All aboard: What we learned from a trip on CityMapper’s popup smartbus CMX1

On board the new smartbus. Image: CityMapper.

The idea that you can wait ages for a bus, and then two will come along at once, is a cliché. It’s also, as it turns out, mathematically inevitable.

It works like this. Buses can start off evenly spaced, but inevitably, at some point, one will be delayed (a little old lady takes a minute finding her change, say). The slight delay means that, at the next stop it reaches, there will be more passengers waiting; they will take longer to board or disembark, so the bus stops for longer.

Delays begat delays, the bus gets further and further off schedule, and eventually the bus behind – which is now sweeping past empty stops that were cleared of passengers mere moments ago – catches it.

And so, at some point, two buses arrive at once. And, in all likelihood, one will be surprisingly empty.

There’s even a name for this phenomenon: bus bunching.

This is pretty irritating, on the whole – and so it’s one of the problems that the transport app firm CityMapper is trying to solve with its foray into “smart buses”. On board one of the three green minibuses serving the popup route CMX1, business development director Damien Bown tells passengers that the firm is trying to use a combination of real-time passenger loading data, and regular communication between driver and control room, to keep the buses evenly spaced.

Not everyone on board seems convinced by this: the popup bus serves a loop taking in Waterloo and the Strand, yet the app shows two of the three buses lurking around Blackfriars.

But Bown blames the traffic on the South Bank: at present it takes so much longer to do the south eastern corner of the route that ensuring there’s a bus every 10 minutes means that, in some some places, they’re going to look like they’re bunching. “Spatially they are,” he tells us. “Temporally they’re not.”

Except a few moments later this happens:

Which rather ruins that theory.

Still. We’re all here to learn.

****

CMX1 isn’t like the other buses. For one thing it’s bright green, in CityMapper’s corporate colours. For another it’s smaller – just a minibus. It’s also, at least, relatively, green in another sense: not electric, but it does at least meet low emissions standards. On board, you can use USB chargers to charge your phone, if you feel the need.

It’s also high-tech, too, as buses go. There’s an electronic information board, which flicks between maps and lists of upcoming stops with estimated arrival times and information on the bus itself (our driver today is Piotr). And obviously, it appears in the CityMapper app, where it’s also being promoted. So far, alas, you can only request the bus stop the old fashioned way.

As well as the driver, each CMX1 is manned by two CityMapper staff, who discuss the project with passengers, hand out CityMapper badges and generally seem to be having a good time. The service is running all day Tuesday and Wednesday, ferrying passengers clockwise around a loop that takes in Blackfriars Bridge, Fleet Street, Waterloo Bridge and the South Bank.

The new bus has, if not the active involvement of Transport for London (TfL), then at least its passive support. The route isn’t charging fares, in part so as to avoid difficult questions about licensing; but the transport authority is nonetheless allowing the buses to use its stops, and the occasional presence of TfL staff on the bus suggest that they’re as keen to find out what CityMapper has learned as the firm itself is.

And the tech firm seems very excited, to the point of having given the scheme a codename, Project Grasshopper. (Yes, really; originally it was Project Caterpillar.) In a Medium post, it promised “a smarter bus service”, adding:

“...you’re going to see us ‘rethink’ how buses and routes operate and how to make them more efficient and useful in cities.”

Which sounds very grand on the whole.

The tech firm’s theory is that, in the current transport system, there’s a gap between full-sized buses and personalised vehicles like cabs. As things stand there’s no mode of transport that can plug this gap: it’s either an expensive Uber, or a half-empty bus. (I’m not convinced this is the best example, but Damien points to late-night short hops from major stations like Clapham Junction, currently provided by cabs.)

There are other problems with official bus services, too. They’re inflexible, serving the same route, rather than simply finding the fastest possible route between the same stops. What’s more, city transport authorities are not always able to provide every route for which there’s demand.

And CityMapper is sitting on a mountain of data showing how people are actually using transport networks, so thinks it’s well-placed to work out where those routes are. To quote that Medium post again:

“We built an ultimate tool (codenamed: Simcity) to evaluate routes utilising our demand data and routing. We found we can figure out how to improve existing routes in all of our cities. We can also identify new and better routes. London is actually not that badly served, but other cities have major gaps.”

Making things work on a computer simulation is one thing; doing so in an actual, living city with congestion and so on is quite another. Hence, CMX1, to find out exactly what might be more challenging than it looks.

****

When the buses start to bunch, everyone on the second one is turfed off and joins us on the first, to even out the gaps in the service.

This, though, is fine: very few of us on the bus are actually going anywhere. At Blackfriars station, a man in a suit and his small son get on, heading for Somerset House; but even they have chosen this route over others for the novelty factor, and for the most part, we’re just along for the ride, to enjoy the novelty of a pop-up bus route. There’s a guy from Just Eat; a couple of people from advertising or tech firms; and a few enthusiastic transport nerds asking about the technical side of things. I doubt I’m the only one here planning to turn my ride into #content, either.

There are even a few people from TfL’s bus performance division, to see how it’s all going, and possibly enjoy a moment of schadenfreude in watching a tech firm learn that running buses is harder than it looks.

The guys from CityMapper seem pretty cool with that: for them, it’s a learning experience. As well as working out how to prevent bunching, they’re finding out how optimise the amount of contact between driver and HQ, so they can make the most of the data without distracting anyone from driving. They’ve discovered that their glitzy information system is not positioned quite well enough to be visible from everywhere in the bus. They’ve deliberately experimented with how easy it is for a small carer to get a large wheelchair onto the bus.

Oh, and they’ve also discovered that often the door won’t close without Damien giving it a shove.

CMX1 in action, sort of. Image: author provided.

One of the jokes people tend to make about venture capitalists is that, with shared car services like UberPool, Silicon Valley is very slowly re-inventing the bus. In some ways, then, it’s reassuring to see a tech firm like CityMapper lean into this, and actually try to improve bus services instead. After all, buses do have certain advantages, in terms of being an efficient use of space in environments that are short of it. If there is a way of using more of them to get cars off the road then, well, that’s got to be a good thing.

CMX1 ran all day yesterday, and is running all day today, too. Then, it will vanish for a couple of weeks while they think again. At some point, CityMapper will back with a new popup bus route which will, hopefully, work better. Then they’ll stop again, and try again, and so on.


Until, one day, perhaps they’ll be ready to make it – or something like it – a proper bus.

Whether it’ll work remains to be seen. But it’s kind of cool that a firm which made its name in mapping and journey planning is actually bothering to find out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: flickr.com/photos/joshtechfission/ CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.

 

This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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