This blog started life as a series of posts on my canal boating blog Narrowboat Starcross and was intended to help other boaters unravel the mystery that is the UK's bus system. For that reason many of the examples given relate to places known to boaters but which may strike other readers as obscure. Boaters, like many people, are reasonably happy when it comes to using trains and I dare say that they'd be equally happy to get on a plane and fly to the other end of the planet - so why do they and so many other people people find it so difficult to use the bus to go a few miles down the road?
This blog examines some of the reasons why people find bus travel so difficult and offers some assistance, but you can cut quickly to those questions that interest you by following the links in the right-hand sidebar.
Why so difficult?
Fundamentally, it's because buses are local - in concept and in organisation. The railways, despite fragmentation of ownership of the trains, still operate as a national network. You can still buy a ticket from anywhere to anywhere else that you can use on any train (although this may not be the cheapest option). There is one single telephone number and one website that can tell you all you need to know about where the trains go and what it will cost you.
The motorist has the benefit of a single national system of road numbering, even though he or she may not realise it, and maps produced by different publishers all follow the same basic approach and presentation of the network. If road numbers and maps are not enough there is a standard national system of signposting and road marking - all of which is provided at no cost at the point of use.
The bus user however, has none of this. Despite a concentration of ownership into several large groupings, buses are still organised on a local basis and each bus operator produces information in it's own unique way. There are even some bus companies that still insist on using the 12-hour clock, nearly 50 years after the 24-hour system was supposedly adopted as standard! Because of deregulation and competition, bus companies would rather not tell you about other operators' services, even when they complement - rather than compete with - their own. Services are marketed on an individual rather than a network basis, which makes it difficult even for regular users to find out about buses they wouldn't normally use and there is a perception that the network is unstable, with frequent changes to routes and times, much more so than is really the case. I sometimes refer to buses as "the secret service" : they go about their job - doing it well in most cases - and catering for their regular passengers' needs but exist in a closed world where outsiders can feel unwelcome. But if you can actually break through the information barrier you'll find that for the sort of journeys buses cater for they are actually very good. On the whole they are reliable, much more so than trains, and once you've got the knack, quite easy to use. I realise that for some there is a stigma about bus use. Margaret Thatcher is alleged to have said that any man over the age of 30 seen on a bus is a failure in life, although there is no evidence she ever did so and a similar quote was attributed to the Duchess of Westminster a hundred and fifty years earlier! Yes, most people on the bus are only using it because they have no alternative and that means they are predominantly old, young or poor. But don't worry - they won't hold your position in society against you and they'll happily share their knowledge with you and help you out if you get into difficulty along the way.
I shall assume that readers have internet access but also that such access may not be available to them at all times, particularly whilst travelling. There are some instances, particularly when we get to where the bus stops are, where smartphones are invaluable, but on the whole it's perfectly possible to manage without them as people always used to.