Smartphones could be about to transform the face of bus travel in a move designed to improve passenger experiences and get more people to travel by bus.
Last month, the Department for Transport launched a consultation that could lead to operators sharing their live data so that passengers can see real time information about bus routes, timetables and fares.
It’s a move that could shake-up bus travel, and make it a much more attractive transport option, reversing declining passenger numbers. It will also look at making companies provide audio and visual information on the buses themselves.
Announcing the move, Buses Minister Nusrat Ghani said: “By requiring bus operators to share their data, we can make sure that passengers have the information they need to catch the bus with ease, equipped with the right information about the time and cost.
“This move will also open up opportunities for innovation within the industry, support local services where demand is falling and help increase bus usage across the country.”
There’s already strong supporting evidence that live data, along with better, cleaner vehicles, makes bus travel more attractive.
Reading Buses has reported a 48% increase in passenger numbers since it began sharing open data, and promotes itself as one of the country’s most innovative bus operators, which adds to its appeal for customers.
The operator even has a ‘Tech Lab’, which it opened in July to invite innovators and technology start-ups to test their new ideas in a simulated operational environment.
The lab features a bus stop with a real-time information display, a bus arriving including the front of a bus, a ticket machine and a destination display, and the interior of a bus with seating, flooring and screens for visual and audio announcements.
Innovators are encouraged to have a play around with all of this to try out their ideas.
Reading Buses boss Martin Gilbert said: “This is the beginning for more of these exciting partnerships.
“We don’t know where this may lead, some projects may not be successful, but we’re willing to take some risk, disrupt ourselves and try something new for the potential benefits.
“It’s not just tech start-ups we are looking for either – it could be individual developers with a big idea, students with an interest in technology or existing businesses who want to increase their scope.
“Projects might shape our on-board environment, change how people use apps to plan their journeys or control our costs and risks – we want people to get in touch with their ideas and collaborate with us.”
Transport for London has also made significant progress in the field of Open Data, having made its information available to app developers.
It allowed them to work with the data to track buses in a live operational environment, with apps such as London Buschecker and Citymapper offering riders the opportunity to plan their journeys with far more accuracy and less standing around at bus stops.
The Buschecker app has since expanded, with a UK Buschecker option, which integrates with other operators who have already opened up their data to provide better information on planning bus journeys, as well as hosting timetable and route information from those that don’t yet share live data.
The app has times and routes from all 300,000 of the nation’s bus stops, along with a stop alert feature that makes your smartphone vibrate as you approach your stop – ideal if a user is travelling in an unfamiliar town or city.
Cambridge City Council is another app-friendly innovator, sharing its real-time data with Google Transit, fed directly from the Smart Cambridge intelligent City Platform, a system developed by Cambridge University.
It allows commuters to obtain real-time updates as buses are affected by traffic and other delays. Almost all buses in the region have GPS sensors installed which gives their position. This data is then fed into the platform and processed to give an accurate prediction of arrival time.
The project is a collaboration between Google Maps and transit data specialist Ito World, which is based in the city.
Noelle Godfrey, Programme Director for the Smart Cambridge Programme, explained: “Computer algorithms analyse the location data: looking at where each bus is, how fast it’s moving and compares that to known trends, calculating the predicted time it will arrive at each stop along the way. This information has been ‘packaged’ and made available to Google as a continuous data feed. That’s going to be incredibly useful to bus-users across Cambridgeshire.”
Meanwhile, bus operator Arriva is experimenting with another form of app-based technology. Its new ArrivaClick service, which it has very recently launched in Liverpool, allows passengers to order their bus via a phone-based app.
Passengers who use the on-demand ArrivaClick service determine the route themselves by entering their chosen pick-up point and destination. The technology will match people travelling in the same direction to the right vehicle, and allow them to travel together.
Arriva is working with Merseytravel to roll out the service this summer. Kevin O’Connor, managing director of UK Bus Arriva, said the company had chosen the city to be the first in the UK to host its new, cashless bus service.
“Liverpool is a city that embraces new ideas, so it was the natural choice for us.”
Matt Goggins, Head of Bus at Merseytravel, added: “One of Merseytravel’s main aims is to make sustainable journeys a more attractive choice for people in the Liverpool City Region, particularly when accessing things like training, education and employment.
“By providing a new way to use public transport, ArrivaClick really supports that vision.”
ArrivaClick launched with six minibuses this summer rising to 25 next year, creating up to 70 jobs.
The app will allow people to track their chosen vehicle, tell them the name of the driver and reserve a seat. And with no fixed routes, journeys are determined by where passengers want to go, within an area between the city centre and Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
Arriva said that when the same technology was given a trial in Kent, more than half its passengers had switched from private cars with 43% using it for their daily commute.