The Bus Station Now Arriving (the fall and rise of British bus station design)

What is a bus station? Ask a non-transport geek (there’s no point asking me then, so I asked a few non-geek friends) and they’ll struggle for a bit and eventually come up with a description that sums up the idea of a single concourse building with bus bays alongside, on a dedicated piece of land.

Which is fine, except that very often British bus stations are nothing like that. I wonder if the disconnect between what people expect, and what they actually see at many bus stations, is one of the reasons that bus travel struggles for the level of public acceptability that train travel has. I know that’s a generalisation, and there are areas of the country where bus travel is seen as a serious alternative to the private car, usually as a result of strenuous efforts on the part of bus companies. But across huge swathes of the country, bus travel is what you do when you have no alternative, and patronage continues to decline nationwide.

Maybe a small part of the problem is that in many towns, the bus industry’s shopfront has been so very badly neglected. You’ll remember a few weeks ago looking at the problem of unattractive bus stop infrastructure, and what some people are doing about it. But there was once a time when practically any town of any sensible size had its very own bus station. It was a highly visible assertion of the local bus network, a central hub from which it was possible to reach surrounding towns and villages, a place to seek information on local bus travel, or a place to easily change from one bus route to another, opening up a huge variety of journey opportunities. It was, in short, a bus shop. And it was a smart, clean and modern shop too. At their best, bus stations could be real flagships for bus transport. During the inter-war period Wallis, Gilbert and Partners designed a whole series for London Transport’s Country Bus operations in Home Counties towns which were every bit a match for the London Underground stations being built at the same time.

Now, most of these grand bus stations (Wallis, Gilbert’s included) have gone, rendering the local bus network far less visible in such towns which used to have them.

Many of the bus stations which you can still find on Britain’s bus network fall far short of the expectation of my non transport-geek friends. So what has gone so wrong? Why are they so often not attractive and useful shop windows for the local bus network? And is there any hope at all? Well, as is so often the case with these articles, to get the answers you’ll need to sit through some history first…

Some examples from the great age of civic bus stations in the middle part of the 20th Century, where seemingly every town had one, still survive in places like Taunton and Chichester. While they are no longer the most modern of facilities, well-kept examples still exude a degree of municipal confidence and authority thanks to their solid but classy inter-war or post-war Modern architecture. Here is Chichester’s, built in 1965 (according to this local history website) and still going strong:

Chichester bus station. The windows! The seriffed lettering! I love it all. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Chichester bus station. The brickwork! The windows! The seriffed lettering! The cantilevered balcony! I love it all. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

All too soon, however, the inexorable rise of the private car as the British travel mode of choice led to a change of approach, and decline set in. Rather than being buildings in their own right, bus stations were relegated to the ground floor of that most fashionable of transport buildings, the multi-storey car park. Yes, these were bus stations, but let’s not kid ourselves, the primary purpose of these structures was to serve the needs of the private car. The buses were going to have to be happy with being stuck, quite literally, where the sun don’t shine.

As such, the architecture of these buildings isn’t really about bus travel at all, but about cars. Buildings like Preston Bus Station, Slough Bus Station (the old one, not the silvered aquatic loveliness of the new one) and Northampton’s Greyfriars to name but a few were/are dramatic structures which polarise opinion, but the drama comes from the treatment of the car park levels, or the offices above, rather than anything much to do with the bus station at ground level. But at least in these towns there actually was still a bus station, no matter how servile it was to the needs of car parking.

If your bus station wasn’t lucky enough to be a building in its own right, or unlucky enough to be a component of a car park, it might instead be an annexe to the town shopping centre. This made (and still does make) a great deal of sense. As buses are primarily a local form of transport, getting to the shops is a key reason for passengers to catch the bus. Unfortunately, shopping centre managers, while being extremely good at providing for the needs of their tenant shops, aren’t terribly good passenger transport managers. Even assuming they knew what best practice was in bus station facilities, they lost interest as car usage grew. Here’s a local (for me) example:

Guildford Friary bus station, putting off potential bus passengers since 1980. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Guildford Friary bus station, putting off potential bus passengers since 1980. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

This is my nomination for Most Disappointing Bus Station in Britain. It’s Guildford bus station, tacked onto the side of the Friary Shopping Centre. It opened in 1980 and shows every sign that 1980 was the last time any significant work was done on it. Guildford’s population in 2011 was 77,000. It’s the second biggest town in Surrey. It’s in one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country. That’s why it’s so uniquely disappointing. It might not be qualitatively the absolute worst (although it’s really not very good) but it’s amazingly bad considering where it’s located.

Remember last week we looked at Casar de Cáceres bus station? And remember how Casar de Cáceres had a population of about 5,000? How does that work? Why does a massively larger town in wealthy Surrey have a bus station sporting shelters that look as though they’ve previously done duty as Anderson air raid shelters in the Second World War, and a ‘concourse’ that would depress even Pharrell “Happy” Williams at his most happy? This is, unfortunately, not a unique example, and there are many shopping centre bus stations slowly rotting in towns across the country.

This despite the sterling work of sustainable travel campaign Greener Journeys in demonstrating the positive economic impact of buses. You might like to show the Greener Journeys-commissioned Buses and the Economy II¹ to your local shopping centre manager, or alternatively beat them into submission with a rolled-up copy of it, ceasing only when you extract a promise to modernise and improve the bus station attached to their shopping centre. Buses have a one-third market share of retail trips into city centres, and their passengers spend £22bn a year in city and town centres.

So this is one of the answers to the question of why many of our bus stations are so unappealing. If they’re part of a shopping centre, the likelihood is that they’ll have been forgotten by the shopping centre managers since the time they were first built. Not always, mind, but good examples like Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre (moved and modernised about a decade ago) are very much the exception that prove the rule.

Newcastle's Eldon Square shopping centre bus station is somewhat better than Guildford's. Photo by Alvin Leong [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre bus station is somewhat better than Guildford’s. Photo by Alvin Leong [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Worse indignities than being placed in the Stygian depths of a multi-storey car park, or being a forgotten adjunct to a shopping centre, were to be visited on the unfortunate bus station from the late 1980s onward. If the rot set in when bus stations became subservient tenants in a multi-storey car park, gangrene took over with the 1986 Transport Act and the deregulated bus industry it ushered in (outside London).

You’d think by then, in a (slightly) more enlightened and environmentally conscious late 1980s and 1990s, that the benefit of high quality bus stations as a means of attracting car passengers onto public transport would have been realised. Unfortunately not. Instead of being run by the local National Bus Company subsidiary, non-shopping centre bus stations were either sold along with the relevant NBC subsidiary, or became the responsibility of the local council, depending on the freehold arrangements for the bus station site.

Sadly, just as with looking after bus stop poles, flags and timetable cases, the newly deregulated bus operators often weren’t very interested in bus stations, while local councils weren’t skilled up to look after them either. And with the land value increases seen at the time, there was often an almost irresistable case for disposing of bus stations. Faced with the decision between promoting local bus travel through a high quality piece of visible bus transport infrastructure, or several suitcases full of cold hard cash, both bus operators and local councils very often took the developers’ money and ran. And that’s why so many one-time bus stations are today supermarkets or housing developments. Where bus stations were re-located as part of such deals, rather than closed, the replacement facilites were often smaller, and with fewer, lower-quality passenger facilities.

How bus stations in cities with sky-rocketing land values, like Winchester, have held on to their bus stations for so long is some kind of minor miracle. But even Winchester’s now looks set to be closed and redeveloped for retail (see here) and in the meantime it has begun to look rather careworn. It’s not surprising – why spend money on something that’s set to be demolished? But this sort of planning blight is one reason why some long-standing bus stations don’t present the best image of bus travel to the wider world. As Stagecoach says simply in the article, “We have a business to run.” The costs of running a bus station can be substantial, and the lure of realising the land value of such sites can be near irresistible to a private sector bus operator. There’s no obvious way of recompensing them for the wider economic and environmental benefits that a bus station provides as a focal point and convenient single site for bus passengers.

The bus industry is struggling at the moment with some really difficult cost issues and reductions in financial support for marginal services. The costs of running a bus station have become ever more difficult to justify, as morebus noted when it decided to close Lymington bus station recently (see here). The replacement, as in so many towns, will be a series of on-street bus stops, at a stroke making life less comfortable for waiting bus passengers, more awkward if they want to change buses, and reducing the visual impact of the local bus network as there is no longer a highly visible building that’s all about the buses.

I suppose we should be grateful for the bus stations we actually have, then. Yet sometimes bus stations make it rather difficult to love them. It’s hard to work out how some of them even qualify for the name. Here’s Crawley bus station. Yes, it’s off highway, but there’s no concourse building that acts as a focal point (I don’t think the nearby enquiry office, helpful though the staff there are, really cuts it). It’s just a collection of bus shelters that happen to be in close proximity; last week’s Midhurst ‘bus station’ writ large. It’s not really the kind of the facility that sends out the message that bus travel is something you might want to choose, is it?

Crawley bus station. Photo by Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Crawley bus station. Photo by Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This design of ‘bus station’ is alarmingly common. When the only significant piece of architecture in a town’s bus station is a standard bus shelter, I really do think we’re in danger of missing an opportunity somehow. Unfortunately, when Isle of Wight-based bus operator Southern Vectis redeveloped its 1960s Newport bus station in the mid-2000s, it took a very similar approach, where the replacement was a series of rather basic bus shelters (which are too small at busy times to provide shelter for all passengers) complemented by a public enquiry office. I really want to applaud a bus company that’s retained and relocated its bus station rather than using scattered on-street bus stops as a replacement. But the lack of imagination in the design of the bus station, the evidently low-cost nature of the shelters, is saddening. The combined brains of the passenger transport industry and its partners surely ought to be able to come up with something a little more inspiring than this, shouldn’t they?

Newport bus station, Isle of Wight. Photo by By Arriva436 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Newport bus station, Isle of Wight. Photo by By Arriva436 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

This is nothing compared to Shanklin however. Its old bus station was demolished in the mid 1960s and replaced with a supermarket. The good news is that pedestrian signage on the high street reassures you that there is still a bus station to be found. Follow it, however, and you come to one of the most soul-destroying ‘bus stations’ you will ever encounter.

Shanklin's not-really-a-bus-station. © Copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Shanklin’s not-really-a-bus-station. © Copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

People of the Isle of Wight! This is not a bus station. Around the edge of the supermarket site are three on-street bus stops, with primitive shelters. That is all. Literally no expense has been spent. It is in fact an anti-bus station, a mocking reminder that there used to be a proper bus station. Now all that remains are three not-very-good bus stops and the name. Southern Vectis has virtually zero street presence in Shanklin as a result.

This is what happens when your bus station doesn’t have what most people think a bus station should have: a single concourse building in which they can wait for their bus, rather than a few bus shelters in close proximity to one another, sometimes not even off-highway, and an enquiry office to one side if you’re lucky. When the finances of many bus companies are under such pressure, however, the appeal of bus stations which comprise little more than a few shelters collected together is obvious.

The good news is that some recent bus stations fulfill the vague idea outlined at the beginning of this article. As you know, I love Vauxhall Bus Station (off highway, a concourse building, bus stops alongside, looks flipping amazing) but there have been signs in other places that all is not lost.

Wythenshawe Interchange's bus station, which opened in 2015. © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Wythenshawe Interchange’s bus station, which opened in 2015. © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Decent new bus stations have been built mainly – though not exclusively – in the Midlands and the North, often thanks to the efforts of the Passenger Transport Executives. They have soldiered on, building bus stations, and generally making the most of their public sector status to fund facilities that purely commercial bus operators cannot, on a cost-benefit basis that includes wider economic considerations than just the number of bus tickets sold. If there’s one thing that lets some modern bus stations down though, it’s the asethetics.

There’s a slightly same-y template which has emerged for a lot of these structures, in which an ovoid roof tops off glass curtain walls which run round the building. You can see it at Oldham, Rochdale, Middleton, Worksop, Wythenshawe (as in the photo above) and even in more surprising locations down south such as Horsham, to name but a few.

I get that we’re not about to reach the heady heights of Gothenburg’s Nils Ericson bus station with its beautifully seductive interior, but inside these new bus stations can be a starkly underwhelming place to wait for a bus.

Horsham bus station interior. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Horsham bus station interior. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

There are, however, some properly attention-grabbing recent bus stations out there. I don’t really like spending an entire article bitching about stuff (no – really – I don’t), so let’s end with some examples of great recent British bus stations, each of which I hope to return to at some point in the future. I’d love it if there were more of them, and it remains a matter of concern that bus stations are still being closed and replaced with scattered bus stops in far too many towns. However, these bus stations show what can be done if the will is there.

This is Norwich’s bus station, which opened in 2005:

Norwich bus station. Photo by Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Norwich bus station. Photo by Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Like a Manga mecha-manta ray, this sci-fi beast of a building looks as though it’s ready to leap into hyperspace, phasers set on ‘stunning’. Bus travel can be exciting, and an exciting bus station is hard to ignore once it’s teleported into your town or city.

Architecture practice Jefferson Sheard was meanwhile called into action in Barnsley at the behest of South Yorkshire PTE, and in 2008 delivered an award-winning bus station that looks like nothing else in the country. It’s an eye-popping, colourful, approachable and friendly building:

Barnsley Interchange. Photo by Stanley Walker [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Barnsley Interchange. Photo by Stanley Walker [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And finally, there’s Britain’s second-newest bus station, Blackburn’s, which opened on May 1 this year (Leicester’s rebuilt Haymarket bus station opened a week later – see more details here). Although going for the glass-walls-all-round approach, Blackburn bus station is more rectilinear, giving a nice sharpness to its exterior. But it really wins with the quality of its interior, which elevates it above most of its recent contemporaries. A visually arresting motif sees repeating metal loops descending from the roof, recalling the warp and weft of the area’s textile-weaving history. Stone flooring of the sort you’d expect to see in the lobby of a very posh hotel, rather than a bus station, adds a note of distinction. Wooden seating integrated into the larger hoops, or placed on stone plinths, also gives a very high-quality appearance which can only help local bus operators persuade travellers that buses can be a mode of choice, not desperation. I really, really, like it and I’ll come back to again soon. In the meantime, here’s a quick look at that fabulous interior…

Blackburn bus station interior. © Blackburn with Darwen Council, used with permission
Blackburn bus station interior. © Blackburn with Darwen Council, used with permission

Further Reading

Johnson, Daniel; Mackie, Peter; and Shires, Jeremy (July 2014): Buses and the Economy II. Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds. Available via this webpage

…and anything linked to in the text above.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Blackburn with Darwen Council’s media relations team, who were very helpful sorting out some photos of Blackburn bus station – I’ll use the rest another time.

11 thoughts on “The Bus Station Now Arriving (the fall and rise of British bus station design)

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