Maps are in decline and where they do exist they are hidden or diluted in value, but they are a great way to communicate our offer
Maps like this one, created by Best Impressions, open up our eyes to opportunities
Try as I might, I struggle to find a sector where companies don’t view the size and variety of their proposition as a real differentiator. It’s like going into a McDonald’s and asking for a Big Mac but not being told that fries are also on offer, or booking a holiday with Virgin to Barbados and not knowing they fly elsewhere across the globe. Imagine having absolutely no clue whatsoever of where you sit on your family tree or who your relatives are?
Where is all this mumbo-jumbo taking us? Well, have any of you noticed how the concept of the network map is in decline? It’s been a demise that has been accelerated by the transport industry’s obsession with the abolition of leaflets, as though they are synonymous with an era that we’re almost embarrassed we ever lived through. Only old fuddy-duddies care for leaflets these days, those dinosaurs on borrowed time, who still hanker after things called Travel Shops where they could go and find out all the great destinations travelled to by bus and be treated with care and gratitude for their custom. Winners have apps, losers look for leaflets. And, as we know, leaflets and maps are compatible bedfellows, the former giving the latter a stage to extol their virtues. The more prominent the map, the greater the value of the leaflet.
I have become increasingly alarmed at the extent to which transport companies and authorities have shied away from displaying maps
I have become increasingly alarmed at the extent to which transport companies and authorities have shied away from displaying maps. It isn’t just a paper thing. Online and out on their networks too, as well as in the places they serve, you are hard pushed to find a map. The folly of all this is that the map is the brochure that showcases all their wares, stirs the imagination with aesthetic appeal and stimulates reasons to travel, inspiring customers to venture out more frequently as well as encouraging new folk to get on-board. A network map is the biggest weapon that public transport has against the car, and it is ammunition to unlock social mobility among those who might be inclined to stay at home. It’s also a great marketing tool to distribute at attractions, tourist offices, businesses, shops, and others, so that they can spread the word.
Many marketing managers are so immersed in the digital game, so over-obsessed with social media as the panacea to all the challenges of getting bums on seats, that they can lose sight of something proven over generations to have been a crucial force in driving transport usage. The problem currently is that online, at least, websites are fixated with ‘A to B’ type searches, which, to an extent, is somewhat laudable because, after all, the simplicity of being able to type in where you want to travel to, from when and at whatever day and time is really great. However, by only having visibility of the journey you might wish to make, in isolation of the wider network, you miss out on so much, such as an understanding of how today’s journey could be the gateway for another to a further and different destination next time round. Simple stuff too, such as finding out through looking at a map that the bus or train also serves where your mates or family members live, and you can tell them about their public transport options.
A map also enables you more helpfully to plan an itinerary for a day out, short break or a circular trip. Not everyone wants to or even benefits from just doing an A to B trip. Communities suffer too from this lack of showcasing the transport network in the map – the leisure attraction en route or on the way back, or a few miles further, maybe one change only, will be oblivious and invisible to anyone who is only on their ‘A to B’ journey search.
I reflect often on how the London Connections map (which thankfully is still very prominent) made me so aware of different parts of London when I was growing up and imbued in me knowledge to last a lifetime
I reflect often on how the London Connections map (which thankfully is still very prominent) made me so aware of different parts of London when I was growing up and imbued in me knowledge to last a lifetime, in a way that had I only been tapping in ‘Orpington to London’ on a timetable, I’d never have experienced. The map puts places in the wider public’s consciousness where they may have otherwise existed in obscurity, hidden from a regional or national audience.
Maps are really in decline and where they do exist, they are hidden or diluted in value. I spent last weekend on a fantastically integrated and well-run UK transport network with a mass of routes from a variety of modes and saw only one map the entire trip. What an opportunity missed to brag about the scale and diversity of their network, it was so good that the car would have quivered!
It’s rare these days to see a network map proudly displayed at a station or bus stop, let alone as vinyl displays in town centres. Online, the situation is often worse and a map, if it appears, is concealed almost as far down the priority order as FAQs. Where transport companies present a map, it is almost always on a small scale, by town or city and never showing how all the individual maps integrate. It’s as though they are embarrassed by their geographical reach. To try and understand whether there are journeys that transcend each map and connect with each other is like doing a jigsaw puzzle.
I also think there has been a deliberate attempt by those in power to hasten the extinction of maps by ensuring they are presented alongside timetables in bus stops either lopsided or in the most tatty and neglected way. Position it badly, make it hard to read and ensure the paper is damp, peeling and faded and then the map will become an object of derision, and everyone will welcome its demise. It’s a conspiracy really.
I wonder if the decline in network maps – those works of beauty that show buses, trains, trams, maybe even ferries, on one page – have been in retreat because it’s too much hard work for someone to undertake. Or dare I say it, the work of putting a map of this scale together generally rested with a transport nut in the organisation, someone that lived and breathed routes, timetables and networks. This lot have been long on the way out, unfashionable folk who the top dogs have systematically, over the years, tried to encourage out the door because they’ve seen as nerdy eccentrics, like me.
It’s all so short-sighted because a map is also a lovely, ideal canvass for important stuff like attractions – yes, indeed, the reason why people might want to travel, a reason to get them on-board
It’s all so short-sighted because a map is also a lovely, ideal canvass for important stuff like attractions – yes, indeed, the reason why people might want to travel, a reason to get them on-board. It’s really not rocket science but there can be few things simpler and more compelling to make a journey than seeing on a map that the place you want to visit is served by public transport and if you can’t get there directly, there’s an easy connection or change to make it possible.
Laziness extends beyond the marketing department to the dear customer. In this era of satnavs and Google Maps, we’ve become bereft of thinking for ourselves. Today’s bot-like youth won’t train their eyes to read a timetable, let alone a map, they’ll just digest what they’re told and follow automated instructions. In doing so, they will miss out on the bigger picture, of perusing what might be in the vicinity to make their journey experience even better.
Maps on-board also serve as an important tool for customers and are helpful when there are no audio on-board announcements or information screens. They are also a great opportunity to create a more branded inspiring experience with route maps designed to reflect individual or the company brand. So often, I see empty frames or blank coves which could be impactfully filled with a branded map.
This desire to demonise maps is incongruous with the marketer’s fixation with simplicity. Being able to tap in ‘A to B’ to discover journey information in a very binary way as though it is the ultimate in simplicity and doing the thinking for the customer, is all very good, but when it comes to other key elements of information provision, they seem surprisingly reticent. You would think that, as a restaurant displays its menu on its front-door, all buses would display headline fares and indeed frequencies on their vehicle exteriors or at stops – but it’s still hit and miss. Even the £2 fares offer is a little secretive – imagine how many pedestrians or car users could have migrated onto buses, forever more potentially, had they seen a passing bus with a nice £2 logo on the side or a big sign attached to each bus stop? There’s more to marketing than retweeting the occasional post on Twitter.
This lazy wish to relegate in importance the role of a map, also tells a tale about the culture in public transport, particularly its inability to be integrated and collaborate
This lazy wish to relegate in importance the role of a map, also tells a tale about the culture in public transport, particularly its inability to be integrated and collaborate. Apart from in some PTE settings, putting a map together that transcends operators and modes will be viewed in the ‘too difficult box’. It would take someone with real get-up-and-go to suggest to their line manager that they speak to other transport companies in their own owning group or at other companies or destinations and work together to create an integrated map. You can just imagine their line manager acting suspiciously and saying they can’t talk to other organisations – they’ll think you’re giving away trade secrets or they’ll claim the competition authorities won’t be impressed, or more likely that it won’t increase revenue. Then everyone will argue about who will foot the cost or how you get the dosh out of other contributing companies, and it won’t come to anything.
Where do we go from here? I’d like to see minimum standards introduced for bus companies that specify the provision of pan-operator network maps at all bus stops, on all bus related websites and in leaflets, ideally on a multi-modal basis. These maps shouldn’t just consist of a geographical area, the size of a postage stamp, but be both city or town-based and with a wider regional alternative to show the range of transport opportunities available. They should also be multi-modal.
It shouldn’t also be a ‘nice to have’ but needs to be enshrined in policy and minimum requirements, in much the same way that railway stations have to display certain information posters. In the case of stations, their provision of onward bus travel information needs to be tightened – there’s many locations out there where such details are non-existent or so poorly produced it’s obviously just done for box-ticking purposes. Every station should proudly display a compelling, integrated map showing the bus network in the region and how it interfaces with rail. Bus fares information would also be useful, alongside the destinations served.
At a time when getting folk to want to make a journey is more of a challenge than pre-Covid, titillating potential public transport users with the ‘art of the possible’ is really important. I fear that marketing folk think that because attention spans are supposedly so short, that it is all about sexy pictures, funky online videos, and catchy messages on social media. They’re missing a trick as there can be few better ways to entrance and capture the imagination than a map that shows the adventures that can be made and that there’s a network that has been pieced together into a proposition that serves everyone’s needs. Only in the transport industry would we shy away from shouting from the rooftops about our extensive menu of products that caters for everyone’s needs. Our reticence defies belief really, but it’s borne of deep-seated laziness and rank stupidity of the highest order.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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