The bus – your flexible friend?

In an article published in The Big Book of Big Winners for the UK Bus Awards, Chris Cheek reflects on the evolution of the bus product over the last two decades.

On the surface, the bus product seems constant and unchanging – after all, our customers are only using our services as a means to an end, getting from A to B in the fastest possible time and at lowest possible cost.

There are few people in the world who travel by bus for its own sake, and when they do, it is usually for the sake of the industry’s heritage – travelling on a preserved bus is a great way to relive the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone age – whether it’s our own childhood or the lives of long lost parents and grandparents. It’s a pull we all experienced in October this year, when the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester was kind enough the host our Finalists’ Announcement, and a great day it was too.

But modern services and modern vehicles are a far cry from those the industry provided in previous decades: they are smoother, quieter, more comfortable, easier to get on and off and of course much greener, with emissions so low as to be undreamt of in the past.

Other things have changed, too, including the ways in which we buy and pay for our travel. Adult single fares are fast disappearing, to be replaced by a whole range of more attractive and more convenient products, stored in our smartphones or on smartcards, or increasingly paid for by contactless bank cards of one sort or another. At the same time, the rise in the use of social media has turned the whole approach to customer relations upside down – and is providing a host of new opportunities to get closer to our users than ever before.

But anybody who thinks that the pace of change is diminishing is in for a rude shock. We’re emphatically not heading for a period of stability and calm in some form of cosy, post-Brexit world of warm beer and village cricket.

The pace of change is, if anything, accelerating: in the next decade, we will see the effects of Nano technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovations such as graphene, carbon fibre, fuel cells and the like start to feed through. The internet and smartphone revolution have yet to work through fully, and there is more innovation to come. Who knows where the next Steve Jobs is lurking, what they’ll invent and how that invention will once more change our lives?

In a lecture at this year’s Hay Festival, Stephen Fry suggested that the human being who will live to the age of 200 has already been born, and that it is also entirely possible that the first person who will live to 1,000 is also already on this earth. There are already suggestions from analysts that the progressive introduction of AI will mean that around a third of current jobs in the UK will be redundant by the middle of the next decade.

One of the most interesting trends that seems to be resulting from all this change is the movement against ownership – at least of physical things. The consumer society that developed over second half of the 20th century was driven people’s desire to own things – radios, televisions, record players, cassette decks, VCRs, DVD players, then cars and of course property. Then there were the smaller items such as books, records, CDs and DVDs.

By the turn of the century, Anthony Eden’s 1950s vision of a “property owning democracy” seemed to be well on the way to delivery. Then came the internet revolution – records and CDs have become a niche market, as they have largely been replaced by downloads and streaming services. DVDs are still around, but are being eclipsed by video streaming services such as Netflix, whilst live television is steadily being replaced by catch-up services such as the BBC’s I-Player.

In the transport world, car ownership is steadily being replaced by fixed term leasing contracts; in some urban areas, consumers are not bothering with a car at all - car clubs and private hire firms are filling the gaps. The success of bicycle hire services in town and city centres is another indicator of the same trends.

So, in the face of all this, how are we supposed to view the future of the bus? Surely people will always need to travel from A to B, and surely the inbuilt efficiencies of bus travel will always win through?

Well no, actually. Not unless we redefine the business we are in – and of course the clue lies in the “A to B” phrase. If we are really in the market for all those journeys from everybody’s As to everybody’s Bs – in other words for “mobility” as the jargon now has it – then the future could indeed be bright. If on the other hand we limit ourselves to the “big six-wheeler … diesel-engined, ninety-seven–horse-power omnibus” (as Flanders and Swann had it), then the future could indeed be dismal and short.

Meanwhile, the industry’s supply side is likely to change almost beyond recognition as well. Autonomous vehicles, new electrically-based propulsion systems, further changes in charging and payment methods are all coming down the line. They will all revolutionise the public transport product to a greater extent than the introduction of the internal combustion engine a century and more ago. The attractions of the autonomous vehicle are enormous, especially to an industry where labour accounts for something like 60% of total costs. Fewer staff will be needed, and they will be almost exclusively customer-facing, whether physically or via the web and the telephone.

There are those who will fear all this change, and attempt to resist its introduction. But it seems to me that the bulk of the industry is well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities: our experience at the UK Bus Awards, has given us a unique view of the evolution of the industry and its flexibility in responding to change: our monitoring, studying and judging of all the award entries has given us a unique perspective.

At their best, the people, projects and organisations who’ve entered have certainly broken new ground and won extra passengers; in other cases, they may at least have mitigated the falls in patronage that would otherwise have taken place.

The industry has developed three core skills since the 1990s, all of which should leave it well positioned for the future. They are: the emphasis on the customer, employee engagement and promotional skills.

The idea that the customer is king was a long time coming, but does now seem firmly embedded, at least under the current regulatory regime. Led by pioneers and early award winners such as Brian King and Ian Morgan at Trentbarton and Roger French in Brighton, the emphasis on customer service has spread across whole swathes of the industry. As a result, pretty much everybody has raised their game. Not far enough in some areas, and not deeply enough in others, but sufficient to be recognised in some amazing customer satisfaction scores from Transport Focus over the eight years of the Bus Passenger Survey.

Employee engagement has also improved, and rightly so: the relationship between customer and driver is the fulcrum on which the whole industry rests. You can have all the pretty liveries and social media engagement that you like, but it will all come to nought if poorly motivated and scruffy drivers don’t deliver the service and upset the customers. The importance of a workforce who care about their customers and their colleagues cannot be overstated. In 2017 we celebrate the tenth anniversary of our Top National Bus Driver competition, and delight in the fact that we have found some superb examples of excellence in our winners and finalists over that decade.

It is also true that training and employee engagement spreads more widely than just the frontline staff in the cab. Over the years, the winners of our top operating prizes have had a genuinely different culture; it spreads only through the whole workforce, led by the management team. Supervisors, engineers, drivers, office staff and managers all genuinely working together to deliver the best possible customer service, and taking a genuine pride in all that they do. We see this clearly in the entries themselves, during our mystery traveller checks and the employee interviews we undertake. It really is inspiring to see.

Turning to promotion, we have seen an increasingly high standard of invention and presentation in entries to a whole range of awards. Frequently, the result is impressive; occasionally it has been breathtaking.

The very best schemes offer multi-media approaches to promotion, demonstrating previous lessons learned and bright ideas conceived. The results achieved by the best schemes are clear: brands created and built, perceptions changed and - most important of all - customers won. The judges have certainly had some difficult decisions to make, and the more the years go by, the more difficult they become: decisions have come down to single marks between competing entries, not least in the 2017 judging.

There are many challenges ahead – in the evolution of our industry and in the social, economic and environmental backdrop against which we work. But those core skills of customer care, employee engagement and promotional expertise will stand us in good stead.

As a result, the industry is probably better equipped to face the future than it has ever been: we have the experience, enthusiasm, tools, knowledge and techniques.

However, we have one battle to win, against our greatest enemy, congestion. It drives customers away and increases costs, it damages staff morale and therefore risks of driver shortages. Ultimately we all know that if we don’t deliver the service, we don’t stand a chance. There is a political argument to be won, and we need to be much better at presenting our case.

Going back to 1995, it was the need improve the presentation of the industry’s case, and to help win more arguments, that led my colleagues and I to establish this Awards scheme in the first place. Twenty-two years on, the need to keep winning those arguments is still there, and at UK Bus Awards we’re still doing our best to help by telling a good story about the industry and about unstinting efforts of all our people.

In whatever way the industry evolves, we’re certainly planning to be around to recognise and reward the efforts needed to meet the challenges we face. We can only hope that the examples set by our winners will continue to inspire everybody else.

A slightly longer version of an article published in the UK Bus Awards Big Book of Big Winners in December 2017.

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