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.



4.1Chapter Three indicated that levels of knowledge and use of local buses among our sample were, unsurprisingly, not particularly high. However, in spite of this, strong attitudes towards local buses were apparent across focus groups and in depth interviews. As discussed in Chapter Two, a lot of the discussion in the groups and the in depth interviews focused on general perceptions of problems with local buses, rather than on people's own individual reasons for not using local buses more often. Although there is inevitably some overlap between the two, we have attempted to disentangle the general from the specific. Thus this chapter discusses people's general thoughts and opinions of local buses, while Chapter Five will look in more detail at individual reasons for not using the bus more.

4.2 The chapter starts by exploring views of different aspects of local bus services, summarising attitudes to bus drivers, other passengers, the physical condition of buses, bus stops, bus times and timetables, routes and fares. As well as summarising views on these areas, the chapter also considers what these opinions appear to be based on. A key objective of the research was to explore what appears to underpin the attitudes of people who do not use the bus often or at all, given that their views are unlikely to be grounded in substantial recent experience of using the bus. The chapter considers other possible influences on views, including past experiences, the views of others, and the media. Finally, it summarises perceptions of how buses compare with trains, the other most commonly used form of public transport.

4.3 Where there appeared to be differences in the views of different groups in our sample (e.g. men and women, older and younger people, people with and without disabilities, urban/rural areas), these are flagged in the discussion. However, many of the key themes discussed below were apparent across the different sub-groups in our sample.

Views of local bus services

4.4 Discussion of specific aspects of local bus services tended to focus on the issues people felt were problems or barriers rather than on more positive aspects of travelling by bus. Given that our aim was to understand why people do not use buses more often, this is unsurprising. However, where positive aspects to bus travel were raised, these are also discussed.

4.5 It is worth noting that while different views and experiences of local buses were discussed, a common general theme was safety. Safety concerns were apparent in relation to most of the aspects of bus travel covered, including driver behaviour, other passengers, the physical condition of buses, bus stops and routes.

Bus drivers

4.6 Views of bus drivers focused on two key issues: safety of driving behaviour and driver attitude.

4.7 Safety concerns centred on bus drivers not waiting long enough to let people on and off the bus (including allowing time for people to take a seat) and driving too fast. This was especially pertinent to people with a physical and/or learning disability.

The driver moved too soon. She went flyin' across the other side o' the bus, an' when I got off I just says ... 'You should give us time to get off. You're supposed to help us, not hinder us'. (Male participant with learning disabilities)

4.8 However, more positive experiences were also mentioned where bus drivers did wait for people who needed extra time to get on and off the bus and ensured the bus was lowered for people with prams or wheelchair users. One participant who used a wheelchair praised her local bus driver for his help and willingness to tell other people to move if they were blocking access (although this was specific to one particular bus company - she complained that drivers for other operators waited until she asked for the ramp).

4.9 Concerns around safety of driving behaviour appeared to be less of an issue for the young people in our sample, with one group of 16-29 year-olds complaining instead that bus drivers are too slow. In contrast, negative views of drivers' attitudes were particularly apparent among some younger focus group participants. Complaints included drivers being unhelpful when passengers had questions about routes or fares, being rude or impolite, or just generally appearing lazy. There was also a perception that some bus drivers deliberately missed out part of their route or failed to stop at some bus stops. Finally, car drivers complained that some bus drivers display a lack of regard for other road users.

It's not fair they just feel that they can just drive out in front of you. There's no courtesy in driving. (Female, 45+, Borders, Group 11)

4.10 In general, these views did appear to be grounded in actual experience - for example, one participant recalled sitting on bus with a driver who was reading his paper and drinking a can of juice while the bus was ' full of people trying to get to work.' Another participant complained of being made to feel uncomfortable by bus drivers when they are fumbling with money because they do not know the fare, highlighting the danger that infrequent or non-bus users may be deterred from using the bus more by negative driver attitudes or behaviour. Participants also referred to negative experiences of bus drivers that were less recent - for example, remembering drivers failing to stop for them when participants were school-aged. This highlights that negative experiences can have a long-term impact - as one participant put it, although bus drivers are not all bad, " the bad ones always stuck in your mind."

Other passengers

4.11 Stradling et al (2007) note a continuum of attitudes to other passengers, ranging from viewing them as unwelcome or threatening, to valuing interactions with other passengers as part of the experience of getting the bus. While there were examples in our research of participants enjoying travelling with other people - for example, one participant described the bus they used to get to work as being like ' a travelling community' - most of the discussion of other passengers focused on negative issues. Concerns primarily focused on personal safety, with 'invasion of personal space' (our terminology) and a general lack of respect for the bus or other passengers being secondary issues.

4.12 Safety concerns centred on a fear of being the victim of crime or anti-social behaviour while using the bus. Specific types of bus passenger were perceived as potential sources of trouble, particularly school children, young people, and anyone who was on the bus while drunk. Concerns about personal safety in relation to other passengers were particularly salient in relation to travelling on the bus at night, with women participants in our focus groups particularly suggesting they would not feel safe using night buses on this basis. There was a general perception that drivers were unwilling to intervene in disruptive behaviour by passengers, although there were examples where participants had seen the driver throw unruly passengers off.

I was on the bus wi' ma ex-girlfriend (…) and these young guys got on the bus. The bus was more or less empty. (…). they went up the back and they were gettin' all rowdy an', you know, shouting abuse. So the bus driver threw them off. (Male participant with learning disabilities)

4.13 In some cases, these fears and concerns appeared to be grounded in direct experience. For example, one participant described being spat at by another passenger at a bus stop. In other cases, participants stated that although nothing had ever happened to them, they had either 'come close' to experiencing trouble or had seen trouble happening to other people on buses. However, even where participants did not appear to have any personal experience as a victim or witness of anti-social behaviour on buses, fear of this kind of behaviour was still an issue. For example, one participant who never used the bus stated that they 'just imagine' that there would be a lot of drunk young people on the buses and that they would be leaving themselves open to awkward situations. Sometimes these perceptions appeared to be influenced by hearsay - one participant referred to a friend who worked for a bus company who had told him that some passengers would spit on other passengers. There was also some evidence to suggest that reports in the media could help create or sustain these feelings of fear:

It's just been on the news. Did you see the bus down at the motorway stops? Because they were all fighting on the bus and the bus had to pull over and they were all fighting on the hard shoulder. Did you see it on the news? (Female, 30-44, West Lothian, Group 8)

4.14 In addition to concerns about specific kinds of passenger, there was also evidence of a general feeling of uneasiness about sitting next to anyone you did not know. This was not always about safety - personal hygiene of other passengers, catching 'germs', having to listen to other people talking on their mobiles, playing music or using foul language, and having to speak to someone else when you want 'peace' were also concerns. There were also complaints about a general lack of respect for the bus, bus driver and fellow passengers - for example, leaving rubbish on the bus, or not giving up seats for elderly people, pregnant women or people with a disability.

Physical condition of buses

4.15 Views about the physical condition of buses were determined, to some extent, by the age of the bus. Newer buses tended to be viewed more positively because they looked modern and were easier to get on and off. Older buses were described as looking ' run down' and being 'wee rickety things'; accompanied by a perception that they were unsafe, unreliable (in terms of breakdowns) and not user friendly for people with prams, elderly people or wheelchair users (for example, because of steep steps or the wheelchair space being very tight). There was a suggestion that small buses run by some smaller private operators were in particularly poor condition.

I was a HGV mechanic all my life and when I see some of the small traps [buses] that are running about, I wonder how they got on the road. Because I mean when I was working, they used to have to go through rigorous tests, but you see some of the buses that are going about now and I think to myself 'how did they get that passed'? (Male, 45+, West Lothian, Group 9)

4.16 However, regardless of the age of the bus, buses without seatbelts were viewed as being unsafe, and questions were raised over why public buses were not required to be fitted with seatbelts.

4.17 Comments about the physical environment on board buses focused on a general lack of cleanliness (including dirty windows, spills, vomit and rubbish), buses being too hot in the summer, and overcrowding, which also made the bus too hot as well as preventing participants getting a seat. Crowded buses were a particular issue for participants who suffered anxiety and mental health problems, while a lack of toilets on board was also mentioned as an issue for people with some disabilities:

I feel comfortable on the big long bus, the Citylink bus, the ones that dae the long journey's, they've got a wee toilet an that on them as well, I feel comfortable on them but they buses that run aboot, they've no got toilets on them, when you're on medication sometimes you've got to get to the ... toilet … ken what I mean .. (Female participant with mobility problems)

4.18 Accessibility was also mentioned by participants with mobility problems. Steep steps and poles getting in the way of the wheelchair space on buses were particular issues.

4.19 As with perceptions of the behaviour of other passengers on buses, in some cases views about physical conditions on board buses were based in relatively recent experience - for example, of being on a bus where someone has been sick or where half-eaten takeaways are on the floor. But in other cases participants admitted that their belief that buses were smelly were based on experiences from a long-time ago (even school days for one participant aged 45+). Another participant cited hearing that a local bus company had been 'done' for unsafe conditions on board buses as a reason they were concerned about the quality of the bus stock.

Bus stops

4.20 Comments about bus stops focused on concerns around personal safety while standing at bus stops and, to a lesser extent, comfort and the availability of information about bus times at stops.

4.21 Concerns around personal safety, particularly when waiting for buses at night, related to who else might be standing at the bus stop or shelter, worries about the area the bus stop is located in, lack of adequate lighting at stops, and concern about 'inappropriate use' of bus stops (see 4.22). In one rural group concerns about who else was standing at the bus stop was exacerbated by the style of the bus shelter:

I particularly don't like the wooden ones that you don't know if there's somebody actually in there sort of hovering about. Like the clear ones what they've got at the post office, you can see who's there, so you would go and stand under there. ( Female, 30-44, Borders, Group 12)

4.22 Participants expressed a desire to avoid waiting at stops in areas where people might be drunk, as they would not feel safe. Concerns about 'inappropriate' use ranged from young people 'hanging out', to shelters being vandalised or urinated in. This kind of behaviour was perceived as both threatening and a nuisance - one participant described having to walk to a bus stop further away when the nearest bus stop had been vandalised and its timetabling information removed.

4.23 Issues relating to comfort centred on lack of bus shelters for when it was raining. Distance to walk to stops was also an issue for participants with physical disabilities. Opinion of the 'real time' bus information found at some bus stops was mixed. Positive views focused on its accuracy, but another view was that it was not accurate enough to be useful, and that sometimes buses took longer than the Real Time Passenger Information ( RTPI) screen claimed. There were also complaints about timetables and route information at bus stops not being up to date, while the font size of some timetables was as a problem for older people with poor eyesight (mentioned both by an older participant who themselves had problems reading timetables, and by younger participants as a potential problem for others).

4.24 In general, views of bus stops did appear to be grounded in personal knowledge or experience, since people walked past stops and shelters even if they did not use the bus. That said, there was evidence that some negative views of the accuracy of RTPI screens were based on hearsay that the times are based on the timetable, and not on GPS (Global Positioning System) information from the buses themselves.

Bus times and timetables

4.25 Participants' main concern with respect to bus times and timetables was simply the length of time it would take to make journeys by bus. Journey times were seen as longer than they needed to be (and far longer than making the same journey by car). Even where the timetable showed a more reasonable journey time, there was a perception that buses could not be relied on to stick to this and that it was hard to judge how long a journey by bus would actually take. These issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter Five.

4.26 Another issue was that bus times did not suit the times people want to travel. This viewpoint came though particularly strongly in rural areas where buses were perceived to be too infrequent and waiting times were seen as unacceptably long. In contrast, urban participants commented on seeing several buses that were not full and suggested that some buses were too frequent.

4.27 Comments about timetables themselves, rather than the ability of buses to stick to them, centred on difficulties understanding them. As discussed above, participants identified difficulties for older people and those with visual impairments in reading small writing. They also described problems with timetables being over complicated and difficult to interpret, particularly in areas with more than one company running buses. There were also complaints about a lack of clear information about fares at stops.

4.28 Although some participants appeared fairly certain of when particular buses came or how long they took, beliefs about times and timetables were not always based on up to date knowledge of what local services offered. For example, one participant admitted:

I mean I don't use them but I get the impression they're not reliable and they're not as frequent as what (they) should be. (Female, 45+, West Lothian, Group 9)

4.29 In some cases, participants acknowledged this and qualified their views with a recognition that things may have changed since they last used a bus.

Bus routes

4.30 Detailed discussion of bus routes was fairly limited, which is perhaps unsurprising given that our sample did not use buses particularly often. Routes were sometimes discussed in the context of the time it takes to travel by bus. There was a perception that there are not enough direct routes, and because of this other modes of transport, especially the car, were seen as more time-efficient.

4.31 Another view was that existing routes were not practical for participants, especially for journeys to and from work - buses did not go near enough to places of work, or participants would need to change buses to get there.

4.32 Finally, general fears about crime and personal safety were evident in discussion of bus routes. Some of the areas the bus route covered were described as ' rough' or ' bad'. One view was that if participants would not choose to go there otherwise, why should they go through them because they are on the bus?


4.33 Participants from all the geographical areas included in our sample believed that fares were too expensive. This was in spite of the fact that not everyone in our sample was clear about the precise cost of bus travel (see Chapter Three). Participants also suggested that fares are a major barrier to bus travel for many people - though as discussed in the next chapter, fare levels did not in fact appear to be the only or main reason for not travelling by bus. Indeed, as discussed in Chapter One, cost was cited by just 1 in 20 respondents to the Scottish Household Survey ( SHS) as a reason they did not use the bus more often (Scottish Government, 2009a).

4.34 Fares were seen as particularly disproportionate for short journeys and journeys where you need to get more than one bus. Another issue was the variation in bus fares across Scotland, with complaints that local bus fares compared unfavourably with those in other areas or cities. Bus fares were viewed as expensive in comparison with both private car and taxi travel (particularly where making journeys with other people). However, it is important to note that when discussing the relative cost of travelling by bus compared with travelling by car, participants tended to focus on petrol costs, and not longer-term costs such as purchasing, insuring or maintaining a vehicle:

Obviously, with the car, it will cost me a couple of pound in petrol now, so that's a lot of the reason why I started driving; just 'cos I find the buses so expensive now. (Female, 16-29, West Lothian, Group 7)

4.35 This appeared to reflect the fact that participants would not consider giving up their cars completely. In fact, one view appeared to be that the 'fixed' costs of owning a car were so high that there was no incentive to even consider paying 'extra' to get a bus. This point of view, which suggests that car owners may view bus fares as additional costs rather than as an alternative to be weighed against the expense of making journeys by car, is illustrated by the following discussion:

Female 3: But why would you want to … why would you want to when you've got a car.
Female 2: When you've got a car sitting there but you've already paid insurance, road tax and petrol and everything for.
Female 1: Exactly.
Male 1: Yeah.
Female 2: I don't see why you would go and then pay out more money again. I think it's much cheaper.

(West Lothian, 30-44, Group 8)

4.36 Beliefs about fare levels did sometimes appear to be based on participants' past experiences of using buses, although it was not always clear how long ago this experience was or whether it was on the same routes they would need to use now. In other cases, participants appeared to have overheard other people discussing prices and formed a general impression that they are expensive.

4.37 Related to the cost of fares was discussion about the need to have the exact fare. This was seen as annoying, inconvenient, and confusing for people who did not get the bus often and did not always know what the fare would be.

What annoys me is the exact fare because sometimes I don't have it. I fancy going on a bus. I don't have the exact fare. I've got a fiver or something like that, and basically its £1.20 or £1.30 (…) so I don't take the bus (…) So I mean the exact fare is sometimes a nuisance. It can be frustrating. Male, Dundee 30-44, Group 5)

Factors that appeared to influence views of local buses

4.38 The discussion above shows that infrequent or non-bus users' views of their local bus service reflect a combination of previous experience (both recent and long-past), 'hearsay' from other people, and beliefs based on media coverage of problems on buses. These findings reflect Guiver's conclusion that 'transport users are not just making their modal choices on the basis of what is currently available to them, but also refer to (selective) memories, images and cultural references in their decision-making' (2006).

4.39 The role of past experiences in shaping current views of buses is also discussed in both Guiver and in Beirao and Sarsfield Cabral (2007). Both studies found that negative experiences or 'worst case scenarios' can have a particularly strong impact on people's opinions of bus travel, often appearing to outweigh more positive experiences. This finding certainly appeared to be reflected in our data.

4.40 Moreover, both Guiver and Beirao and Sarsfield Cabral comment on the role of discussion with others in shaping people's views of public transport. As such, Guiver suggests that 'transport providers should not only challenge erroneous perceptions, but recognise that their passengers are carriers and filters of the bus image and each poor performance influences the future choices of that person and those they talk to.'

Image of a typical 'bus passenger'

4.41 In addition to asking participants directly about their views of specific aspects of bus travel, interviewers also asked their views about 'typical' bus passengers. Their responses, particularly when compared with their descriptions of a typical car driver, cast further light on the image of bus travel among infrequent or non-bus passengers. Although one opinion was that you can find a 'cross-section' of people on the bus depending on the time of day, and that it is not possible to generalise about 'typical' passengers, there was also a clear view that the bus is only for certain types of people. Those identified as typical passengers included: people who cannot drive or afford to drive, including school kids and the unemployed, students, elderly people, mothers with prams, and a ' less discerning customer' which could include ' Neds' or ' junkies'. This reflects findings from Guiver (2006) who also found that a 'sense of vulnerability' meant that bus passengers were often portrayed as 'victims' and that her participants often bracketed commonly disempowered groups - disabled people, elderly people, parents with young children - as bus users.

4.42 In contrast, car use was less clearly associated with any one particular group. It was suggested that ' most people drive nowadays', which made it harder to identify a 'typical car user'. Parents, big families, young 'boy racers' and also participants themselves were identified as 'typical' drivers. 'Typical drivers' were also described in terms of personal characteristics or lifestyle: for example someone who is lazy, people with no time/busy people, someone who works/a commuter, someone who can afford a car, and someone with a parking space at work.

4.43 It appears that for at least some infrequent or non-bus users, bus use is seen as low status, as something for other, more vulnerable people. In contrast, cars were seen as being for everyone and/or for people like them.

Comparisons between buses and trains

4.44 In discussing the pros and cons of bus travel, participants often compared buses with other modes of transport, in particular the car and the train. In general, buses came out less favourably than these other modes. Comparisons with cars are discussed in more detail in the next chapter when we look at the reasons why people used the car rather than the bus for particular journeys. However, here we briefly discuss perceptions of how buses compare with the next most commonly used form of public transport, trains. Although interviewers did not explore in detail what participants' opinions of trains were based on, they did appear to be drawing on personal experience of train travel when describing some of the perceived advantages of trains over buses.

4.45 There are obvious differences in the services provided by local buses and by trains - for example, trains are generally used for middle to long distance journeys, compared with the shorter journeys made by local buses. Moreover, there are aspects of train travel - such as the speed at which they are able to travel - which may affect public perceptions of the service, but which cannot be replicated on buses. However, reflecting on how potential passengers view the differences between the two most common modes of public transport can nonetheless highlight aspects of bus services which are viewed as in need of improvement. In some cases, comparisons between the two may also suggest lessons that can be learned from train services.

4.46 Comparisons of buses and trains related to five key themes: reliability/predictability, speed, information, safety and control, and comfort and accessibility.

  • Reliability/predictability - Train times were seen as more reliable and more predictable than bus times. It was suggested that this meant you could structure train travel into your life, whereas 'you've no hope of doing that with the bus'. Although there are a number of reasons why it may be easier to ensure that trains run to a predictable timetable - for example, the general absence of congestion caused by other vehicles - this nevertheless highlights a key area where buses are seen as weak in comparison with other options.
  • Speed - Trains were also viewed as quicker than buses, because they are more direct and do not stop as often, and because they are not affected by road works or traffic jams. Again, while it may be impossible to avoid road works and traffic jams, more direct routes and less frequent stops might help attract some infrequent or non-users on to buses.
  • Information - Various aspects of the information on and around trains were seen as more 'user friendly' than buses. For example, it was suggested that buses would be better if they had screens on them like trains which tell people what the next stop is . It was also suggested that it is easier to tell which train is going where when you are at the station.
  • Safety and control - There was a belief among participants that trains were safer, particularly at night. Train conductors were a key factor here - they were seen walking up and down the carriages and could, to an extent, police the behaviour of other passengers. In contrast, on the bus trouble could break out upstairs when you are the only other passenger and there are no staff present to intervene. However, there also appeared to be a belief that anti-social behaviour was simply more likely on the bus than on the train. One participant, who had experienced racial insults on the bus but never on the train, felt that you find a more 'discerning clientele' on the train compared to the bus. Train stations were also seen as safer than bus stops, in part due to their enhanced security (cameras in train stations were mentioned). It was suggested that people felt safer getting off trains, since more people usually disembarked at each stop, providing safety in numbers compared with only one or two getting off at each bus stop. A slightly different safety issue was that trains, unlike buses, do not move when people are trying to get on or off.
  • Comfort and accessibility - Comparisons of the physical condition of trains and buses provoked more mixed reactions. One view was that trains were cleaner, quieter and have more comfortable seats with more leg room. But the opposite view, that trains were worse than buses in terms of discomfort and noise, was also expressed. The presence of toilets on trains but not local buses was commented on. In terms of accessibility, participants with mobility problems cited difficulties with both buses and trains. The requirement to book assistance in advance for trains was seen as a barrier.

4.47 One area in which buses were compared more favourably with trains related to the fact that buses come to you, whereas you have to travel to a station to get a train. Trains were also considered to be expensive, although they did have the advantage of allowing individuals to use a credit or debit card, or at least to get change from cash in contrast with many buses which require 'exact change'. It was, however, acknowledged that it could slow down buses if drivers had to give out change or take credit cards.

Key points

  • Participants identified a wide range of problems with and actual and potential barriers to bus travel, including:
    • Driving behaviour and driver attitude
    • 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.
  • Safety concerns were apparent with respect to a number of aspects of bus travel, including: driver behaviour, other passengers, the physical condition of buses, bus stops and routes.
  • 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
    • young people were particularly negative about driver attitudes
    • 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 specific concerns about safety on board (in relation to having time to get on and off and to their seats), accessibility of buses and of timetables, problems associated with overcrowding, lack of toilets, and distance to walk to stops.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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