Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Mapping The Future

Yesterday, Citymapper reinvented the bus for the smart city era and gave us... a bus.

Three of them in fact, running a self styled "pop up route" for just two days, operating in a circle from Southwark via Blackfriars, Aldwych, Waterloo and back to Southwark.

In their own words, this experiment was borne of a view held by the team at Citymapper that conventional buses are inefficient, reliant on outdated technology and are spurned by customers for whom they may actually be the best choice, simply because they have a bad reputation and the experience of using them often isn't that great.

Their mission is to rethink the role of the bus in modern cities, making them smarter and more efficient, responsive to real time changes in demand.

So while the experience of using their trial route suggests that at this stage it's pretty much just a bus - albeit quite a nice one - they would like us to believe that they're merely starting along a road that will lead to much more exciting things in the future.  And my view is that it's well worth going along for the ride.

First of all, some basics.  For those that don't know, Citymapper has been around for a number of years primarily as an app-based journey planning tool.  Their service is currently available in thirty nine urban centres around the world, including London, Birmingham and Manchester.

As anyone with a rudimentary understanding of technology knows, the quality of any journey planning tool depends heavily on the quality of the data, and where Citymapper seem to have enjoyed huge success is in bringing together far more data sources than most other apps.  So when they first came to my attention a few years ago, their itineraries offered a staggering level of detail, including features which at the time were revolutionary such as plotting walking routes to and from the bus stop.

Their tone of voice seems to be firmly pitched at twenty-something metropolitan males, which for those of us outside that demographic who still regard ourselves as being tech-enabled can grate a bit - "We’ve tried to keep things simple, but well, everything is green. Yeah." - but that's only a churlish objection.  They undoubtedly have a great product.

But in many ways the app market has caught them up now, and what were previously their unique selling points are now much more commonplace, not least due to improvements in the quality of the data and an increasing acceptance from public authorities and transport operators that data is not a proprietary treasure chest, but instead a genuinely useful resource that must be made open and accessible.

Meanwhile, the transport industry around the world has been grappling with the challenges posed by disruptors such as Uber, Lyft, BlaBlaCar and others, as well as the emergence of autonomous vehicles.

For a while, there was a fear within the public transport community that such upstarts would take over our world and render us outdated and obsolete.  And to some extent that might still happen.  But wiser heads see opportunities where others see threats, and more recently there has been a growing consensus that we all need each other in order to build a sustainable and effective transport infrastructure for the future.

As I wrote myself, in an article for BUSES magazine in June 2015...

"All too often, what bus companies think of as innovation is just doing what we’ve always done, only slightly better.  There is a real risk that if we do not focus on the changing demands of society, breaking down ideological barriers and working together with our partners to come up with genuinely creative solutions, someone else will come along and do it for us."

All of which, in my view, points towards evolution rather than revolution as the way forward, and that sets the scene nicely for this week's development.  With this move into direct bus operation, Citymapper seem not to be taking a confrontational stance, but instead laying down the gauntlet in a firm but friendly way to our industry.

My feeling is that they are telling us that we need to up our game, but actually they're not emotionally wedded to becoming a bus operator - they'd just like us to recognise the issues and get on with solving them.  If they have to run buses themselves they will, but that's not really what this trial is about.

After all, if you look at the bus journey itself, they were not really offering anything revolutionary at all.

To be fair it would be totally unrealistic to expect a manufacturer to build a truly ground-breaking purpose built "bus of the future" when they only want three of them (for now), so it may be that some of their aspirations are constrained by what is possible rather than what is desirable.  But take a look at this information screen, which purports to describe their amazing concept of what a bus should be...

It may not be especially clear from the photo, but these are the points:
  • Realtime 'Next Stop' Display
  • Dynamic Route Display
  • Driver App
  • Operational Center (sic) Software
  • Tailored Interior Design
  • Realtime Occupancy Counter
  • A cute logo
  • USB Phone Chargers
  • Connected to Citymapper App
There is little here that strikes me as really ground breaking.  Most industry observers will recognise that while take-up of these features is far from universal - and in some cases the bus industry does need a nudge to do more, quicker - many of these features are already commonplace and almost all of the rest are in advanced stages of development.

I do worry that Londoners will think that USB chargers and a properly designed interior are genuinely innovative, and that it has taken someone like Citymapper to come along and drag the sleepy old bus industry out of the dark ages, when in fact large chunks of the bus industry outside London have been doing this stuff for years.

I worry even more that the politicians and opinion formers will think the same, and what more we can do to highlight the good work that is already being done in the provinces, but that's probably a different question for a different article.

By contrast, there were several negative features of modern day bus travel for which the Smartbus appeared to have no answer.  We sat in the same traffic jam as all the other traffic, and an uncommunicative driver was concealed behind a huge wraparound assault screen, making for an unwelcoming entrance.

Passenger having to peer round the assault screen to speak to the driver

The driver's tablet was doing a good job of telling him the spacing to the buses in front and behind, but telling him to "keep steady", "drive faster" or "drive slower" when we were mostly stuck in stationary traffic has dubious value.

So my honest conclusion is that if Citymapper think they have reinvented the actual bus, they're some way behind the curve.  More and better stuff is already being done elsewhere around the country, and it's difficult to see what this bus was offering that isn't already commonplace (and executed rather better) on a Transdev or Reading bus, just to pick two examples.

In my view therefore, the excitement will lie in how they will use the vast quantities of data they collect, to improve the planning and execution of the actual service offer.

The bus industry has always struggled to deliver any effective form of demand responsive service featuring real time route planning.  There are interesting trials underway, such as Slide in Bristol and Arriva Click in Kent, from which we can hopefully learn, but it seems to be there must be fertile ground for something pitched somewhere between a taxi and a conventional bus.  I've said before that there are many areas where a demand responsive offer should allow services to emerge where there may not be a conventional market for a fixed route product, and maybe this is an area that Citymapper can use its vast quantities of data to make real progress.

I'm also fascinated by the "pop up route" concept.  While there are good reasons why people value stability and resist frequent route changes, it seems to me that there are equally cases where travel patterns do change at short notice or for reasons that aren't possible to incorporate into the 56 day (or longer) planning cycles that necessarily characterise much of our industry.  Modern technology allows information sources to be updated instantaneously, so the ability to evolve and adapt networks at short notice should be much less challenging than has hitherto been the case.

In some ways, the concept of a pop up route is something that could already be delivered using existing local authority powers, but at present such moves are seen as anti-competitive, anti-customer and something to be frowned upon.  By repackaging the concept and using language which is upbeat and implies efficiency and responsiveness - using terminology that has positive connotations when we think about such things as pop-up restaurants or pop-up shops - Citymapper may do us a great service by demonstrating that customers can benefit from the clever use of data to adapt networks and add new routes - on a permanent or trial basis - in a way that we can embrace and doesn't need to frighten us.

Citymapper have built a tool which they've called 'SimCity' to evaluate all the data they collect and use it to analyse routes and travel patterns, and suggest changes in networks that will allow demand to be better met, and this seems to be well worth watching.

I am a fan of Citymapper and I welcome this week's developments.  While I'm underwhelmed by the actual buses, they make clear that this is the start of a much longer process.  As their own website says, "In the future, we’ll explain in more detail how smarter bus tech leads to better mobility and cities", and I very much look forward to seeing how things develop.

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