Often overlooked as a Cinderella amongst city centre services, though of most importance, are workaday local services. For many bus users, short distance local services, radial or circular, provide a convenient way of travelling from A to B in a matter of minutes.
Usually, the local service is the first bus many people to get to their nearest town centre or railway station, either to shop, or board longer distance trains or buses. Though much noise is made about medium distance inter-town services, in terms of frequency, a typical Smallshaw circular from Ashton [the 331/333 services] is more important to members of communities living there.
The Tameside area
For the example of this piece, I have used the Tameside area. At present, the Tameside area has a mix of long to medium distance services, intermingled with shorter distance circular and radial routes, most of which commencing from Ashton-under-Lyne bus station. For example, Ashton has a fair number of circular routes, most of which inherited from Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation, and its forerunners.
These services were renumbered in 1973 by SELNEC, in preparation for Greater Manchester Transport, and also to eradicate duplication of other routes (for example, the 8 to Bolton from Manchester was also a service from Stalybridge to Oldham).
In preparation for deregulation, the Ashton circular services, serving Hurst, Smallshaw, Crowhill and Hazelhurst, were rebranded by the outgoing Greater Manchester Transport as 'Ashton Minilyne'. The familiar numbers were replaced with service numbers starting with the letter A. These changes were embargoed till deregulation day, Sunday 26th October 1986. Unlike the standard bus frequencies of every twenty minutes, minibuses would operate every eight minutes.
Circular services from Ashton-under-Lyne (2008)
- 38, 39: Hazelhurst Circulars;
- 331, 333: Hurst and Smallshaw Circulars;
- 332: Hartshead Circular (Evenings, Sundays and Bank Holidays only);
- 335: Denton (Town Lane) Circular;
- 337: Crowhill Circular;
- 338: Crowhill Circular (Evenings, Sundays and Bank Holidays only);
- 345: Denton (Pendle Road) Circular;
- 347: Denton (Haughton Green) Circular;
- 393: Smallshaw Circular.
Of the circular routes operational in 1974, the 334 is omitted, having been long withdrawn and replaced by Speedwell Travel routes 396 (Newton Heath) and 395 (Limehurst Farm).
The 38 and 39 services assumes the daytime role formerly provided by the Ashton - Hazelhurst section of the 337 route. Recently, the current 337 had a link to the Ashton Moss development, which was withdrawn on the 29th January 2006.
Another short lived circular route was the 300. Originally allocated to the Localine service from Ashton to Stockport (via Guide Bridge), the number was used again for an Ashton town centre shuttle service, which linked the bus station with the temporary market hall and Stamford Street. This was withdrawn on November 2005.
In late September of 2006, the evening, bank holiday and Sunday 339 and 340 services were withdrawn and replaced by the 41. In the previous month, the daytime 41 services were transferred from First Pioneer to Speedwell Travel. The remainder are operated by First Pioneer, from its Dukinfield depot. A similar arrangement exists with the 337, Crowhill circular service, where the evening, bank holiday and Sunday journeys are operated as the 338.
The Ashton area is well covered with circular services, in terms of quantity, though this is not reflected in terms of frequency. One example, the 331, has a 20 minute frequency before 1900 hours. After that, the frequency is every hour. From personal experience, I have walked from the Broadoak Hotel to Ashton town centre within 25 minutes. Assuming person X wishes to see Ashton United at Hurst Cross, walking up Kings Road seems more viable, albeit for the fit and agile.
All the other Ashton circular routes, have similar issues, as do the shorter distance radial routes. One example is the 350. Though every ten minutes in the daytime to Mossley (Hey Farm Estate), with half hourly extensions to Oldham, this is reduced to an hourly service after 1900 hours, with no extra journeys starting from Mossley.
With these short distance routes being the starting point for most longer journeys, it is important that catching a local circular or radial service should be as easy as nipping to the shops for a bottle of milk.
Ageing population: From my observations, the 400 service was mainly used by clientele over fifty years of age during daytimes, with the reduced number of passengers paying adult fares may have had some effect. During the peak periods, I had noticed prior to withdrawal steady ridership levels on early morning journeys to Stockport and Bolton at Ashton-under-Lyne bus station.
The M60 motorway: In addition to this, the 400 provided the people of Denton with a direct link to Oldham, and Oldham passengers a link to Stockport - unachievable by rail without the Metrolink between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly. The main competition between Oldham and Stockport was the M60 motorway, although the 400 didn't serve the Hollinwood and Blackley areas. Though the Rochdale to Bolton section are served by the frequent 471 and 509 stopping services, the demise of the 400 has led to a loss of a service that replaced the Bolton - Bury - Rochdale line, which closed in 1970.
If services are too infrequent, or finish early in the day, they cease to relevant to most users. If people are unable to wait longer than 10 minutes, some would walk back home, ring a family member or a friend for a lift, or a taxi to their desired destination.
Imagine if a local supermarket decided to close certain aisles on Sundays or Bank Holidays. Firstly, there would be mutiny. Then mutiny would follow exodus, which leads to shoppers buying their groceries elsewhere. Ultimately that store would lose business, leading to an eventual closure.
Now imagine this scenario with a local bus route: people would feel daunted waiting longer for their desired service, if one or two journeys were missing or too far apart in the timetable. Some may complain, and complain. Nothing may happen. Meanwhile, only staunch users of the service would get this bus, as casual users may be deterred. The company may assume the service is a loss maker, or it becomes uneconomical to subsidise, resulting in withdrawal. Unlike supermarkets, bus routes are harder to replace, given current trends towards car ownership (187,000 new cars sold in 2005 - double the figures of 1997).
The real competition lies in increased car dependency and local private hire companies.. For instance, it is cheaper for four adults in Greater Manchester (without concessionary passes, day rover or season tickets) to take a taxi from the Broadoak Hotel to Ashton town centre, than four single fares.
In some areas, bus services have been partly replaced by demand responsive travel, or shared taxi services. Unlike regular bus services, these are restricted to persons living within that locality. Fares are usually similar to single bus fares, or slightly cheaper.
The up side of demand responsive transport, are that of a more personalised service. Rather than sticking to a familiar route, travel to and from works, usually on a zonal basis, with the convenience of a taxi, though with fares akin to local bus services. Demand responsive transport, has a higher footprint, with some vehicles being able to negotiate narrower streets, out of bounds to scheduled bus services. One other (more obvious) advantage is improved waiting facilities (the lounge/living room rather than a windy bus stop).
One down side of this, is that such services could be seen as a cheaper alternative to running a fully fledged bus service. Though convenient for residents of that area, non drivers, living outside the zone, making a casual visit to that area are unable to do so, as no bus service may exist. One example of this is the 188 service, where one section after 1900 hours is wholly demand responsive. One other problem is that demand responsive transport could put pressure on existing taxi bookings, due to reduced vehicle availability - leading to longer waits outside the taxi rank or pub doorway.
The car, for many persons is often seen as the cheapest and most effective form of transport, with the cost of ownership falling. For many, it is too convenient for the car to be the first form of transport, even for the shortest of distances, without considering other alternatives.
The Convenience Bus
With people working longer hours, due to unpaid overtime, longer commuting times, and also unsocial hours, there is a need for the local bus service to become a 'Co-op on Wheels'. As the slogan ("We go further, so you don't have to") suggests, a greater effort towards increased local services is required. The emphasis on this philosophy should aim to:
- Reduce the amount of short distance car journeys;
- Revitalise local town centres and facilities;
- Restore faith in local bus services;
- Increase patronage not only on local routes but also longer distance services.
With the main competition coming from taxis and private car ownership, hop-on fares should also be keenly priced. To differentiate from longer distance services, single or return fares should reflect this.
In Redditch and Worcester, First Midland Red rationalised its fare structures on local services to an affordable maximum adult fare of £1.20 (now £1.40). The result was a slight increase in patronage and faster boarding times.
The maximum fare should also be set to an easy to remember rate. For example, a £1.00 per adult maximum (or flat fare) on the 331 is more memorable than £1.50 or 95p. A £1.00 maximum or flat fare on this route could reduce boarding times, with this effect more marked at busy stops, for example the Broadoak Hotel, or The Ash Tree Wetherspoons house.
In addition to instantly memorable flat rate fares, this should also be applicable with timetables.
From past experience, I have witnessed persons asking drivers whether bus X goes to the hospital. To their disappointment, they were told otherwise, due to the uneven frequency of that service.
For the uninitiated, gaps in services deters potential users, racking their brains as to why service Y only runs to the hospital in the daytime, whereas service X goes to the same destination all day. As well as town centres, the 'Co-op on Wheels' should also service local hospitals, with constant frequencies.
Most people, when told how often, for example the 346 runs, are told the service runs every 15 minutes, without thinking that this only applies to the daytime frequency (Sundays and Bank Holidays excepted). Assuming the same mindset applies to most current or potential passengers, 15 minutes on a relatively short route should mean 15 minutes all day long. A winning combination of good value single fares and a steady frequency should increase confidence in that service, and ultimately reduce car dependency.
This should be integrated with advertising of each route, or group of routes targeted to each town. For example, a timetable leaflet for local services in Dukinfield could concentrate on promoting the 41, 335, 345, and 346, as well as the longer distance 218, 419 and 343 services. This should include a map of Dukinfield, as well as the times, and any special offers. If frequencies are upgraded and fares are affordable, you have a very marketable product.
Traditionally, the sole place for timetable information was the bus station or transport office. Information on local services should also be freely available in local pubs, convenience stores. At present, local libraries provide access to bus timetables relevant to its area. There is also the Internet, though despite this arrival, people will still pick up a timetable from their bus station or library.
Once more, using the example of the 331/333 services, timetable provision is available at Ashton bus station, and Hurst library. The number of outlets should be extended to include:
- Public houses and social clubs: in a bid to reduce drink driving casualties, pubs should be able to display timetable information of the closest bus to the pub. For example, the Broadoak Hotel could include times of the 331/333, alongside the local taxi firm numbers;
- Supermarkets and convenience Stores: these could include the Late Shop and Food Market Co-op branches in Hurst, as well as local businesses;
- Post offices: at present, there are two post offices on the 331/333 route: Mossley Road and Broadoak Road (the latter opposite the Broadoak Hotel);
- Places of worship: as well as providing current information, church funds could be raised through the recycling of outdated timetables.
Even with the Internet, with timetables available online, and text message bus information from certain points, the low-tech approaches may be just as effective. Few people make dedicated journeys to their local bus station for the sole intention of procuring information, or their desired season ticket. Purchasing a prepaid bus ticket or picking up a timetable is usually part of the shopping list rather than the only item on the list.
Ticketing and PayPoint facilities
Since February 2006, it has been possible for persons to purchase System One bus season tickets within Greater Manchester, from anywhere which has a PayPoint terminal - increasing the coverage area from the Travelshop to the local off licence or council offices. A logical progression should be the dissemination of local timetable information within outlets where PayPoint terminals are available.
Another advantage with PayPoint is that a wider range of payment from cash to debit cards can be used. However, there is one disadvantage with this scheme: new members still have to go to the bus station to join the System One travel club, and provide a passport photo - unlike purchasers of bought on the bus season tickets - such as the FirstWeek (the 331/333 being First Manchester routes).
Much noise has been made by some passenger transport executives over route franchising, similar to London. To ensure the convenience bus remains a convenience bus rather than one ran at one's convenience, micro franchising could be considered. These contracts should be tendered either as a route by route, or district basis. Minimum standards could be set to ensure consistency, with parameters set for:
- Bank Holiday and Sunday frequencies: ideally, these should be no less than half the Monday to Saturday frequencies;
- Fleet management: for example, one requirement of routes serving hospitals are that all buses should be low floor;
- Fares: that fare levels should be kept to an easy to remember rate and be affordable;
- Service levels: ideally, no person should be kept too long to the point where walking is a quicker option.
Bank Holiday and Sunday Services:
At present, we have a paradox where despite Sunday trading and increased employment on Bank Holidays, these frequencies have been reduced over the last three decades, despite recent efforts to reverse this, on main routes rather than short distance circular and radial routes.
Where services have a daytime frequency of every half hour or better, Sunday and Bank Holiday services should be at least half the daytime frequency, to boost patronage on these days. For example, the 331, which runs every 20 minutes, would be better served with a 40 minute frequency on Sundays and Bank Holidays, as opposed to every hour at present.
Subject to passenger demand, staff numbers and funding, services on Boxing Day, New Year's Day and even Christmas Day, could run, albeit at 25% of the typical daytime frequency, though with double fares, and discounts for holders of System One or single company season tickets.
At present, the average convenience bus is a step entrance Dennis Dart. Sometimes this may be an ageing double decker, or middle aged low floor single decker.
Though contemporary step entrance vehicles have lower steps than their predecessors (such as the GMT standard Leyland Atlantean), low floor buses are most desirable for the convenience bus. This is also congruent with thinking reflected in the Disability Discrimination Act. Considering that the local route is the start of most person's journeys to and from work or the shops, their first step should not be steepest.
The ideal bus for epitomising the 'Co-op on Wheels' should include the Optare Solo midibuses, or Wright bodied Dennis Darts, similar to older examples seen on most routes within the Tameside area. Buses could either be owned by the franchisee, or the franchising body, where vehicles could be leased to the operator.
Part of a prospective micro franchising tender should include the ability of the franchisee to operate services set by the tenderer, be it the local council, passenger transport executive, or regional assembly. These single fares should be subject to passenger consultation, prior to the initiation of the franchising process.
Again, these should be determined by the franchising body, in a similar fashion to PSR (Passenger Service Requirement) recommendations required of railway franchises. Companies could run a better service than the minimum stipulated, if desired. Service reviews could be subject to public consultation with sufficient notice, with revisions restricted to set times within each year. Ideally, these revisions should be synchronised with the service revisions of other forms of inland public transport, such as heavy rail, trams and express coach services.
Barriers to potential improvements
Post 1980 Housing Estates
Due to changes in social patterns and planning, communities and nearby facilities on newer housing estate are more scattered rather than organised in a clear hierarchial form. This discriminates against the potential for sustainable short distance frequent bus services. Another problem is high levels of car ownership with houses boasting two, or even three vehicles on their abode.
The design of some modern housing developments tend to sprawl, with a fair number of cul-de-sac and meandering routes - which conspires against the creation and nurturing car biased alternatives, including foot, bicycle and bus. Some housing developments also suffer from being too crowded with roads unsuitable for most buses - which has long term implications, should a minibus service see increased patronage, resulting in the use of standard single decker vehicles.
One common headache with such developments are the scarcity of pavements - again favouring the car - and providing another barrier for potential service development.
Though road humps have been a proven success in traffic calming, such measures have had negative implications for the passenger comfort of bus users. They have also been accused of the ruination of bus suspension units. One marked example was First Hampshire's experience in running bendibuses around Southampton, using such roads. The results were two year old bendibuses having similar problems to the twenty year old Leyland Atlanteans they dumped, in the tenth year of their operational life.
This could be one factor which deters car users in such areas from switching to the bus. Unlike the ride quality in a standard hatchback, the vibration of the hump is more marked on the bus, especially older double decker vehicles.
For many people, the cost of public transport defers most potential users. Bus fares have risen by 16% (allowing for inflation) since 1996.
In such cost comparison studies, the figures of car ownership seem to concentrate on road tax, when journeys are calculated. Within this figure, the cost of parking and regional variations in car insurance prices are overlooked. For example, a typical parking space in central Manchester (2006 prices) is £4.00 for an hour. Multiply this by six, that is £24.00 per week - £10.00 more than an all operators System One weekly bus ticket in 2006 prices.
The cost of car mileage per head is reduced further if the full four of five seats are used. On these grounds, a logical idea would be a single family fare, which allows for a discount, if four or five persons travel together on one ticket. In 2002, this was tried by First Manchester, with an evening only group single ticket, the First 4. At present, family tickets are legion on day rover tickets, such as the Peak Wayfarer (which has had a group option since its launch in 1982). Stagecoach in Manchester not only have family day saver tickets, but also parent and child day rovers for single parents.
Extending this scheme, to single fares rather than rover tickets would be ideal for shorter distance journeys. For example, one ticket could cover four passengers (two adults and two children, or one adult and three children), which could comprise of one adult fare and two half fares.
Compared with more glamorous long to medium distance services, shorter distance circular and radial services do not get the credit they deserve. Most exist to provide a vital link with local housing estates to their nearest main shopping centres and community facilities within their town.
The most radical impact on such services occurred in the mid-1980s, when National Bus Company introduced minibuses in Exeter and Hereford, with the emphasis on regular minibuses on local routes rather than infrequent double deckers. This was consolidated in Manchester when the Bee Line Buzz Company competed against GM Buses, with fast frequent yellow and red minibuses, converted from vans. The joy was short lived when Stagecoach took over the The Bee Line Buzz Company in the latter part of 1987 - who sold the business to Drawlane, which later became British Bus, then Cowie Bus and now Arriva. Drawlane ceased operations with the innovative minibus services, by using workaday double deckers, cascaded from London Country. By 1998, the Bee Line name was no more, when Arriva took over from Cowie Bus.
A similar approach to the Bee Line Buzz Company of January 1987 would be effective on today's shorter distance routes, though with Optare Solo minibuses rather than the converted bread vans, which had narrow step entrances.
The 'Co-op on Wheels' plan for boosting scheduled short distance bus services should be seen as part of an integrated transport framework, involving integration with longer distance services, and demand responsive transport. The reason for this tripatriate approach are that: a substantial number of modern housing estates are built with poor pedestrian provision and roads far from ideal for modern bus operation, with sharp curves and cul-de-sacs. The best mode for reducing car dependency on such estates is demand responsive transport. In some cases, subject to infrastructure, local buses could operate on a hail and ride basis, with the main road of the estate accommodating service buses. Effective examples of this operation exists on the 419 service from Stalybridge and Ashton to Middleton, via Chadderton and Mills Hill. Alternatively, some stops could be placed at the junction of the main road and cul-de-sac.
Ideally, all circular and short distance radial routes should be operated using low floor vehicles, to maximise accessibility for pushchairs and similar mobility equipment. The availability of transport information should also be extended to community facilities, such as post offices and community centres. As well as timetables, these should include publicity material concerning fares and service revisions.
Internet marketing campaigns of these services should only concentrate on areas where 90% or more of persons have Internet access. In the long term, this medium could be used to include message boards manned by fellow passengers, with forum subjects or sections specific to each route or area. Company sponsored message boards could be moderated by the company's IT department, computer literate bus drivers, or a passengers' representative.
As well as being able to connect effectively with longer distance services, it is important that circular or short distance radial routes should be frequent. In fact more so, due to the length of journey (for example the 409 (Rochdale - Oldham - Ashton-under-Lyne) service compared with the 333 Hurst Circular). Persons would expect the 409 to experience some delay due to traffic on Oldham Road. Though critical of the service's punctuality and reliability, there is the assurance of the 409 being every seven minutes in the daytime other than Sundays. A delay on the 337 is more marked due to the much reduced frequency of this route (every half hour). If a 337 is missing, this is more soul destroying to a passenger who felt they would have walked from Crowhill to Ashton town centre in less time. In these cases, it is just as easy to walk back home to cancel the shopping trip or to book a taxi from their living room.
When Ashton-under-Lyne's first ASDA store opened on Langham Street in 1972, the store, despite having generous car parking provision was within easy distance of the bus stop for the 9 bus to Oldham and Rochdale (or the addition journeys to Thornham). At this point, the number 10 (Dukinfield, Yew Tree) ran every fifteen minutes, all day, with extra journeys for market days at Ashton.
Thirty four years on, the ASDA store, now on Cavendish Road has seen the forerunners of the number 10 (the daytime 41 and evenings and Sunday 339, 340 services) with a much reduced service, boasting an hourly frequency after 1800 hours, and a daytime half hourly frequency. The car park is three times the size of the previous store's equivalent.
There are now several other superstores within the Tameside area, where the car is King, Queen, Prince, Viscount and Lord rolled into one, with less than attractive locations for bus users. There are now no such thing as extra services for market days. Then there's the other threat to our town centres, online shopping.
Within 34 years, the convenience store, corner shop and traditional market has seen lost market share to the superstore chains. It is no accident to see how this trend coincided with mass car ownership. By the mid 1970s, supermarkets started to favour locations in the outskirts of town. Or they offered out of town locations., by offering food, free parking and petrol in one location. Within that period, bus usage plummeted. In 1972, 520 million journeys were made by bus in the SELNEC area. Recent figures are just under half that, with an estimated 213 million journeys made in 2005.
Mass car ownership has distorted planning laws, to the point road layouts favour the motorist, to the point superstores and businesses have succumbed to greater centralisation. This is an argument which lies outside the remit of this paper.
The convenience bus should endeavour to serve all community facilities effectively including hospitals and high traffic generating private sector developments including superstores and retail parks. Most importantly, it should link the passenger from his or her bus stop close to home with a fast efficient link with the main town centre, at an agreeable price, without a long wait between journeys.