Most of the research on why people use or ignore the bus treats people as if they know what they are doing. It assumes that travellers are constantly making fully conscious, rational, economic trade-offs between cost and journey times, and then making the logical choice as a result.
And of course there is part of the brain that does this – the part that likes to flatter itself that it’s in charge. But it’s not. The rational economic actor in our brains is in a little boat that is being constantly tossed around by a churning sea of emotions and instincts, including the always switched-on pre-historic threat assessment.
So, as part of the Urban Transport Group’s research programme into the factors behind bus patronage change, we decided to take a look at what’s going on in the part of passengers’ brains that can’t add up but can summarily take control of actions at a nanosecond’s notice if it doesn’t like the look of something. And then tell you not to do that again.
Although the “take back control” slogan on the side of a bus is the abiding image from the Brexit referendum campaign, the abiding characteristic of bus travel is a lack of control. There are so many points in a bus journey where you can feel stressed and vulnerable: Am I at the right stop? Is the bus going to turn up? Is the bus driver going to see me and will the bus stop? Will the interaction with the driver go well? And if not, will I have a whole bus full of people watching whilst I hold up their journeys? Will I end up sitting next to someone who behaves in an anti-social way? Will I know where to get off? Will the driver stop where I want to alight?
On top of that, if you are a wheelchair user or encumbered with prams and children, there is the anxiety around whether or not there will be space for you and how accommodating the driver and your fellow passengers are going to be.
The same applies in different ways for other disabilities. Attach a heart rate monitor and look for the spikes.
Now, let me turn up the stress and vulnerability dial a bit further. Because as well as the particular stress points in bus travel, in general the bus can feel like a far less supervised and controlled space than a train. You can further turn up the volume on these anxieties around the unsupervised nature of buses and bus stops in relation to your personal security and space if you are a young person or a woman.
Fortunately, there is someone on every bus that can help ease all the stress points set out above, and turn a space that feels worryingly unsupervised into one that feels safer and more under control – the driver.
Transport for London has recognised this and has been putting a lot of focus on supporting drivers to better support their passengers. I’ve experienced this myself recently, where drivers in London used the PA system to explain why their bus was being held at a stop and how long the wait was going to be. It was amazing what a positive difference this made to how I felt about the journey compared with the prior norm of sitting there for an unknown period of time and feeling like a sucker for getting on board in the first place.
The nature of the bus as a unique social space can work against this mode of travel. But it can also work for the bus.
Our research shows that people can enjoy travelling socially and communally. The young are most affected by the climate crisis and the least interested in car ownership. The bus offers the opportunity for them to socialise with friends (both actually and digitally) whilst being car free. You can’t drive to work and plug yourself in to the hive mind. You can on a bus.
The bus is a unique social space. If – through vehicle design and better support for drivers – we can tackle the negatives and accentuate the positives of this space, then there is an opportunity to win more hearts and minds, both conscious and sub-conscious, for the bus.
Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group