Back around the year 2000, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) decided to bump start the provision of real-time bus information with a generous £20 million+ fund. The technology was fairly well established and was in use in a small number of U.K. locations and elsewhere in Europe, but neither local transport authorities nor bus operators in England were showing much enthusiasm for spending their own money on it.
This was the first major Intelligent Transport System (ITS) implementation for public transport in the U.K. that I am aware of; it was followed a few years later by a major push on smartcard ticketing, again led by the DfT with their Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation (ITSO) standard. We didn’t go from everything on paper to everything IT-based overnight, but those two developments set an expectation that ITS could and should deliver better journeys for bus passengers, all too often at the bottom of the transport systems user hierarchy. Although it is startling to remember that back in those days, in many locations, cyclists were given even less spending and services priority than bus users. How times do change.
Principles of real-time information and smart ticketing did not just apply to bus services. Trains, coaches, and the various forms of light rail we have in the U.K., from the world’s first underground rail in London to the much newer tram network in Edinburgh, all gradually adopted some measure of ITS. The fact that outside London these services are almost all run by commercial companies could slow down investment in technology, seen as providing doubtful returns. But good efforts and investment by transport authorities and raised public expectations also carried weight.
Evolution has gathered pace since then. Smartphones, the apps that come with them, principles of open transport data and the desire to do useful things with it, and the general population embracing the status of always-connected, have enabled a true step of change for public transport ITS. Contactless payments, where a card or a device linked to your bank account enables the payment, has made paying for public transport as easy as it can be before we move on to biometric payment where we, ourselves, are the device. Buying the right ticket for your journey is a huge barrier to public transport use. You have seconds to grasp a structure of zones, days of the week, times of days, ages of passengers, and so on, which has taken a city a hundred years or more to construct. Failure to do so fast enough makes you the most unpopular person in the ticket hall or on the bus. Some so-called smart ticketing systems are not much better: I have experienced boarding a tram in Gothenburg and being stumped by the smart card reader requiring me to specify the number of zones and people. But contactless removes every trace of friction except the need to have a bank card with you. And if you have left your wallet at home, your day is already ruined—you won’t be blaming public transport for your misery.
Not everybody has a bank account—in some cities in the U.K., 30 percent of bus users are unbanked—and they must not be left without access to good value public transport tickets. But contactless is still a major step in the quest to make public transport so simple and accessible that the main factor in people not trying it, the embarrassment factor, disappears.
Planning journeys is another important ITS application in public transport. This is another area where historically, the need to know about routes and stops has worked to create a “public transport club” opaque and unwelcoming to car users. With the creation of detailed and accurate data for time table and stop information and the addition of real-time journey data, it has become possible to create detailed and trustworthy journey planners. Seeing the stop on a map removes the anxiety over which side of the road is the right one for the direction you want to travel, and some apps even show you the bus approaching which gives 100 percent confidence, even if you have a while to wait. These applications of real-time data are also immensely supportive during times of service disruption, another example of a situation where historically you either knew the local public transport network as well as the operator did, or you were in serious trouble.
These important developments are underpinned by a sector-wide commitment to the principles of open data. Everybody involved needs to accept that sharing data is not commercial suicide. It grows a market for everybody to profit from. In the U.K., we are close to achieving this, thanks to strong government support and many of the major commercial actors taking a strategic long-term view.