Those behind the wheel of by far the country’s most used form of mass transit are not only responsible for transporting hundreds of millions of passengers a year, but they are also a key interface with travellers – effectively ambassadors for the industry.
Bus drivers do a highly important job, including ensuring the safety of up to dozens of people at a time while navigating often congested roads filled with many drivers who don’t think the bus should go first – as well as having to deal with passengers with a range of temperaments. But as the public face of the bus sector, they also play a hugely significant role in shaping people’s views of bus travel.
I’m only an occasional bus traveller but kind of know how the system works. Thank goodness for First Glasgow’s newish bank payment card tap-on-tap-off technology which means I don’t have to know and say exactly where I’m getting off.
But it’ll be a whole different ball game for teenagers, who can now benefit from free bus travel across Scotland until they are 22. What to say to the driver, what to ask for, how to use their new card? I can see how scary a prospect that could be for a first timer.
The passenger watchdog Transport Focus has described getting the bus as an “essential life skill” but warned the industry that early experiences could “deter future use”. However, youngsters who become regular bus users have a more positive view.
Like ScotRail, bus operators were hit hard by the pandemic and are still recovering. Post-Covid support funding was due to end last summer and then again in the autumn, as The Scotsman has revealed, but appears to have been quietly extended until March.
What happens then remains uncertain, with firms previously warning of fare increases and service cuts. Latest figures from Transport Scotland’s public attitudes survey, from October, found one in four people were using the bus less than before the pandemic and only one in ten more.
Meantime, an astonishing half the population qualifies for free bus travel now that under-22s have joined the over-60s and other groups in no longer having to pay. The Scottish Greens, which spearheaded the addition last January as part of its power-sharing agreement with the SNP, said 564,000 had signed up by December – a 61 per cent uptake. They have made more than 40 million journeys, which the party expects will reach 50 million by next month.
The Greens said the impact that could have on making Scotland “fall back in love with its buses” could not be more important, arguing that it could help create a virtuous circle of increasing passenger journeys that created more demand, leading in turn to more bus routes. It said the expansion of the scheme may even have saved some services.
That could be doubly significant because the over-60s have been slow to return to the buses, with numbers down by 35 per cent two weeks ago compared to pre-pandemic January 2020.
So bus drivers, please welcome your customers and be helpful, but equally, passengers, be thoughtful and co-operative to those with the demanding task of getting where you want to be.