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​Recalibrating the Bus

Adam Brown

Adam is a talented and creative Charted Architect with over 7 years experience in practice, and 5 years in transport and infrastructure.

Recalibrating the Bus - The survival of the Bus after AV’s, First published in Buses Magazine

Why do we need to save the bus?

The future of transportation will undoubtedly be shaped by Automated Vehicles (AVs) which will have a profound impact on the way people travel.

The change will come quickly, it won’t be gradual incremental increase over a couple of years. Instead, it is more likely that, once the technologic, legislation and safety issues have been resolved, UBER, WAYMO or Toyota will point at map and roll out a fleet of 3000+ units overnight.

But is this a positive move forward? ‘Preliminary models of individual ownership of AV’s show VMT (vehicle miles travelled) increasing dramatically’ (Urbanism Next, 2018). Regardless of whether we own them or not, if we continue to use AV’s as we use private cars now, nothing will improve; roads may even become more congested as AV use increases and less people use mass transit.

The simple fact is that we need to be ready for the introduction of AVs. In order to deliver truly sustainable transportation infrastructure AVs technology will need to compliment mass transit networks, not replace them.

The big issue we face over the next decade is how to increase public transport ridership and change the behaviour of people when AVs could offer the convenience of a private car, without the need to buy one.

Where Do We Make the Change?

In some respects, there has been a shift in habits. Back in 2014, CityLab found that millennials are ‘far more likely to ride public transportation and to express positive feelings about it than older people’ (Goodyear, 2014). They found that younger people are more likely to see transport as a service, not a commodity. However, this may have as much to do with cost of living, students debts or other financial factors than a conscious decision to use sustainable mass transit.

With the advent of AVs upon us, we should be wary. It’s not unreasonable to suggest people using mass transit may switch their transportation service to a more convenient AV fleet that offers a more direct door to door connection.

We need to make sure that mass transit offers a competitive and complimentary service to the AV’s. AVs need to find their place in the hierarchy of transit to truly integrate into the transport network.

The rail network is very well established and perhaps less at risk from the impact of AVs, particularly those providing national, inter-city connections.

It is the regional transit networks in and around towns and cities that are the most at risk. But developing metro and tram networks can only go so far in creating modal shift. In most cities outside of London, stations and tram stops don’t provide adequate coverage. Which means there are large gaps in areas of the country without access to mass transit and therefore vulnerable to AV overuse.

To bridge these gaps, the UK government must invest in the bus networks and revaluate their position in the transport hierarchy.

Why Don’t People Use Buses?

For many years bus ridership has been in constant decline. In the UK, bus use has reduced by 1.5% since last year and has been dropping consistently since 2008. The use of buses is so low in the rest of the UK, that 50% of all bus journeys are made in London alone.

Even places that invest heavily on bus transit have reduced bus use. Despite the introduction of brand-new fleets of buses, Nottingham has seen an 8.5% drop in ridership since 2012 (Department of Transport, 2017)

And it’s not a question of demand. 41% of households in the UK only have one car and 24% have no car. (Department for Transport, 2019).

So why aren’t people using buses?

This first and possibly most important issue is journey times. CityLab found that ‘The most important factor for (users) in choosing transit is travel time and reliability, not fancier amenities such as wifi.’ (CityLab). Bus journey times are not only longer, but they are often unpredictable due to traffic on the roads, especially in metropolitan areas.

The second is the poor reputation of bus travel. There are many social factors, such as assumptions surrounding bus users, that play a part in this; which are difficult to address head on. However, one way to address reputation is improving the perceived quality of the service. Essentially, improving the passenger experience. Look at rail in comparison: the fantastic arches of St Pancras Station, or the intricate stonework of Bristol Station. Even the average village train station usually has some unique quality to offer. Now compare these with Victoria Coach Station or the recently demolished Nottingham Broadmarsh Coach Station; not to mention the multitude of rundown, vandalised and desolate bus stops scattered around the country. Poor passenger experience is definitely a major contributing factor to the decline in bus use, and it is something that can be relatively easily addressed.

Mitigating these underlying reasons why bus use is on the decline will be crucial in convincing people to switch to the bus, and ensuring the bus has its place in the transport hierarchy at the advent of AVs.

Fig .1 Average Cost per Km in US$ Between BRT, LRT and HRT (based in statistics from ‘brtguide’)

How do we improve journey times?

Improving journey times is a relatively simple fix; dedicated lanes. Dedicated lanes remove congestion on the roads, and therefore creates a reliable service.

In recent years, the growing trend of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is having hugely positive outcomes on cities. Bus Rapid Transit offers a bus service more comparable with the tram; with direct, dedicated routes and increased passenger capacity; due to the potential for larger articulated buses. They can also offer a much more cost-effective solution to tram and metro.


Fig .2 Rapid, District and Local BRT services

Across the world, over 166 BRT networks are in operation. We have around 13 in the UK, but most are relatively minor interventions that only operate along small portions of the bus route. This is slowly increasing, with new networks being constructed around the UK and Ireland such as Belfast BRT Glider which opened on 3rd September 2018, 10 years after its conception. (Department for Infrastructure (NI), 2018) However; with AV’s coming to market in the next 10 years, this isn’t fast enough.

Although introducing dedicated BRT routes will create more reliable services, there are other issue that causes delays on the bus network; frequency of stops. Stop positioning is a critical factor to consider if the bus network is to survive the advent of AVs. If too far apart, people will simply use other forms of transport, notably the car or AVs, to get to their destination if it is too far to walk. Equally, if they are too close, it can lead to slower journey times due to frequency of stops, con­sequently reducing convenience and having the same result.

So how do we resolve this? Take Tokyo’s rail network as an example. The frequency of stops on some of the inner-city lines is very high and the trains that run on the same lines. However, different services have different stop frequencies. Not all trains stop at all stops. Three types of trains, Rapid, District and Local provide a convenient and rapid system depending on where you need to go. If you have a short journey, you get the Local. If not, you get the Rapid and then switch onto the Local at station further down the line, without switching platforms.

BRTs in the UK stop at every stop on route. Adopting a similar approach as Tokyo’s rail system will allow stops to be closer together without slowing down the service; if the infrastructure is designed to allow for passing busses.

Fig .3 Remaking Barnsley Project Masterplan (Barnsley.Gov, 2013)

How do we improve passenger experience?

Passenger experience is possibly more complex. It is simple enough to suggest that better, higher quality, buses will offer a better passenger experience. However, buses are only part of the infrastructure that make up the bus network. In many places around the UK, the introduction of new higher quality buses has had a minimal impact on ridership increase. We need to look at the service as a whole.

We therefore need to analyse the two pivotal architectural typologies that create the passenger experience of the bus network: the bus stop and the bus station.

Bus Stations should be catalysts for Transport Oriented Development

Bus station planning and design can learn a lot from the train network. The sins of the 1950’s and 60’s town planning is embodied in the UK’s bus stations. The scarcity of quality architecture, the unmaintained concourses, the door-less envelopes; they all result in these places becoming an open invitation for vagrancy, vandalism and neglect. We should consider bus stations as we do train stations; a catalyst for transit-orientated development.


Slowly, towns and cities are coming to the realisation that investing in bus hubs can bring significant urban regeneration, especially in more rural parts of the UK where bus travel is perhaps the only viable option for sustainable transport.

Take the town of Barnsley in South Yorkshire as an example. The introduction of the new bus station was the linchpin of the ‘Remaking Barnsley Project’ and subsequently become the epicentre for redevelopment in the town. Maybe the architecture isn’t to everyone’s taste, but what is does offer is a space that feels safe, warm and light. It’s a place for people to meet, where people want to dwell; rather than a place someone must visit. It is a gateway to the town and a destination in its own right; and as such, facilitates urban regeneration.

David Brown, former Director General of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive stated that ‘Nearly a year after it has opened, it has succeeded in attracting lots more people to use the interchange and in turn buses and trains.’ By making the bus station a central node for urban development, the bus hub becomes part of the urban fabric, and not some urban ruin tucked away on the fringes of the town centre. This has contributed to a shift in opinions of bus travel and increased the use of sustainable bus travel.


Fig .4 Dublin City Swiftway Visualisation

Fig .5 Guangzhou BRT Bus Stop

Bus Stops need to offer more

Although bus stations are starting to see positive development, bus stops are being somewhat neglected. Local bus stops are the start and end of a bus commute. If we are serious about encouraging and influencing modal shift, we need to think more radically about what a bus stop needs in order to surpass the requirements of the service user, at both a conscious and sub-conscious level.

In order to compete with AV’s, bus stops need to provide warm, sheltered environments with step free access, off board ticketing, clear and interactive time table information, bicycle parking and potentially bicycle hire. They need to offer services that people expect from a train station.

We also need to address the premise of perceived safety. This isn’t simply adding in a CCTV camera, it is more integral to the design. For example, introducing more than one exit will make people feel safer as it allows people to feel they can escape should they need to. Bus stops could encourage interaction between passengers by placement of seating and information to allow people to interact with their fellow passengers, rather than perceiving them as strangers. Furthermore, if we adhere to ‘Broken Glass Theory’, the designs should inherently prevent vandalism through choice of materials and form and should be easily maintainable so that the stop remains a high-quality piece of urban realm throughout its life cycle.


Even though research regarding this has been around for over 30 years, British and Irish bus stops are still not changing. New BRT plans such Birmingham Sprint and the Dublin City Swiftway BRT focus heavily on journey times and on the quality of the bus. It however leaves the bus stops undefined, with arbitrary phrases such as ‘high quality stops’, whilst repeating the errors of the past in lacklustre bus stop designs shown in the visualisations.

We should be learning from international benchmarks such as Curitiba and Guangzhou. The stops on these systems offer the passenger experience comparable to that of a railway station. In Curitiba, 45% use the BRT system, with only 22% using private cars (Ecomobility). Through high quality stops and services, over the past 40 years the city has transformed its modal share and opinions of bus travel. Due to the comparable passenger experience to that of the existing metro, Guangzhou BRT has also seen a tremendous increase in ridership since it opened in 2010, with approximately 850,000 passenger trips daily, around 12% of the population (Global BRT Data, 2019). This has also alleviated the overcrowding on the metro line.

Improving passenger experience, access to information and perceived safety through robust and creative bus stop design can remove the stigma of bus travel, make the bus more accessible and encourage bus ridership in general; all of which contribute towards the survival of the bus network.

Fig. 6 Northern Powerhouse Rail BRT Potential

Where are the Opportunities?

Living in London, it is easy to disregard the need for an improved bus system. The tube and rail lines are so well established as a means of traversing the city. The bus network is expansive, serving the entire city. Over recent years TfL has invested in improved bus stops with information, new buses through the new Heatherwick designed Route Master and has seen an increase in dedicated bus lanes.

It is the cities and large towns outside the capital that have much less established transport systems where investment in BRT networks would have the greatest impact. It is these areas that have higher private car use, and are seeing a decline in bus use that will be most susceptible to the advent of the AV.

There needs to be a coordinated transport network strategy for this to work. For example, Northern Powerhouse Rail should be looking at how BRT systems could be utilised to increase the catchment of the rail network; bringing the benefits of the infrastructure investments to a wider community.

A Shift in the Paradigm

Embracing a new paradigm for the bus is vital to ensuring the survival of the bus. AVs will most likely take the place of the local bus, simply because of their convenience. In order to be ready for the advent of AVs, the bus needs to find a new place in the in hierarchy of transportation in this country; one that is more a kin to a metro or tram line, complimenting AVs through intermodal hubs and providing meaningful connections between AVs and the Bus.

It is also not enough to simply add in more BRT services to create a more sustainable network. The UK needs to change its opinion of the bus. Both central and local government funding needs to be targeting better passenger experiences that will vastly improve public perceptions through robust and creative design of the bus stops and bus stations that make up the network as well as substantially improved journey times.

For the bus to survive the advent of AVs, and for a truly sustainable and non-congested transport network, the bus needs to offer a superior travel experience to AVs; an experience that will convince the public that it is better to take the bus.

Department for Infrastructure (NI). (2018). belfast-rapid-transit-glider-introduction. Retrieved from infrastructure-ni.: https://www.infrastructure-ni....

Department for Transport. (2019, 07 31). National Travel Suvery: England 2018. Retrieved from National Travel Suvery: England 2018: https://assets.publishing.serv...

Department of Transport. (2017, 12 14). Annual Bus Statistics: England 2016/17. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.serv...

Global BRT Data. (2019, 11 24). Guangzhou. Retrieved from Global BRT Data: https://brtdata.org/location/a...

Goodyear, S. (2014, 09 18). Millennials Love Transit Most, Boomers Still Stuck on Cars. Retrieved from CityLab: https://www.citylab.com/transp...

Urbanism Next. (2018, 05 05). Urbanism Next: Framework. Fig.1; Based on statistics from https://brtguide.itdp.org/branch/master/guide/why-brt/costs

Fig.3; https://www.barnsley.gov.uk/media/4565/eb76-remaking-barnsley-strategic-development-framework-2003-2033.pdf

Fig.4; https://www.thejournal.ie/swiftway-transport-2747922-May2016/

Fig.5; http://www.itdp-china.org/enbus/?lang=1

Adam Brown

Adam is a talented and creative Charted Architect with over 7 years experience in practice, and 5 years in transport and infrastructure.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.