The Joy & Despair of Commuting By Bus

Dear reader, you may have noticed, having read many of my previous articles, that I am very much in favour of railways. And there are many good reasons for this, from the sheer economy that comes with steel wheels running on a steel rail, to the incredible safety record of Britain’s railways. However, in some circumstances, one must leave the steel ribbon behind and use a bus, on a road of tarmac.

Firstly, I would like to clarify that I am not talking about coaches here. If you do want to see my take on coaches, see this article on Megabus. Buses differ substantially, and tend to be used on much shorter trips, and thus end up with many commuters on them, notably in cities. They are also, unfortunately, a fair amount slower by virtue of the sort of roads they travel on, than the aforementioned coaches.

The operator of choice in this case is National Express West Midlands, who run the majority of the buses in Birmingham (there is some confusion as they do not run coaches, unlike the parent company, National Express). NEWM (as I shall now refer to them) seem a rather confused company at first glance, since they do not seem to be able to decide on a livery.

Many of their buses are in an older livery, with a sort of red triangle on the front third of the bus, and white over the rest, save the windows which occasionally get a black band around them. Other markings, for particular routes (and their virtues) do make an appearance on some buses. This is a poor choice of colour scheme since the white shows road dirt, rather than the paintwork, off, and colours one’s perception before even stepping aboard. The route markings are a neat idea, but fail to disguise the fact that most of the bus is very plain, at least to look at.

Some are in a newer crimson livery; a much more pleasing result. A slightly darker shade of red adorns the section of the bus below the windows, and hides dirt much better. The pattern is a far more modern “swoosh” at the front (hard to explain unless you’ve seen it yourself) and the overall appearance is that bit nicer. Not that I have seen many of these in my neck of the woods, but it’s nice to know they exist.

The best, however, I have saved for last. In the same pattern as the crimson buses, the “Platinum” buses have two-tone dark grey exteriors, which would run the risk of being bland, except for the large, eye catching advertisements for the buses on the sides, applied directly to the paintwork (though I suspect they are stickers). It is interesting that NEWM really do like to shout about themselves a lot more than the trains do – then again, the trains have no shortage of passengers, but I digress.

Waiting for the bus is a far less predictable experience than waiting for a train. It is far easier to run trains at regular intervals because timetable planners for the stopping trains already know when faster trains are going to be where, and so can fit their trains around them. Road traffic is a far harsher mistress – the traffic does not run to a timetable, and this has the sadly inevitable result that even though you might dispatch the buses at intervals, they tend to bunch up and get stuck. The result is the familiar “wait ages for a bus, then 2 come along at once” phenomenon, at least on weekday mornings. This is in spite of the promised 10 minute frequency.

That said, when the bus does eventually arrive, things begin to improve. Like the local trains, one has the option to use a smartcard. In Birmingham, these are called “Swift” cards. Mine is handy since I’ve got an unlimited bus travel one, that works out as almost ludicrously cheap per day, and makes life much quicker when you get on. Even if one doesn’t have a card, the ticketing system (almost) couldn’t be simpler – £1.50 for a short hop, £2.40 for a slightly longer single, £4.60 for a day ticket (valid on all their buses). One can even use one’s contactless bank card to avoid coins (interestingly, NEWM do not give change, there is just a slot to put your money in when you ask for a ticket).

How things go from here really depends which sort of bus one finds oneself on. If you have the older red and white ones, the interior greets you with cold indifference – the seat fabric is an unappealing series of grey dots on a grey-er background of dark, dull grey, the interior scheme doesn’t really match and one gets the impression that the appearance to passengers was quietly forgotten at some point during the design stage.

However, if you find yourself on a Platinum bus (the big grey ones) you are greeted far more warmly. Seats have a nice pattern of red dots on grey, with leather headrests and much more legroom than you would expect from a bus (good work, designers). The USB power sockets are a nice touch, and their little blue lights match the uplighting on the stairway glass. Sitting down, the seats are at least as comfortable as they look, and the whole interior “fits” together much better. It even looks quite classy. This standard of interior design is unfortunately becoming rarer on the railways, where price for the leasing company, operator, or the Department for Transport seems to be the biggest consideration, not, as one would hope, passenger comfort.

The aforementioned joy of commuting by bus is having the comfortable seat, and the commanding top deck position, while kicking back, reading today’s Metro and generally relaxing on one’s way. This situation is improved enormously if there is no traffic and no annoying school children (of course, un-annoying school children are allowed). If one can get the left hand front seats to oneself (the right-hand ones have no leather headrests, much to my chagrin) one looks out through tinted glass and can enjoy one of the best views of Birmingham it is possible to get (though of course what you make of Birmingham is up to you).

Perhaps here the Metro itself deserves a mention. I am assuming most people are aware of this free newspaper; after all, most railway stations have a container for these things, at least outside London, and buses (even the thoroughly mediocre Centrebus) have containers for them. In London, one can have both the Metro and the Evening Standard, but I digress. The Metro has to cater for everyone using public transport; a difficult task further complicated by the constraint of the paper’s low cost. I do believe, however, that the final paper is a perfectly acceptable rag, with most of the pointless bickering and gossip of the tabloids filtered out and some reasonably well put together actual news stories. Don’t expect any long reads or proper investigative journalism, but as a morning briefing, you could do far worse. And if you were driving you wouldn’t get any sort of free paper, nor would you be able to read it while travelling, so there is that advantage.

The time now comes for me to tell you, dear readers, about the downsides to commuting by bus, the aforementioned despair. First off, the traffic creates not only the problem of buses bunching up, but it also means that getting anywhere becomes a very slow process. Crawling along in traffic is never fun, and lengthens the door to door travel time enormously, in some cases to the point where it is actually quicker to walk (I am told that in London the problem is so bad that in the majority of cases, walking is quicker).

On the subject of other modes of transport being quicker, a friend and I decided to compare bus with train, with a very direct comparison of going form one point to another, with neither being a station for either mode. Now, this isn’t as daft an idea as it sounds – although the trains are much quicker, they are a bit less regular, at least in theory, and if the bus could get a good run through the traffic, there was some potential for me to win this race. I didn’t. Even in (almost) ideal conditions, when I got on a bus straight away, and the traffic was relatively light, and then I ran in a rather undignified fashion through the charming streets of Birmingham, my friend still beat me comfortably by a few minutes. Repeating the experiment provided the same result.

Much like trains, buses also get crowded in the morning and evening peak. I have concluded that, in order to be really comfortable on the bus, one needs to be on a bus before 0800, or preferably at about 0730. This is before the traffic has really got going, before most school children have arrived and before most people can be bothered, at least in Birmingham. This creates the rather obvious problem of a rush to get up, dressed, have breakfast (the most important meal of the day, as I am quite sure no-one has ever condescendingly told you), clean one’s teeth and pack one’s bag, in order to be at the bus stop in reasonable time. I personally see it as worth it for a quiet bus and an almost guaranteed copy of the Metro, but I can see how it *might* be a disadvantage for some.

Alas, after that 1,521 word tirade, we must come to an end, and press the proverbial stop bell, waiting to get off the article, thanking the driver as we go by. And out we go, onto the rest of the wide, wide internet (hopefully to spread the word about this article). It only remains for me to thank you for reading, and politely remind you to keep your feet off the seats.

— Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels —







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