Time for public transport companies to take the bus


OPINION: The Dublin Bus strategy of cutting services to reduce its losses is unlikely to work

ATTRACTING CUSTOMERS to public transport and in particular bus services is not easy. Once public transport operators have built up a base of loyal customers, every effort needs to be made to retain them by communicating with them, measuring what they want and improving services. This helps maintain revenues and will more than likely increase customer numbers, because happy customers spread the word.

When someone decides to use public transport, the service on offer must fit extremely well with their life demands (otherwise they will use their car) and they will be highly sensitive to changes in levels of service. It is well documented that if a customer stops using public transport for reasons of service quality, the customer rarely returns.

The recent announcement by Irish public bus companies of plans to cut bus services is a worrying development for a number of reasons. It is more likely to turn existing customers away, and poorer service will undermine attempts to attract new customers, exacerbating the current loss-making situation.

Little detail on the reasons for the current losses has been made public. It is suggested that they are a result of the recession and, notably, because of lower numbers of non-nationals remaining in the country. While this may be true, one question it does raise is whether some level of complacency crept in during the boom years in terms of growing the passenger base beyond the cohorts of the population who do not own a car. In any case, the fact that bus companies are not attracting sufficient customers to maintain enough revenue is worthy of further scrutiny, particularly regarding the relationships they develop with customers.

Measuring and reporting performance is a common enough strategy for companies wishing to maintain and increase customer numbers. So how do the Irish public bus companies do it? On the Dublin Bus website, an example of performance measurement is presented. One of the variables measured is “the number of buses that depart from the terminus not more than 5 minutes late” and it is reported that close to 90 per cent of departures fall into this category. They interpret this as a positive result and therefore indicative of good performance.

Let us now look at how a customer perceives the same result. Anyone who waits at a bus stop for five minutes after a bus is supposed to arrive considers it “to be late by five minutes”. The customer views this as “a negative result”, making them reflect badly on the service.

This large divergence in perception between the bus operator and customer is not only a problem in Ireland. In other countries across Europe, public transport operators noted these problems much earlier and have developed monitoring and measurement techniques using customer-oriented yet objectively measurable indicators. The process of defining service targets is described, using a framework that emphasises extreme values and specification of both a base level (what 80-90 per cent of passengers can expect) and a level of unacceptability (extreme situations) which demand immediate action.

Going back to the example of performance presented earlier, it is interesting to note that in other countries, measurement of reliability is done not only at termini but also at bus stops – and the number of passengers delayed, as opposed to the lateness of vehicles, is measured and published.

One example of a service target elsewhere is that 80 per cent of passengers are served in an on-time window of zero to three minutes late. Such service targets are built into contracts, and failing to meet them can result in financial penalties for the companies.

Interestingly, on routes on which congestion is a problem (something cited regularly by Irish public bus firms as the cause of service unreliability), bus firms elsewhere tackle it head on and are much less defeatist about it. They measure in detail and over lengthy periods the level of reliability which they can provide on congested routes, and recalibrate timetables so the times they put down are the times at which they know they can get a bus to a certain point for customers.

In summary, strategies used by bus companies elsewhere centre around three key principles “measure, communicate and improve”, followed by “measure again, communicate again and improve again”. The cycle is designed to encourage public transport companies to aspire to continual improvement, usually by providing incentives to managers. This, in turn, raises the expectations of customers, leading to better refined and higher quality targets – and ultimately happier customers.

Margaret O’Mahony is professor of civil engineering, bursar and director of the centre for transport research at Trinity College Dublin