The Liberal Democrat transport minister Baroness Kramer made the announcement at a parliamentary reception for the charity Guide Dogs, which was aiming to persuade more MPs and peers to back its campaign to make audio-visual information available on all bus and coach services across the UK.
Although buses in London have audio-visual technology – with each stop announced to passengers and appearing on a screen – such systems are rarely found elsewhere in the country.
The bus industry has resisted efforts to persuade it to “retro-fit” audio-visual (AV) technology onto existing buses because it says it would be too expensive.
Baroness Kramer told the reception she did not need to be persuaded of the benefits of AV, and questioned the industry’s claims when it only costs about £75 to fit similar technology to a mobile phone.
The government has written to the Confederation of Passenger Transport to ask if its members could come up with a cheaper way of fitting AV technology onto buses, but has so far received no reply.
Baroness Kramer said she had decided instead to launch a competition for students aged 14 to 18, to be sponsored by the Department for Transport and the Transport Systems Catapault, the UK’s “technology and innovation centre for intelligent mobility”, which will put in up to £100,000.
Students will be asked to come up with a cheap and innovative way of retrofitting buses with AV. The competition will be launched in September.
Stage two will see the government supporting business to develop a prototype of the competition winner.
Baroness Kramer said: “I am serious about coming up with a working prototype so that no bus company will have any excuse not to fit it.
“We are turning to our young people quite frankly to do what our bus companies have failed to do.
“This is a problem we have got to solve and we are determined we are going to solve it.”
Actor Tim Gebbels, the service-user rep for London for Guide Dogs, said all of the “guess and stress” had gone from bus journeys in the capital since Transport for London installed audio-visual information systems.
He told Disability News Service: “[The problems start] as soon as you get on the bus, as soon as you start the journey. You can’t always count stops like you do on the tube.
“I spend a lot of time in Oxford and in Oxford the buses don’t talk and it’s like going back to the 70s.”
Dave Kent, guide dogs engagement officer for London for Guide Dogs, said that talking buses make a “massive difference to the quality of somebody’s journey”.
He said: “I have used buses outside London and it is always a bit of a lottery whether you are going to get off at the right place and if there are other passengers who are able to help you.”
Kent said having an AV system on a bus was often the difference between a person maintaining and losing their independence, and can cost less than £2,000, even if retro-fitted to existing buses.
Fitting AV to every new bus in the UK for the next 10 years would cost just £57 million, or possibly even less, according to Guide Dogs.
3 July 2014