Urban bus rant

April 24th, 2007

I´ve taken a lot of urban buses in the last couple of weeks, and this has resurrected an old rant aimed at bus companies and local authorities.

So, you arrive in a strange town by any mode of public transport. Nine times out of ten you will arrive at an airport/railway station/bus station that is some distance from your onward destination. The city has buses, clearly, but where do they leave from? How often? How much is the fare? Will the driver need exact change? This information is never available in an obvious form in the terminal. This is especially galling when you´re at a terminal for long-distance buses which is (as in Bariloche) 3km outside the town centre!
Similarly, in lots of cities, bus stops are unmarked. Yes, Bariloche and Rio Gallegos I´m looking at you especially. Even in British cities, you usually just get the sign saying “Request Stop” and nothing else. You´re expected to know where the bus goes and how often. In my village there were bus stops for a service that only ran during school terms – how were you expected to know that? If you´re lucky enough to see buses you have to resort to stopping every one that looks promising and asking the driver if he goes where you want. If you´re lucky, he´ll tell you which bus you want in a tone that doesn´t imply that you´re a bloody ignorant gringo/southerner/northerner/tourist.
It gets worse. In most towns here in South America the streets are in a grid pattern with each street carrying traffic in one direction only. So if you get off a bus somewhere, the return leg of the same bus route will be on one of the other two parallel streets, but which one? You don´t know because there aren´t any marked bus stops!
British towns are no better. London actually gets it right, with its very handy Underground-style route maps at every bus stop showing where the buses go and at roughly what frequency. But other cities are lamentable. Cambridge in particular has one of the most actively user-hostile bus systems in the world, particularly if you arrive at the railway station which is, you´ve guessed, over a mile from the city centre.
Bus companies are also fond of highly circuitous bus routes that take you several blocks in the wrong direction before doing a 180 degree turn (Bariloche again) or totally bizaare topologies (like the figure-of-eight bus route that used to run between York University and the Monks Cross shopping centre). The fare structures are often non-obvious and priced to a bizaare level of precision (1.15gbp, say, or AR$1.30) rather than just a flat fare to anywhere on the route (London). This is particularly frustrating where the bus drivers are either snotty about giving change (Argentina generally – there seems to be a national shortage of small change and two peso banknotes) or are panelled in behind security glass and only take exact money (Birmingham and Coventry).
None of this is rocket science, but people won´t take buses unless they either do it every day or they know how it works. Maybe the taxi drivers are conspiring behind the scenes to ensure that tourists find buses impossible to use!

4 Responses to “Urban bus rant”

  1. Cy Says:

    I knew the operations manager for stagecoach in Cambridge whilst you were there. Should have said, and I’d have told him about your problems.

  2. Susz Says:

    I completely agree. In London, I thought bus prices were steep, although the Oyster fare now is reasonable (£1 flat single rate). But at least you could (and still can) buy travelcards that were a) worth buying for a day, and b) could be used on /any/ operator’s bus.

    I’m amazed that Oxford, despite being far more vehemently anti-car than London, has a completely screwed up public transport system. Bike and walking are fine, but the buses are awful. Two main competing companies, with almost identical expensive price structures, and often running buses on similar routes (with different numbers), including the Oxford-London route. You can buy travelcards, but only for a specific companies buses, which limits your choice considerably. Oh, and no night buses to speak of either.

  3. Michael P-J Says:

    Broadly speaking, the Oxford – vs – London contrast is caused by lack of regulation. In large conurbations in the UK (Manchester, Sheffield, London) public transport routes and fares are planned centrally by a Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), whereas in other cities private firms can run buses how they like, subject to some restrictions and subisidies provided by local authorities. The PTEs are generally quite good at user experience, but they only exist where it was clear that total deregulation of bus services would cause transport chaos. In York (no PTE) the council managed to create a coherent bus system only by handing FirstBus a complete monopoly on urban bus routes and a generous subsidy to boot.

  4. Cy Says:

    Tyne and Wear PTE (nexus) used to be good, tickets covered Bus, Ferry, Local Train (metro) and British Rail.

    You got the metro to a terminus station, and all the various buses were stood there waiting for you. Max wait time on any route was 6 mins and it was cheap.

    They then privatised it, and it’s now crap – buses every 20 -30 mins and costs have tripled in 5 years – it’s usually cheaper to get a taxi if there’s 2 or more.

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