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.


1.1 This report presents findings from a qualitative study that explored why some people do not use buses often or at all and what, if anything, might encourage these people to use buses more often in the future. The study was commissioned by the Scottish Government Transport Directorate and conducted by researchers at the Scottish Centre for Social Research. This introductory chapter describes the policy and research context for the study, explains its aims and objectives and sets out the structure of the remainder of the report.

Policy and research context

The role of buses in Scottish Government policy

1.2 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). More specifically, one of the Government's national indicators is to achieve an increase in the proportion of journeys to work made by public or active transport. In addition, the Government anticipates buses playing an important part in achieving the three objectives of Scotland's National Transport Strategy (Scottish Executive, 2006a):

  • Improving journey times and connections
  • Reducing emissions, and
  • Improving quality, accessibility and affordability of public transport.

1.3 The Scottish Government's recent guide for Local Authorities, Regional Transport Partnerships and Bus Operators (Scottish Government 2008a) recognises that buses are 'almost unparalleled in their scope to achieve the modal shift we all want to see'. However, with a background of long-term decline in bus passenger numbers and year-on-year increases in car traffic, they also acknowledge that 'people are attached to their cars and achieving modal shift will require the strongest vision and leadership'.

Trends in bus use in Scotland

1.4 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 (Scottish Government, 2009a). 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. Recent information from the Scottish Government estimate that the volume of car traffic on major roads (Motorways and A roads) has more than doubled, from an estimated 9,300 million vehicle kilometres in 1975 to around 22,000 million vehicle kilometres in recent years (Scottish Government, 2008b). The 2007-8 Scottish Household Survey ( SHS) showed that 55% of people had not used a bus at all in the previous month, while the proportion using buses 'regularly' (every day or almost every day) had remained static at 12% since 1999 (Scottish Government, 2009a). Similar trends are apparent in relation to commuting in particular - while 12% travel to work by bus, this has remained static since 1999, with two thirds commuting by car (Scottish Government 2009b). Moreover, three-fifths of those who travel to work by car state that they could not use public transport for that journey. This is in spite of the fact that 80% of people in Scotland say their local bus service is 'very' or 'fairly' convenient (Scottish Government, 2009a).

Existing research on attitudes to bus travel

1.5 Public attitudes to bus travel have been explored in a number of recent Government surveys. A common finding is that those who currently use buses tend to be reasonably positive in their views of bus travel - for example, the 2005 Bus Passenger Satisfaction Survey carried out for the Scottish Executive recorded an average 'satisfaction score' (where a maximum score of 100 indicates people were 'very satisfied' across all aspects) of 87 (Buchanan, 2006). However, there is some evidence to suggest that the views of those who do not travel by bus, or who do so only infrequently, tend to be more negative. For example, a recent ONS survey shows that while 78% of bus users rate services as 'very' or 'fairly' good, just 65% of non-users who gave a rating said the same. Moreover, a third of non-users felt unable to give any opinion on the overall quality of bus services ( ONS, 2009).

1.6 As noted above, the SHS shows that 3 out of 5 people who currently travel to work by car claim that they could not use public transport for that journey. The most common reason given for saying this was a belief there was 'no direct route'. Among those who said they could, at least in theory, use public transport to travel to work, the most common reason for not doing so was the belief it would 'take too long'. Those in remote rural areas were more likely to cite 'lack of service' as their reason for not travelling to work by public transport. Cost did not appear to be a major barrier to bus use specifically, at least for the majority of people who used the bus once a week or less - in 2007, just 5% cited the 'cost of public transport' as a reason for not using buses more often. In contrast, 27% said they did not use buses as they 'use my own car', while 21% said they had 'no need' to use buses (all findings taken from Scottish Government, 2009a). Similarly, Lyons et al (2008) and ONS (2009) both report that reasons for non-use of buses are topped by comparisons of the 'convenience of travel by car against the available bus service'.

1.7 A recent survey of Edinburgh residents which asked about a wide array of issues that might put people off using the bus identified 8 'underlying factors' or groups of barriers (Stradling et al, 2007). They characterise these factors as relating to:

  • Service provision - covering factors like the directness of routes, having to change buses, perceptions of journey times/timetables/reliability, etc
  • 'Unwanted, intrusive arousal from the bus experience' - covering issues like feeling the buses are too crowded/cramped, people smoking or using mobiles on the bus, noise, heat and drivers braking too harshly
  • Feeling unsafe and at risk - including feeling unsafe while waiting for buses or while on the bus due to the behaviour of other passengers, particularly at night
  • Preferring the capacity, convenience and control conveyed by the car
  • Monetary cost
  • 'Self image' when travelling by bus - including feeling travelling by bus does not create the right impression
  • Preference for 'self-reliance' for short journeys - including preferring to walk or cycle
  • Difficulties relating to disability or discomfort on buses - including difficulties relating to lack of mobility, getting on and off buses, not enough hand rails, visual impairment, and other health reasons.

Variations in use of and attitudes to buses

1.8 Survey data shows that both bus use itself and attitudes towards bus use are strongly patterned by demographic and socio-economic factors, like gender, age and income, and by geography. The SHS (Scottish Government, 2009a) shows that:

  • Young adults (aged 16-29) are most likely to have regularly used the bus in the previous month
  • Bus use falls as household income increases
  • People who are self-employed are least likely to have used the bus in the previous month, while those who are unemployed or in further/higher education are most likely to have used a bus
  • People in rural areas are more likely not to have used the bus at all in the previous month than people in large urban areas
  • The older someone is, the less likely they are to say they feel safe travelling on buses in the evenings
  • Women are less likely than men to feel very or fairly safe travelling by bus in the evening.

1.9 The Scottish Executive's 2006 Bus Strategy highlighted the infrequency of rural buses, combined with the lack of time constraints associated with the car, as a key reason that people in rural areas tend to use local bus services less often than their urban counterparts.

1.10 Choice of transport may also vary depending on the type of journey people want to make. A 2005 report for the Scottish Executive on public perceptions of travel awareness (Dudleston et al, 2005) noted that most people are in fact multi-modal travellers, using more than one form of transport at different times to meet their needs. 'Supermarket shopping' was identified as the most car dependent journey type, compared with 'evenings out for leisure purposes' as the least car dependent

1.11 Finally, recent research has also emphasised the importance of understanding people's underlying attitudes and values, as well as their demographic characteristics, in explaining different orientations to transport and modal shift. Segmentation analysis has been used in several recent studies to highlight the extent to which different groups who may be demographically similar and display similar levels of current car or public transport use actually have quite different aspirations and motivations as far as their future travel is concerned. For example, Dudleston et al (2005) suggest that people who are currently high car users can be divided into:

  • Die hard drivers - who are strongly attached to the car and very unwilling to use alternative modes
  • Car complacents - who enjoy travelling by car and are not particularly trying to use it less
  • Malcontented motorists - who would like to reduce car use but feel there are no alternatives, and
  • Aspiring environmentalists - who already use different modes and are ready and willing to do so more.

1.12 They argue that drivers in different segments may be differently susceptible to policy messages and initiatives to encourage modal shift. For example, while more punitive measures (congestion charging, petrol price increases, etc.) may have some effect on car complacents, they are less likely to work for die hard drivers. Malcontented motorists may be more affected by positive actions to improve timetabling, information, frequency and quality of local bus services.

Disabled travellers

1.13 Disabled people face particular challenges in terms of transport and travel. In fact, as noted in a recent report on improving public transport for disabled people in Scotland ( TNS System Three, 2006), the biggest difference in travel between disabled adults and non-disabled adults is not in the way they make trips or in the reasons for trips, but the fact that disabled adults are less likely to make trips at all. Data from both the SHS and National Travel Survey show that disabled people make fewer journeys and are more reliant on public transport for those journeys than are the general population. Seven in ten respondents to the TNS Survey said they would like to travel more than they currently did.

1.14 Many disabled people qualify for free Scotland-wide bus travel 2. Cost may therefore be less of a barrier for them than for some other travellers. However, they face a number of other challenges when using public transport. Recent studies (e.g. Penfold et al, 2008 and TNS System 3, 2006) suggest that the kinds of barriers people with a disability face when using public transport, including buses, include:

  • Difficulties relating to the physical accessibility of buses themselves. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Transport concluded that whilst positive steps had been taken to improve the accessibility of public transport, this varied across different transport modes and type of disability. Particular issues for improvement included insufficient space for assistance dogs, a lack of storage and inconsistent design and location of features like wheelchair spaces, priority seating and door controls (Human Engineering Limited and GDBA, 2008).
  • Physical access and facilities at points of departure (e.g. kerbs and pavements, lighting, signage and audio information for people with sensory impairments)
  • Difficulties travelling from home to bus stops
  • Inadequate information and communication - for example, information about physical accessibility or what assistance people can expect, as well as appropriate on-board information for people with different sensory impairments
  • Approach/attitudes of transport staff - including not universally offering to lower vehicles, lack of awareness about difficulties caused by moving off before passengers are seated, and staff being rude or unhelpful when asked for help, particularly by people with mental health problems who may be less 'visibly' in need of support
  • Personal safety concerns
  • Lack of confidence - incorporating both personal confidence about using buses (for example, among those with severe anxiety) and lack of confidence in features of the system, such as drivers using ramps
  • Lack of reliable companions
  • Cost.

The role of qualitative research in understanding bus use

1.15 Findings from surveys can help policy makers identify trends and patterns in bus use among different groups. They can also help identify barriers to bus use. However, the level of depth with many surveys they are able to probe people's answers can limit their usefulness. For example, the fact that people say they do not use buses because they 'use their own car' does not tell us why people prefer to use their car. Moreover, surveys on bus use often find that people dismiss the bus as 'inconvenient', but without understanding exactly what aspects of bus travel people view as 'inconvenient' it is difficult to know where policy should focus to try and address these concerns.

1.16 Guiver (2006) suggests that qualitative research can play an important role in looking at transport from the respondents' point of view, rather than imposing assumptions about what is important. While surveys often focus on what Lyons et al (2008) call 'utility' factors, like cost and timekeeping, Beirao and Cabral (2007) argue that qualitative research can help reveal the more 'emotional' factors underpinning people's travel decisions. Guiver's own qualitative research suggested that feelings of power and control are major issues affecting people's attitudes to bus travel. Her participants described feeling a lack of power over their environment and situation while travelling by bus, in contrast with the control they felt over these factors when travelling by car. Similarly, Beirao and Cabral (2007) use qualitative research to show that the underlying desire for control underpins many of people's other reasons for preferring to travel by car.

Aims and objectives of the study

1.17 This research was commissioned specifically to address gaps in understanding of barriers to bus use in the Scottish context. In particular, it was intended to fill gaps in the existing survey evidence by using qualitative methods to provide a greater depth of understanding of people's reasons for not using buses. Moreover, it builds on existing qualitative research from elsewhere by exploring barriers and incentives to bus use in a specifically Scottish context.

1.18 The overarching aim of this research was 'To explore in more depth the reasons why people do not use buses (more) and what might encourage them to do so'.

1.19 The findings are intended to improve understanding of the views of people who do not travel by bus often or at all ('infrequent' and 'non-users') and to help bus policy makers and operators to think about ways of encouraging people to use buses more. The focus was explicitly on scheduled local bus services - that is, regular public bus services operating within people's own local areas, rather than, for example, inter-city coach services.

1.20 The more detailed objectives of the study included:

  • To explore, in depth, attitudes and perceptions about buses amongst those who use buses infrequently or not at all (including comparisons with car use)
  • To explore views on the quality of bus transport and on different aspects of bus services
  • To investigate why bus travel might be perceived as 'inconvenient'
  • To explore what people's opinions are based on
  • To explore, in depth, barriers to bus use amongst those who use buses infrequently or not at all, including examining:
    • The main influences affecting people's choice of travel mode for different journeys
    • The feasibility of making any journeys by bus instead of by car
    • Reasons why people do not use buses for these journeys.
    • Reasons why people choose not to use buses to travel to work (if they could feasibly do so)
  • To investigate what might encourage people to use the bus more, including:
    • Whether people have any aspirations to use buses more (or the car less)
    • What might encourage people to use the car less and use the bus more (including both incentives to bus use and disincentives for car use)
    • The relative importance (priority) of different motivating factors
    • What solutions people would propose to the problems they raise
  • To identify typologies of people who use buses infrequently or not at all, including:
    • To describe the characteristics of the different typologies identified
    • To identify which typologies would be most motivated to use the bus more and suggest what factors would motivate them to change their behaviours
  • To set the research findings in the broader policy and research context.

Report structure

1.21 The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter Two summarises the methods used for the study, sets out reporting conventions, and discusses some key challenges experienced in discussing bus use with people who do not use buses often or at all.
  • Chapter Three explores levels of knowledge and experience of using buses among our sample in order to contextualise the views and opinions presented in the rest of the report.
  • Chapter Four explores views of bus travel in depth. It looks in detail at perceptions of specific aspects of local bus services and considers what people's opinions appear to be based on. The chapter also summarises views on how buses compare with trains (the next most commonly used form of public transport).
  • Chapter Five looks at the travel choices of our sample and the reasons why people choose to use the car rather than the bus for different types of journey.
  • Chapter Six explores what might encourage people to use buses more often, as well as identifying typologies of people who may be more or less likely to use the bus in the future.
  • Chapter Seven pulls together the key findings from across the previous chapters and discusses possible implications for future policy and research.
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