scotland since 1998-99, this follows a period of steep and steady decline in bus passengers since the mid-1970s. At the same time, car use in Scotland has increased massively. The Scottish Government has identified that buses have an important role to play in delivering its central purpose of sustainable economic growth, and the strategic objectives of making Scotland fairer, healthier and greener, encouraging communities to flourish and extending opportunities for people to succeed (Scottish Government, 2008a). Buses are expected to play a key role in meeting the objectives of Scotland's National Transport Strategy (Scottish Executive, 2006a) in relation to improving journey times and connections, reducing emission and improving the quality, accessibility and affordability of public transport.


3. The study was qualitative in nature, aiming to map the range and diversity of experiences and views of those who use the bus infrequently or not at all. It involved:

  • 12 general population focus groups with 'infrequent or non-bus users', defined as people who use the bus once a month or less.
  • 12 in depth interviews with people with mobility problems and/or learning disabilities who used the bus once a month or less.

4. The focus groups took place in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Dundee, West Lothian and the Borders. In order to capture the views of people with different personal characteristics, quotas were set around age, gender, working status and household income. Focus group participants were recruited by professional recruiters, using a screening questionnaire developed by ScotCen. In depth interview participants were recruited via the Scottish Household Survey ( SHS) (people with mobility problems) and via Enable Scotland (people with learning disabilities). These participants lived in other urban areas in the central belt and in Aberdeen.

5. Interviews and focus groups were digitally recorded and transcribed in full. They were then summarised under key themes using 'Framework', a software package which provides a consistent method for organising and condensing qualitative data. These summaries were interrogated to identify the range of views and experiences discussed.

Main Findings

Experience and knowledge of local bus travel

6. Although all participants in this study were infrequent or non-bus users, the length of time since they had last used a bus varied. Participants were broadly split between those who had used a bus in the last couple of months, and those who had last used a bus over a year ago. Reasons for participants' last bus journey were divided between 'push' factors, associated with the car being unavailable or impractical for particular journeys, and 'pull' factors associated with positive attributes of bus travel - such as being able to travel in a large group together or wanting a child to have the experience of travelling by bus.

7. Given the focus of this study on reasons for not using the bus more often, unsurprisingly much of the discussion of buses focused on the negative. However, participants' opinions of their most recent journeys by bus were more varied, with more positive or at least 'neutral' experiences also apparent.

8. Participants' levels of knowledge of local bus services varied, largely depending on the length of time since they had last used a bus. It ranged from very limited knowledge, through a general awareness of routes or frequency, to quite detailed knowledge of routes and prices. Various possible sources of information about buses were identified by participants, including both formal (Internet, timetables at bus stops, Traveline) and informal (friends, family, other people at bus stops) sources. Informal sources appeared particularly important to participants with a disability.

General perceptions of local buses

9. As discussed above, although some positive examples of bus travel were cited - such as drivers helping passengers with prams or wheelchairs - discussion of buses in this research tended to focus on the negative. Participants' beliefs about problems with local bus services reflected a combination of previous experience (recent as well as long-past), 'hearsay' from other people, and media coverage. A wide range of problems with buses and actual and potential barriers to bus travel were identified. However, it was sometimes difficult to disentangle whether these were 'general' barriers, or reasons that participants themselves did not use buses more often. Barriers identified by participants included:

  • Bad driving behaviour and poor driver attitudes
  • Concerns about other passengers committing anti-social or criminal behaviour, as well as more general concerns about other people's behaviour causing annoyance or discomfort
  • Fears about the physical condition of buses making them unsafe, unreliable or inaccessible (for participants with mobility problems), as well as concerns about cleanliness and comfort on board
  • Concerns about personal safety, comfort and the adequacy of information at bus stops
  • The perceived length of bus journeys, as well as the appropriateness of timetables for the journeys participants needed to make
  • A belief that buses cannot be relied on to stick to their timetables
  • A perceived lack of direct and/or appropriate routes, as well as concerns about routes travelling through 'undesirable' areas
  • A belief that fares are too high, as well as complaints about the inconvenience of having to find exact change.

10. Safety concerns were apparent across a number of aspects of bus travel, including: driver behaviour, other passengers, the physical condition of buses, bus stops and routes.

11. There was considerable overlap in the barriers raised by men and women, older and younger people and those in urban and rural areas. However, there was some evidence that safety issues were of greater concern to women, that young people were particularly negative about driver attitudes, and that people in rural areas were particularly likely to feel buses were too infrequent and waiting times too long. Disabled people also shared many concerns with other participants. However, they also raised a number of issues which caused them greater problems, including:

  • Safety concerns relating to drivers waiting for people to get on and off and reach their seat
  • Accessibility issues, relating to steps and to poles obstructing wheelchair spaces, as well as accessibility of information, with small font sizes for timetables a particular problem for those with visual impairments
  • Overcrowding creating particular issues for participants who suffered from anxiety
  • Lack of toilets, and
  • Distance to walk to stops.

12. In comparison with trains, buses were seen as less reliable/predictable, slower, and less safe (primarily because of the presence of conductors to 'police' behaviour on trains). It was also suggested that information about stops both on board and at stations is clearer for trains than for buses.

Individual journey choices

13. The car dominated as participants' preferred mode of transport to work. Reasons for preferring the car centred on its perceived 'convenience' and 'reliability'. Key reasons the car was seen as more 'convenient' than the bus for commuting to work included the belief that cars were:

  • Quicker and more direct ('door to door')
  • Easier/quicker for multi-stage/multiple journeys
  • Easier for carrying equipment or paperwork.

14. Cars were also preferred on grounds of their perceived greater 'reliability' - doubt over whether buses would get participants to work on time was a key barrier to their use for commuting. Cars were generally seen as giving participants more freedom and control over their journeys and over the 'travel environment'. Participants also suggested that it was cheaper to travel to work by car, though comparisons of cost tended to take the costs of purchasing, maintaining or insuring a car as a 'given' - only petrol costs were taken into account when working out whether the car or bus was the cheapest option.

15. The car also featured prominently as the preferred mode of transport for non-work journeys. Again, it was seen as cheaper (especially for trips with other family members) and as allowing greater freedom and control over arrival and departure times. The bus was not seen as practical for food shopping because of the large amount of bags to carry, while taxis were seen as more cost effective than the bus for nights out when travelling in a group.

Attitudes to future bus use

16. In terms of attitudes to using the bus more often in the future, there was a general belief among employed participants that it would not be possible to use the bus to get to work. Sometimes this appeared to be based in fairly specific knowledge of available bus services, while in other cases, views appeared to reflect more general perceptions of the reliability or speed of buses. Multiple reasons were cited for participants being unable or unwilling to use the bus for commuting - including time, cost, frequency, reliability, the need to make multi-stage or multi-purpose journeys and the need to carry equipment or bags. There was some indication of willingness to use the bus more often for some social journeys or trips into town. However, again a range of barriers to doing so were cited, including time, hassle of changing buses, cost, infrequency, lack of certainty about routes/fares, lack of appropriate routes, timetables being unsuitable, and safety on night buses.

17. Analysis of the range of opinions expressed in relation to future bus use suggests that infrequent or non-users fall into three broad groups according to their attachment to the car, willingness to try the bus and identification with environmental problems:

  • 'Bus refusers' were strongly attached to their cars and did not wish to use the bus more often under any circumstances, even if substantial improvements were made
  • 'Bus pessimists', if pushed, say they would like to use the bus more often, but do not see the bus as an attractive option currently and do not appear to have a strong desire to make this change
  • Those who are 'Willing to be convinced' would like to use the bus more and cite positive reasons for doing so (dislike of car travel and/or personal and environmental advantages to bus travel), but still think there are substantial barriers preventing them from doing so.

Suggested improvements

18. Participants identified a wide range of improvements to bus services which they felt might encourage some people to use the bus more often. However, it was not always clear that these changes would encourage individual participants to use the bus more - as discussed above, for some participants no amount of improvements to services would tempt them away from their car. Moreover, some of these suggestions may relate to actions that some bus companies and/or Local or Central Government have already taken, but of which participants were unaware. Specific suggestions for improving bus services included:

  • Improved customer care skills for drivers (including improved awareness of the needs of disabled passengers)
  • Conductors on buses to prevent anti-social behaviour and overcrowding
  • General improvements to the physical condition of buses in order to improve comfort, safety and accessibility (e.g. seatbelts, rubbish bins, more regular cleaning, toilets, air conditioning, handrails, softer seats, etc.)
  • Improved lighting, shelters and information, including accurate 'Real time' information, at bus stops
  • Action to try and improve the speed and reliability of buses, including better/longer bus lanes, more direct/express routes, more frequent services at more standardised times and driver incentives for timekeeping
  • Better information about routes, timetables and fares, to be available in places other than bus stops.
  • Cheaper and/or more 'standardised' fares
  • Introducing pre-pay or top-up card systems to pay for bus fares, to avoid the need for exact change or knowing how much a ticket will be in advance.

19. Reactions to disincentives to car use were mixed - one view was that participants would simply absorb the additional costs of higher petrol prices, congestion charges or higher parking prices, while another was that this might encourage them to use the bus or walk instead of using the car for short journeys.

Conclusions and Recommendations

20. In addition to participants' own recommendations for improving bus services, the findings from this study suggest a number of broader implications for policy, practice and further research.

21. First, the findings suggest that attempts to 'convert' those who are 'willing to be convinced' of the merits of bus travel need to do three main things:

  • Highlight the advantages - both personal and environmental - of bus travel
  • Mitigate or challenge views of the disadvantages - addressing particularly the key issues of journey time and reliability
  • Make it as easy as possible to use the bus - including making it easier for infrequent and non-users to find out about times, fares and routes and removing the need to have the exact fare.

22. Second, given the finding that bad experiences appear to stick in people's memories, bus companies need to ensure that the way they deal with complaints mitigates the potential impact of negative experiences - which can be long-lasting and far-reaching - on future travel decisions.

23. Third, in reviewing and presenting fare levels to the public, bus companies need to take into account the fact that while taking the bus may be cheaper than owning, insuring and running a car, car owners do not necessarily include all these costs when making these comparisons. Unless the bus fare is less than the costs of petrol and parking for a specific journey, the bus is unlikely to be viewed as the 'cheaper option'. While our findings suggest that cost may not be the only or main barrier to bus use for all infrequent users, cheap or free travel days could encourage those who have not travelled by bus for some time to try it again.

24. In terms of future research, this study suggests that when people describe the bus as 'inconvenient', this generally reflects a number of more specific concerns about directness, journey speed, and ease of making multi-stage or multi-purpose journeys. Given this, survey questions on reasons for not using the bus should focus on specific issues, rather than on general statements about 'convenience' or related concepts. Future surveys could also build on work by Anable and Stradling (in Dudleston et al, 2005) to explore in greater detail the size and characteristics of different 'sub-groups' of infrequent or non-bus users, and to test which, if any, policy solutions many be most successful in encouraging these groups of people to use the bus more often in the future. Finally, further research could explore how different bus companies market their services, in order to explore possible solutions for overcoming some of the 'stereotyped' views of buses and bus passengers identified in this study.

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