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.


7.1 This research was commissioned to explore in detail the reasons why people do not use buses and what might encourage them to do so more in the future. Some of the findings are perhaps unsurprising - for example, issues around journey times, reliability, cost, safety/comfort and accessibility, all of which have been discussed in other research, came up repeatedly in the interviews conducted for this study. However, the research has clarified and extended findings from existing survey research around, for example, what people mean when they dismiss bus travel as 'inconvenient', and what factors they take into account when deciding whether the bus or the car is more expensive for particular journeys. It also highlights the different factors underpinning people's attitudes towards and beliefs about local bus services, emphasising the importance of negative past experiences as well as hearsay and media reporting in shaping attitudes. Finally, the study builds on earlier research by Stradling and Anable (see Dudleston et al, 2005) to outline several different groups of 'infrequent or non-bus passengers', each of whom holds slightly different orientations towards the bus as an option and who may be differently susceptible to policy solutions aimed at encouraging them to use the bus more.

7.2 The previous chapter summarised a large number of suggestions from participants about improving bus services, covering issues such as driver training, strategies for improving perceptions of safety on board and at bus stops, improvements to the physical condition of buses, improvements to timetables and routes and action on prices. Rather than repeating these suggestions here, in this final chapter, we draw on findings from across the report to suggest some additional, broader implications for policy, practice and further research.

Recommendations for policy and practice

7.3 This study has identified a number of issues for those working to encourage bus use in Scotland. Responsibility for improving bus services and encouraging use is shared between bus companies, Local Authorities, the Scottish Government and others. We have not, therefore, attempted to separate out policy and practice recommendations by who might be responsible for acting on them.

Marketing buses to 'potential passengers'

7.4 Findings from this study suggest that some infrequent or non-passengers are 'willing to be convinced' of the merits of bus travel (see paragraph 6.15, above). These passengers would appear to be the most obvious initial target for any attempts to increase use - 'bus refusers' and 'bus pessimists' are likely to be less susceptible to 'positive' messages about buses (see discussion in paragraphs 6.12 to 6.14). However, even the most 'willing' in principle still perceive substantial barriers to making the shift from car to bus. Based on our findings, we would suggest that any attempts to 'convert' these potential passengers - through marketing campaigns or other measures - need to do three main things:

  • Highlight the advantages of bus travel - The findings suggest that highlighting personal benefits, (e.g. the idea that journeys enable you to relax, that travelling by bus avoids the stresses of driving in heavy traffic, finding parking spaces, etc.) as well as environmental benefits, may help motivate potential passengers who are 'willing to be convinced' to use the bus by reminding them of the things they dislike about car travel (see paragraph 6.15).
  • Mitigate or challenge views of the disadvantages - This needs to focus particularly on issues of journey time and reliability - key barriers cited by participants in explaining why they could not use buses more often (see discussion in Chapters 5 and 6). Any improvements to the frequency of services, evidence of good performance in sticking to timetables and the availability of direct or express services could be highlighted in this respect. Similarly, any improvements to the bus stock in terms of more comfortable seating, wheelchair access and low floors could be flagged. As discussed in Chapter 4, safety was a key theme cutting across much of the general discussion about barriers to bus use, so attempts to improve safety on buses and at bus stops could also be advertised to potential passengers. However, as noted in Chapter 6 (paragraph 6.9), safety concerns did not in fact feature particularly highly in discussion of why participants did not use the bus for their own typical journeys, like commuting - thus addressing safety issues alone may be unlikely to encourage infrequent users onto the bus.
  • Make it as easy as possible to use the bus - findings from this study suggest that infrequent or non-bus users can be put off by their lack of knowledge about routes, times and prices, in particular (for example, see paragraphs 4.37, 5.6, 5.7, 6.30 and 6.34). Bus companies and policy makers may wish to review information provision with this in mind. Is it easy to follow for to someone unfamiliar with bus services? Is it displayed in locations other than bus stops, where it may be seen by those who would not normally choose to get a bus? Is it accessible for people with limited eyesight (see paragraph 4.27)? They may also wish to review whether there are alternatives to the requirement for exact change, which is an issue on some buses, or different approaches to ticketing (which could be either hi-tech - e.g. a smart card-type system, like Oyster,- or low-tech)..

Dealing with complaints and highlighting improvements

7.5 This report echoes Guiver's (2006) finding that bad experiences of bus travel are more likely than good or average experiences to stick in people's memory (see paragraph 4.10). Bad experiences are also more likely to be discussed with others, and therefore to form part of the 'hearsay' about buses that can transmit views of local services among infrequent or non-bus users.

7.6 Although participants in this study did not talk specifically about experiences of complaining to bus companies, this evidence nonetheless suggests that bus companies need to ensure that the way they deal with complaints mitigates the potentially far-reaching impact of negative experiences on future travel decisions.

Costs and pricing

7.7 As discussed in Chapter 6, cost was seen as a barrier to switching from car to bus. However, it appears that people are often only thinking of parking and petrol costs when calculating whether it would be cheaper to take the bus or drive (see paragraph 4.35). It may be worth considering fare levels with these comparisons in mind - how much would a particular journey cost in petrol and parking, for example? Even if fare levels cannot be reduced, this may help better understand how they are likely to be viewed by potential passengers. Where a bus ticket would still be cheaper than the cost of petrol plus parking for particular common journeys (e.g. from suburbs to town), this could be highlighted in any marketing campaigns. Finally, while cheap or free travel days might not be immediately effective in encouraging long-term change to travel to work, for example, they could be useful in encouraging those who have not travelled by bus for some time to give it a try. This could, in turn, help overcome negative views of buses which are not based in any recent experience.

Recommendations for research

Improving survey questions on reasons for not using buses

7.8 Findings from this study suggest that perceptions of the 'convenience' of the car and comparative 'inconvenience' of buses in fact reflect more specific concerns about directness, journey speed, and ease of making multi-stage or multi-purpose journeys (see paragraphs 5.5 to 5.9). This suggest that survey questions about reasons for car use or reasons for not using the bus could be improved if, rather than including 'general' statements about preferences for car over bus, they focus on the specific aspects of car travel which may make it more attractive. For example, rather than including statements like 'I use my own car' or 'The car is more convenient' or 'No need to travel by bus', questions could separate out more specific issues associated with thinking the car is 'inconvenient', such as:

  • It takes too long to make journeys by bus (or 'It is faster to make journeys by car')
  • I need my car to carry equipment/paperwork
  • I need my car to make other journeys during the day
  • I need my car to give other people lifts, etc.

7.9 Disaggregating the reasons people prefer to use their cars in more detail will enable policy makers and bus operators to identify (and where possible to target) barriers to bus use with more precision.

7.10 This research also suggests that people who do not use the bus often or at all fall into several different groups, distinguished by their willingness to try the bus in the future, their attachment to the car and their environmental attitudes ('bus refusers', 'bus pessimists' and 'willing to be convinced'). As this study was qualitative in nature, it is not possible to estimate how many infrequent or non-users might fall into each of the three categories identified. Moreover, while there was some tentative evidence that women and participants in urban areas were more likely to be 'willing to be convinced', again the research design does not allow us to be definitive about this. Future survey research could be used to develop understandings of the characteristics and sizes of different groups of infrequent and non-bus users, as well as testing which, if any, policy solutions might be most successful in encouraging different groups of infrequent and non-users to use the bus more often in the future. The development of questions and analysis strategies for such surveys should draw on earlier research by Anable and Stradling on different groups of drivers and non-drivers (see Dudleston et al, 2005).

Research on bus industry marketing

7.11 Findings on views of 'typical' bus passengers in this research suggest that buses in Scotland have something of an image problem, which may be acting as a barrier to engaging new customers (see paragraphs 4.41 to 4.43). While one view is that they attract a cross-section of society, a more 'stereotyped' image of them as only for vulnerable groups who cannot afford a car was also apparent. Further research which explores how bus companies seek to market their services - and in particular whether or not different companies have explored strategies to encourage those who use the bus infrequently or not at all to see the bus as for 'people like them' - may be useful in helping devise strategies to encourage infrequent and non-users to use the bus more often.

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