5 more ways they should change London’s tube & rail map to make it less annoying to me personally

My eyes! My eyes! Image: TfL.

Right, where were we.

The zonal map is awful

I mean, look at it:

Who on earth looked at London’s tube map and thought, “I reckon what it really needs is more shades of grey than some badly written mummy porn”?

It was bad enough before TfL decided to put a whole bunch of stations in east London in both zones 2 AND 3 and had to come up with a third shade.

My eyes! My eyes!

And then there’s the fact that Tramlink fares work differently to tube and rail fares, but it’s still on the map, so TfL just pretends it exists in its own special weird green zone:

The thing that bugs me about it is how it privileges the fare zones above all else. The rail & tube map offers remarkably little information about, say, whether a station is a stupid place to even attempt to reach if you happen to be in a wheelchair, because you literally can’t get out.


But whether your journey ends in zone 3 or zone 4, and thus you have to pay an extra 60p? Well that’s something worth wrecking the entire map for. Just come up with another way to show this information, in the name of god.

While we’re on the zones:

The outer zone numbering system is really awful

Once upon a time, those few tube stations outside TfL’s domain were in unnumbered zones. You went from zone 5 to zone 6 to zone A, right up to D. Since numbers don’t go “5, 6, 7, A, B, C”, this was a bit ugly.

So as TfL has expanded its empire, it decided to replace those with zones 7, 8 and 9. Why there are three not four I have no idea, but in principle this is much cleaner – and, since cartographical cleanliness is next to cartographical godliness, I decided that I approve.

Except it doesn’t quite work. Look at this:

Look at the top right. That’s Watford Junction in its own special zone, known, off-map, as Zone W.

There’s a logic here – Virgin Rail doesn’t want anyone getting away with jumping on its expensive intercity trains to Birmingham and only paying a zone 1-9 fare. Fair enough.

Except because Watford High Street, the next stop up the line, is in zone 8, and since the system works on the principle of concentric zones, the cartographers decided to pretend that the train passes through zone 9, which just doesn’t happen to have any stations in it, even though Watford Junction is only about a kilometre away.

Unusually thin zone, zone 9.

Oh, and to mess things up further, Watford station on the metropolitan line is in zone 7, despite being obviously further from London than Bushey, which is in zone 8. The whole system is fucked.

Image: Google/CityMetric.

There’s a similar thing further east, where Cheshunt is in zone 8, but the next stop up the line, Broxbourne, is out of the zonal system, although this is more forgivable as it’s 4km away.

On TfL Rail, Harold Wood is zone 6. Brentwood, the next stop 5km up the line, is zone 9. Since the whole of Greater London is contained in the first six zones, we have to assume that zones 7 and 8 are both covered in the 2.4 km between Brentwood station and the county boundary, which is deeply aggravating and also silly.

It’s even worse further south, where Purfleet station lies inside the M25, yet has found itself placed outside zones 7, 8 and 9, which presumably are hard up against the Greater London boundary and are about three feet wide apiece.

I’m sure there are reasons for all this, probably involving TfL not wanting to stuff itself or a train operating company by massively lowering fares – but for the love of god, since zones 7-9 don’t extend around the whole of Greater London anyway, stop pretending that they’re there when they’re quite obviously not.

Honestly.

And then there’s Heathrow

What the fuck is going on here?

This looks like an attempt to communicate that Heathrow Express tickets are hilariously expensive, by showing the Heathrow Express running outside the zones.

There are three problems with this.

  • TfL Rail and Heathrow Express, despite what the map suggests, literally share tracks;
  • The Heathrow stations are still shown in zone 6, so one might naturally assume you’d pay a zone 1-6 fare, which you wouldn’t;
  • TfL Rail fares are two to three times as much as tube ones, a fact the map makes no attempt to communicate. (See DiamondGeezer for more on this here.)

What is the point of making the map this ugly in an attempt to communicate fare information, if it’s going to be completely bloody useless at communicating that information anyway? Just stop it.

Oh no, not part time services

Ewww.

Gah.

Aaaargh.

Do we really need to show these things? Do they really do any good? C2C has been diverting trains to Liverpool Street on the regular for years and they’ve never bothered illustrating the fact before. What’s the point in screwing up the map for it now?

Tell the TOCs to stick it

Many years ago, this forerunner of this map coloured its mainline rail services by terminal. North of the river this didn’t make much difference, but in the south it was really helpful: you could suddenly see the shape of the network, that trains from this bit of south east London ran to Victoria rather than Cannon Street and so forth.

Then those blasted train operating companies got involved. Communicating useful information to passengers went out of the window; brand compliance came in. Suddenly the entire south east London rail network is Southeastern blue, and you can no longer tell which mainline terminal you want for, say, Hither Green.

Once upon a time I thought this was done for the benefit of corporate shareholders, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they almost certainly don’t care because why would they. Instead, it’s done for the benefit of marketing managers who want to show corporate shareholders that they play a valuable function on the modern railway, and aren’t, for example, a waste of money and space. Alas, they have chosen to show this by making life very slightly less convenient for passengers.


At any rate: TfL, please tell the TOCs to go screw themselves at your earliest convenience.

There’ll be one more of these. Then I’ll stop. For now. Probably.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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All map clips courtesy of Transport for London.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.