Bus at the Heart of the Nation

Bus at the Heart of the Nation

Buses have been an integral part of Scottish life for over a century, says Chris Cheek, adapting to huge changes in all our lives, retaining their relevance for the 21st Century

For more than a century now, the bus has been embedded in the life of the nation – forming an essential means of transport for millions of people. Buses have transported people to and from school and college, to the shipyards, mines and factories of industrial Scotland, to shops and offices in our towns and city centres and to a whole raft of leisure activities – from football matches at Hampden, the rugby at Murrayfield to parks and gardens, museums and to Scotland’s spectacular countryside.

Buses often figure in historic films and photos – whether it’s evacuating kids from our big cities in wartime, enduring the blitz on our cities or catering for huge movements of people – for work, trips to the seaside or sporting events.

Indeed, such was the importance of the bus that in the early post war years, more than 40 per cent of all journeys were taken by bus and coach. That proportion has, of course, fallen since – especially with the onward march of the private car. Throughout my life, most people have seen that as a good thing – a sign of prosperity, an enabler of a better life and a means of expanding personal freedom.

Indeed, the growth of car ownership has prompted and enabled a fourfold increase in demand for local transport since the 1950s. However, we have become more wary of late of a means of transport that chokes our streets and poisons our air – even if we feel that somebody else should reduce their car use before we ourselves do.

As with everything else in our lives, change in the bus industry have been rapid. We’ve moved from the immediate post-war standard of buses with engines at the front and doors at the back to today’s sleek modern electric vehicles that glide quietly along without emissions, packed with all sorts of technology including power steering, electronic ticket machines that take contactless payments, and automatic vehicle location systems.

Famous brand names amongst the operators have come and gone. Council-owned tramway undertakings in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow made the transition to buses in the 1940s and 1950s. Come the 1970s, they were regionalised as Grampian, Tayside, Lothian and Strathclyde, before all bar one were sold off in the eighties and nineties.

The giants of the past such as Scottish Motor Traction (SMT), Scottish Bus Group and Walter Alexander were replaced by the likes of Stagecoach and FirstBus. Now the groups are in retreat as well, with FirstBus and National Express both selling businesses of late to the long-established West Scotland company, McGills. A host of other smaller operators continue to serve their local communities, too – though their number has diminished of late in the face of economic pressures, cuts in government funding and of course Covid.

Looking back over the century – and indeed just over the last quarter century – makes you realise just how many changes there have been in our lives. The nature of employment has changed, for instance, with far fewer big factories employing thousands of people all on one site. Jobs are more spread out, with much more diverse travel to work patterns and varied start and finish times.

We shop differently, often preferring out-of-town retail parks to our town and city centres – or, increasingly, staying at home and shopping online. Financial transactions have moved online too, resulting in the closure of bank and building society branches in our towns, whilst we’re also moving to an era of online medical consultations.

These profound alterations in the way we live have also affected the demand for bus travel – mostly acting to reduce it. Going by car, travelling less often because of the internet, going to different destinations as the mood takes us – all take their toll on the level of bus patronage. And, to be frank, there’s not a lot that operators or policymakers can do about that. All demand for transport is derived: people do not travel for the sake of it – but as a means to an end, whether for work, school or college, shopping or just going to see granny on a Saturday afternoon. If people stop doing those things, or do them less often, then demand for transport will fall.

The other point to remember is that buses – and indeed all public transport modes – are good at corridors: they transport large numbers of people along major routes to big destinations like town and city centres or other major attractions. However, modern transport demand tends to be much more diverse – going to this shop, that retail park on the edge of town or the new industrial park on the ring road.

Despite all these changes, bus remains the most popular type of public transport in Scotland, carrying around 400 million passengers a year pre-Covid, four times the number that go by train. A quarter of a million people rely on bus to get to and from work1 and 185,000 of our children use buses to get to and from school or college every day2.

Later, it’s their route to training and employment opportunities – aiding social mobility and helping to build the fairer, greener society that we all want – and it’s now free for everybody under the age of 22. The bus remains a lifeline for those who don’t own a car (27.6% of the population across Scotland, but rising to over 40% in some areas).

Research3 has shown that the bus travel with the concession pass helps elderly and disabled people in several key ways: helping to maintain contact with friends and family; reducing isolation with more opportunities for inter-action; reducing loneliness and helping to reduce the impact of having to give up driving; and to be active and remain independent for longer – delivering huge benefits to society, estimated by some to be £2.90 for every £1 spent4.

Best of all, bus is environmentally friendly – even in its diesel form where the Euro VI standard delivers huge reductions in harmful emissions, to the extent that some are almost undetectable. Increasingly, though, we are moving into the era of the zero-emission bus – driven by smooth and almost silent electric motors powered by on-board batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. As well as reducing emissions, these new buses are quiet and comfortable – truly delivering a step change in the travel experience, reducing stress for everybody.

Bus has never been easier to use, either – timetable and next bus information available in real-time through a touch on your smartphone and with payment systems that accept contactless cards and increasingly offer a cap mechanism that ensures you get the best value travel for the day or the week.

Want to know more? Look out for our teams out and about on the streets during Scottish Bus Week or visit the LoveMyBus website. Or just go out and try your local bus. You’ll find zero-emission buses on the streets of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, but also now in Ayrshire, Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Inverclyde, Inverness, Perth and Renfrewshire – with more to come this year.

Despite everything, bus is truly still at the heart of the Scottish nation in the third decade of the 21st century – why not put it at the heart of your life too?

  1. ONS Labour Force Survey 2019
  2. 17% of children use dedicated school buses and 4% service buses, according to the Scottish Household Survey 2020. Total population aged 4-18 in 2020 = 879,461 ONS Mid-Year Estimates.
  3. The Future of Transport in an Ageing Society, AgeUK. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/
  4. Bus 2020: The Case for the Bus Pass. https://greenerjourneys.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/6-1.pdf