Chris Cheek reflects on the role and development of the UK Bus Awards in the context of the industry's wider role in modern society
Ask most foreigners what symbols stand out about their vision of Britain, and one of many answers you’ll get is the double decker bus.
It is more than a century since London General’s B-type went into production and became the first truly mass–produced, reliable, red double-deck motorbus. Its modern successors have changed shape a bit in the intervening decades (most spectacularly with the new design for London) – but the concept of the double decker bus has become part of British identity and in many ways remains at the heart of our national life.
And the images remain – whether it’s those same B-types transporting troops in France during the First World War, the rapidly developing designs of the 1930s, the vital role that buses played in the traumas of the blitz or the iconic 1950s designs such as the AEC Regent, the Leyland Titan and the Routemaster.
These days, though many fewer journeys are made on our bus services compared with their post-war heyday, the bus nevertheless remains the most widely used form of public transport in the UK. That means over 5 billion passenger journeys a year (around five times the number made by train) – and it represents an average of nearly 90 journeys a year for every man, woman and child in the country.
That figure is, of course, higher in some parts of the country than others, with an average of 277 bus trips per person taken every year in London, 100 or so in the other major cities, and around 100 in Scotland. Even in rural areas, the figure is still around 40.
Such has been the growth in overall demand for travel, though, that the bus accounts for just 6% of all journeys. However, there are some types of trip for which it has a much bigger market share. Buses account for over 16% of the distance travelled to and from school and college, for example, and up to 30% of shopping trips to town and city centres.
The bus continues to play a major role in getting people to and from work as well - particularly in our larger towns and cities. Government statistics show that between 12 and 15% of workers in our major cities still commute by bus – that’s in places like London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds.
And buses and coaches are still one of the safest modes of travel - Government figures suggest that you’re almost four times less likely to be killed or seriously injured in a bus or coach than a car.
Apart from anything else, there are still large numbers of people without cars - either by force of circumstances, or - increasingly - by choice. In 2008, 25% of households were still without a car - and this figure rises to over 40% in the London boroughs and other metropolitan areas.
So, as we embark on the second decade of 21st century, buses continue to be central to the lives of millions of people, every day. But what of the future in this age of austerity? Is the industry to have a role as we go forward, or just wither on the vine?
Still a vital role to play
It has become generally accepted that we cannot accommodate unfettered growth in motoring in our urban areas – cars may get cleaner and greener, but they’re still large lumps of metal taking up, and ultimately clogging up, scarce road space.
So, a higher proportion of local travel needs to be made by public transport, and the bus offers the speediest and - in the short term at least – most cost effective means by which this can be achieved.
Over the last decade, we have seen in London how bus services can quickly and efficiently take the strain of growing demand for passenger transport: numbers of trips in the capital have grown by more than half and the industry has coped, providing substantial numbers of extra vehicles - and recruiting, training and deploying the drivers to get them out on the road. Increasingly, other cities such as Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, York and Edinburgh have delivered substantial growth in bus demand on the back of pro-bus policies and strong partnerships.
Whatever our urgings, people will make their own choices about the mode of transport they use. These decisions will be based on a range of factors, including price, quality and length of time. Our task in the industry is to ensure that all these aspects of the bus journey are the best that we can possibly deliver.
But of course, bus operators cannot do all this alone: they are not in control of such matters as traffic congestion, or in most cases vital roadside infrastructure such as stops, shelters and bus stations.
That is why the industry and Government place such emphasis on partnerships. These provide a framework in which all parties can work together to drive up the quality of the bus product, providing a true ‘step change’ in provision; at the same time, we need to even the playing field, ensuring that the true cost of driving is reflected in the decisions that drivers make.
This means that a whole range of different activities need to come together in order to produce the optimum outcome in terms of passenger growth - and effective promotion is at the heart of them.
And that’s where the UK Bus Awards come in.
The need for a scheme to both reward and encourage good practice amongst bus operators and local transport authorities was recognised some 20 years ago, when the Association of Metropolitan Authorities launched the Bus Good Practice Awards.
The UK Bus Awards scheme builds on that foundation, and dates from a meeting in December 1995, attended by representatives of the industry, CPT, LGA and potential sponsors. That led to the formation of a Management Committee, and the launch of the awards in their present form – known as the Bus Industry Awards from 1996 until 2004. In 1996, there were six awards, presented before an audience of some 200 people at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall in the City of London. This year, we are presenting 22 awards.
The committee set objectives for the Scheme which, they believed, reflected the needs of the industry (see panel). These remain at the heart of what are trying to do, even fifteen years later, and we can judge to what degree have these objectives been achieved.
UK Bus Awards objectives
The objectives were established by the Management Committee in 1995, and are regularly reviewed. They are:
- To provide opportunity for positive coverage of bus transport in the media at local, regional and national level.
- To provide incentives to bus company managements and staff, local authorities and industry suppliers to adopt good practice in their businesses.
- To provide a forum in which best practice can receive wider coverage within the industry.
In the first category, the Committee has ensured from the start that media promotion of the award finalists and winners has had a high priority. Indeed, this item has consistently taken up something like a third of the scheme’s total budget.
As our first chairman Barry Moore put it, “It would be very nice to have a good lunch once a year and all pat each other on the back. But if that was all we achieved, then we’d be wasting our time.”
In fact, the Awards have received growing media coverage, with strong interest right from the start, and this has gone from strength to strength. A live slot was achieved on peak time television in 2007 on BBC1’s The One Show, and 2009 saw over 30 local radio broadcasts about the awards, together with five regional television slots as well.
The awards have been on the internet since 1999, and over the last three years, the number of hits on our site has increased by over 50%. Over 1½ million have been received in the last twelve months – and the average number of pages per visit remains well above three, suggesting that the site is really getting its message across.
At the same time, feedback from participants has continually shown that the recognition achieved by being a winner or a finalist is a positive force amongst staff, the public and - crucially - amongst decision-makers.
Spreading the Word
The last objective, getting an exchange of ideas about successful projects between authorities and operators around the country, is also coming on. It is one of the key objectives of this Souvenir Brochure, and the Committee has worked hard to develop other methods too.
First comes the UK Bus Awards Annual Conference, first launched in 2004 and held for the eighth successive year in Nottingham in September 2011. These events have established a reputation for high quality speakers, excellent programmes and good venues – but above all for value for money. Thanks to sponsorship from The TAS Partnership, we have been able to offer places at reduced prices for the young managers in the industry for the last two years – an offer that has been accepted enthusiastically.
On our web site and at our events, we have made increasing use of new media, such as video, photo galleries and more recently social media such as Facebook.
We have specially made films introducing our events every year – and other material such as Adventures in Motion, the 10-minute film about the history of the awards we made in 2007. Since then, our short-list announcement has also been made by way of a video presentation, which is then immediately made available on the web site – another valuable way of getting the quality message across to a wider audience.
Our photography archive has grown, and is also being rolled out on the web site.
Widening the Scope
As the awards have developed, we have been able to widen the scope of the awards, from the initial focus primarily on the technical, managerial and planning aspects of the business.
Increasingly, we have been able to focus on industry people and front line staff: our Award for Services to the Industry was first introduced in year 3, 1999, and was followed in 2002 by our Bus Employee of the Year award, which has evolved into the Chris Moyes Memorial Award we now present to the person adjudged to be Top National Bus Driver.
Our award for Young Manager followed in 2007 and for Engineer of the Year in 2009. In 2010, we added the Unsung Heroes Award, designed for junior and middle management staff who perform exceptional service in keeping our services moving.
As with many industries, team work is essential and we have been reflecting this over the last decade as well – this year’s competition for the TfL Surface Transport Award for London Bus Garage of the Year is the tenth. Feedback over the years has convinced us of the value of our awards for front line staff, and this year we’ve been able to extend the concept to the rest of the country, with excellent results: the nominations for our first ever competition for the Top National Bus Depot were prolific and of a very high standard.
In 2011, we revamped the technical and professional categories to take account of the latest trends and developments, introducing new categories Making Buses a Better Choice, Putting Passengers First and Marketing Excellence, in lieu of the Bus in the Countryside, Infrastructure and Winning New Customers awards. We introduced our special top national bus driver web site, too, and were delighted with the public response.
Independently judged, tested for the customer experience
We’ve been aware from the start that an independent and transparent judging process is central to a successful awards scheme, and set out to recruit leading experts from amongst retired managers and local transport authority staff, from academics and from consumer bodies such as Campaign for Better Transport (formerly Transport 2000), Bus Users UK and more recently Passenger Focus.
Central to the judging process, too, has been the desire to test the customer experience: ever since year two back in 1998, finalists in our operating categories have been subject to a “mystery traveller” check – a carefully calibrated system in which over 50 different aspects of an individual journey are assessed - from the driver’s manner and appearance to the cleanliness of the seats and the windows.
The ‘mystery traveller’ concept has been extended to cover our Top National Depot and Top National Driver awards as well – and the marking system we use takes full account of the mystery traveller scores: it can, does and has changed results and determined both the winners and the runners up of more than one competition over the 14 years since we started to use the concept.
In 2011, we reviewed and updated our Mystery Traveller checks to make sure that they truly take account of current circumstances - and our grateful thanks go to Alan Hill of ATCO and Stephen Morris and Julian Osborne of Bus Users UK for their help and advice in devising the changes. And we've updated and modernised our web site once more - ensuring that our huge numbers of visitors from all round the world have the best possible experience of the site.
At UK Bus Awards, we’re convinced that one of the reasons we’re still around after 17 years is our willingness to evolve, change and question everything we do. We’re committed to a regular reviews every winter, taking account of the constantly changing circumstances in the industry.
An annual Stakeholders’ Meeting is held in January to get feedback on how we’re doing, and comments and feedback by e-mail or via the web site are always welcomed, acknowledged and fed into the Management Committee’s deliberations.
Overall, then, we have an industry that, despite its problems, provides a key mode of transport for millions of people, every day. The task over the next ten years is to make the bus the mode of choice for millions more.
We believe that the UK Bus Awards has a continuing role to play in achieving that task – recognising and rewarding excellence in a whole variety of disciplines and hopefully bringing a blit of glamour into everybody’s life in the process. We really do feel that this work inspires others to follow the examples set by our winners and finalists. And that way the whole industry becomes a winner!