Scotland's bus companies must grasp opportunity of 930,000 potential new young customers to become more user-friendly – Alastair Dalton

Buses run regularly yards away from my house but I virtually never use them.

It takes far longer to walk to my nearest rail or Glasgow Subway station, but they are my preferred option when I’m not cycling, driving or walking.

Of course, I’m lucky to live in a city with the biggest train network outside London when, for many people in Scotland, bus is their only public transport option.

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My choice is for multiple reasons, not just speed and cost, but also my perception that bus travel remains a less user-friendly process than the alternatives.

Over the years, I’ve despaired at continually encountering new problems during my albeit infrequent bus trips.

They have included lack of information about routes, times or fares at bus stops or online, the unreliability of bus tracker apps and the absence of CCTV covering the stairs of double-deckers so passengers alighting with young children can safely descend before the driver moves off.

On the last occasion, I attempted to take the bus, as a cheaper and more environmentally responsible way of getting to an event at Glasgow Airport, it ended in failure because the online timetable differed from the one at the bus stop.

I missed my bus and had to take a taxi to get there on time.

A total of 930,000 people under 22 became eligible for free bus travel in Scotland this week. Picture taken pre-Covid.A total of 930,000 people under 22 became eligible for free bus travel in Scotland this week. Picture taken pre-Covid.
A total of 930,000 people under 22 became eligible for free bus travel in Scotland this week. Picture taken pre-Covid.

To give bus operators their due, contactless card payment has removed a major gripe among occasional bus users – having to have a till’s worth of change in your purse to be able to pay the exact fare, often not knowing what that would be (£1.95?) until boarding.

But wholesale improvements to make the whole experience more attractive and easier to follow are needed not only to encourage people like me to use the bus more, but to grasp the huge opportunity presented this week by the prospect of 930,000 new customers.

That’s the number of people under 22 who can now travel free by bus across Scotland once they’ve got their new smartcard – a potential new generation of long-term passengers.

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But teenagers I’ve spoken to say they might continue to take the train instead, even having to pay, because they can buy a ticket at a station vending machine and don’t need to speak to anyone.

As Sharon Hedges of Transport Focus put it at a Rail magazine webinar on rail fares last week, young people are put off using the bus by “not knowing the script” – in other words, what to ask the driver.

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That followed research by the passenger watchdog three years ago which found teenagers frustrated that buying a bus ticket wasn’t as easy as ordering a pizza or booking cinema seats on their phones, with some regarding the bus as a “last resort”.

Transport Focus said getting the bus was an “essential life skill” but early experiences could “deter future use”.

Making buses an attractive prospect for the young will improve the service for everyone. It needs to be as easy to understand as taking a train.

It's vital when the industry is in decline in many areas of Scotland. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised and encouraged by seeing improvements next time I too take the bus.

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