Understanding Buses - second edition published

We've published a second edition of Understanding Buses. Chris explains why and looks at what the book offers.

Since I first joined, the bus industry has changed almost beyond recognition. As I write it is changing again, rapidly and before our very eyes - the onset of Covid-19, the social and economic upheaval its has created and the challenges of decarbonisation and net zero are creating new circumstances and pressures - and new opportunities. Some of these shifts are merely accelerations of trends already being experienced. Others are new, as are the speed and depth of the shifts in our society - probably unprecedented in our peacetime history.

Equally, however, there are many things that are not changing. The over-arching need for quality and reliability, for instance; the need to promote products and services stylishly and well; the need to listen to, understand and deliver for customers.

Also unchanging is the framework of the economic, financial and human constraints within which the industry works. It seems to me that an understanding of that framework and its constraints is essential for planners, policymakers and other stakeholders. It is that framework that I was seeking to explain when I wrote the first edition of Understanding Buses three years ago.

Over the years I have tried in books, reports and articles, to communicate to audiences of non-specialists how - as if in a jigsaw - there are a huge number of influences over the industry - which all inter-related and happen against the background of the financial realities of trying to run a successful bus operation. These challenges are not about regulation or ownership, but about how to deliver successful and sustainable bus services to the millions and millions of people who rely on them every day.

Earlier this year, I decided to produce a second edition, for three reasons: firstly, to update some of the data contained in the charts and tables; secondly, to reflect some of the important changes in costs that have taken place since the original was prepared three years ago; and thirdly to incorporate some analysis of the likely effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the industry.

Much of the text remains unaltered from the first edition. This is deliberate, since much of the book is about the principles that underlie how the industry works and the best practice that is adopted in putting them into effect. The data used in the worked examples and other analysis has been updated - most figures are now from the 2018/19 financial year, which will be the last genuinely “Covid-free” period. It will thus come to be regarded as the last year of the old regime, and also the base from which future trends are likely to be judged.

This book is designed to take that message a stage further, but to do so in a clear, non-technical way something which, I am pleased to say, readers praised about the first edition. There are no long tables of figures, there's no jargon, but a series of easy-to-read charts and worked examples to explain how the industry works.

In the chapters, I examine:

  • The costs of operation – what the components are and what drives them, particularly understanding the crucial importance of speed and predictability
  • The revenue earned – how much is needed to enable operators to meet their three key objectives
    • to cover their costs
    • to meet their financial obligations
    • to invest in the future
  • The need for profit – why operators need to make a surplus and what they do with it
  • The principal drivers of demand for bus services
  • The bus product – its various attributes and why they are important
  • The competitive environment in which the industry operates
  • The customer interface – researching, listening and communicating with bus users
  • Trends in fares and ticketing
  • Public spending on buses
  • The future

The vagaries of shifting political priorities, the complexities of public policy-making and the under-current of evolving customer attitudes and desires are all grist to the mill to bus industry managers: as I have often remarked before, especially looking back over my 48½ years in and around the business, change is what the bus industry does.

In the end, though, there are some realities that don’t change – and the biggest of all is that somewhere, somehow, the industry has to earn enough revenue to cover its costs – both of operation and of its capital. If not, the buses will not be able to run, whoever owns them.

I hope that the new edition of Understanding Buses contributes to everybody’s understanding of the realities of running the sort of quality bus services we all want and need.

Understanding Buses 2nd Edition is available now, as a paperback book or an e-book. It is available directly from our online shop, or via Amazon and other booksellers.

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