Alastair Dalton: Our lowly bus services deserve more respect

Lothian Buses is still council-owned. Picture: Greg Macvean
Lothian Buses is still council-owned. Picture: Greg Macvean
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It is the Cinderella of Scottish transport but deserves the crown for the crucial role it plays in getting folk about.

I’m talking about the bus, the often unglamorous mode of travel that clocked up no less than 420 million passenger trips north of the Border in 2014-15.

That’s nearly five times as many as go by train, even if rail travel is growing significantly while bus use is declining.

It is true that far more public money is spent on running and improving Scotland’s railways than its bus services.

But it is also the case that there been significant funding provided by the Scottish Government to encourage operators to buy less polluting buses, and from councils to create bus lanes and introduce other measures to give buses priority over other traffic.

However, while rail is very largely state-­funded, buses are essentially private sector operations that have benefitted from less public money since the industry was privatised by the Conservatives in the 1980s.

One of the few exceptions is Lothian Buses, Edinburgh’s main operator, which is still controlled by the city council and held to be one of the best operators in Britain.

However, in many other areas of Scotland the bus remains the transport of the poor – those unable to afford a car or sometimes higher train fares – and those benefiting from free travel, such as pensioners and the disabled.

Operators have attempted to de-stigmatise bus travel by appealing to a wider market with improvements such as brighter interiors, more comfortable seats, free wi-fi and journey tracking information screens so passengers know when to get off.

But far more radical steps are required to make buses the natural next choice for drivers – and help further level the playing field against other traffic.

Trains, by their nature, don’t have that problem, and more often than not are held up by difficulties of the railways’ own making.

That’s not the case for buses, of course, but if they are seen more often sailing past other queueing vehicles thanks to measures such as bus lanes, their attractiveness will grow.

The next step is for a fundamental attitudinal shift towards buses from everyone else on the road. For a start, parking at bus stops should be an absolute no-no, with such space treated as sacrosanct. Much stricter enforcement is also needed to get the message across. To the frustration of bus passengers and other drivers, buses are often prevented by parked vehicles from pulling into a stop.

Some car and van drivers treat them as handy bays from which to nip into a shop or business, because they can’t be bothered to walk a bit ­further from the nearest legal space. I’ve seen lorries using bus stops to make big deliveries. It’s even worse – and much more of a safety hazard – when school buses aren’t able to pull off the road.

Similarly, letting buses pull out and go first should become mandatory. Perhaps cameras – already in widespread use to police bus lanes – could be used to enforce that at bus stops?

This would all help buses become a more reliable form of transport. That could be highlighted with a smartphone app so waiting passengers could see the progress of their bus, similar to that available for Lothian Buses users.

The more that buses are given the advantage on congested roads, the more people will want to use them.