Sunday, 6 November 2011

On the Buses

I spend a fair bit of time on the bus. It's my preferred method for getting to work (I hate my bike), and £40 a month for an Oyster card-style bus pass seems like a pittance when I get the incredibly luxury of an hour a day of reading time. I mean, I'd pay £40 a month to have an hour each day in which to read even if I didn't get transported to work as part of the bargain.

The buses of Cambridge, however, leave a lot to be desired. Stagecoach's promise of "up to every 10 minutes" rarely holds true, and their copy is both poorly written and thoroughly offensive to any adult who does not enjoy being spoken to like a child. As the bus stop near our office is the end of the line, though, I've had a lot of recent experience with something that is even worse than this: the perverse and seemingly willful obfuscation of what the hell is going on.

It's very similar to the way that First Great Western used to run their trains about five years ago (thankfully they've come a long way since then) - long delays and absolutely no information about the cause or likely resolution of said delays on the part of the train manager. It used to be that FGW trains would not announce the expected time of arrival at each station along the way, or even suggest how long they anticipated it would take to get from the current staion to the next one. This used to endlessly frustrate me - it takes very little effort on the part of the train announcer to say, "Our next station stop will be Castle Cary in approximately twenty minutes", and, luckily, they have indeed taken to doing this of late. But to omit such information looks a lot like purposefully keeping passengers in the dark, and that's both inconsiderate and unnecessary, especially when the relevant authorities are in possession of the relevant details. In fact, it's always struck me as something of a power trip.

The buses of Cambridge are worse, and seem to follow neither rhyme nor reason in their scheduling and departures, especially at the route terminus. Take this as an example: a week or so ago I left work at around 17.30 and went to the bus stop. A bus (which I will call Bus A) was waiting in the bus bay, totally empty and with its lights turned off. The driver of this bus, Driver A, was stood outside at the back of the bus, staring down the road. A crowd of 12 or 15 people formed. Driver A offered no explanation as to why we couldn't get on the bus or why the bus was sitting there with its lights off. We waited for 2o, maybe 25 minutes. On at least four occasions I was on the verge of asking the driver what we were waiting for, or if he could at least turn the lights on and let us sit in the bus (bonus reading time), but I found myself holding back out of a sense that it was not my place to question this increasingly bizarre-seeming decision. None of the other people gathered there asked either - we were all too reserved, too British, perhaps, to ask for what was under the circumstances very reasonably information.

Finally another bus turned up with another driver. The insane and pointless mystery was solved when it turned out that Driver A was waiting for Bus B so that he could drive it back to the depot, whilst Driver B switched to Bus A, turned all the lights on and finally let us on board. Again, at no point were we offered an explanation. I realise that the bus company probably has very good reason for making this kind of thing decision, but I don't see any need for it to be so perversely shrouded in mystery. Once again, it feels as though the people who hold the power (and information is very much power in these situations) use it as leverage over the people who have to stand there waiting for 20 minutes to get on a bus that has also been sat in the bus bay for the same amount of time.

Sometimes a bus will come and the driver will say that it's only going as far as the centre of town and not to Addenbrooke's. This, like the above incident, is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of the bus company. Scheduling buses is their prerogative (and whether or not they could do a better job of it is neither here nor there), and I have no problem whatsoever with them making these decisions. And I'm not advocating the kind of information overload that Grahame has experienced on public transport in Japan. But I do think that giving as much background as possible in these situations is the best way of empowering passengers in a situation over which they have essentially no control and which otherwise has the potential to make them feel entirely powerless. It's frustrating and unnecessary, and perhaps another symptom of the "let's treat our customers like children" mentality which similarly seems to motivate most of their on-bus copy.

1 comment:

  1. I went to a very interesting talk by some of the Stagecoach guys a while ago, and it's amazing some of the IT systems they have in place.

    As well as real-time tracking of buses, they event get things down to the level of acceleration, breaking, and cornering forces so they can investigate different drivers' styles, and determine if they're being a little "enthusiastic".

    But letting the public have access to the information? That, it seems, is a very different question...