A Clockwork Orange: How Glasgow's Subway system failed to break out of its circle

No train in sight: the Partick stop on the Glasgow Subway. Image: Gary Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons.

Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, has the world’s third-oldest underground metro system. Only London and Budapest boast more experience in lugging people about their merry way below our feet.

And Glasgow manages to do this with a stunning simplicity. Opened in 1896, its Subway route is circular, with two lines (“inner” and “outer”) circumnavigating a loop which twice crosses the River Clyde. The network (a term I use loosely) links 15 stations, and runs from the city centre to the West End, and across to the South Side.

In all, the seven mile route takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. In 2013-2014, the Glasgow Subway averaged almost 35,000 passengers daily – around 12.5m each year.

The existing network. Image: SPT.

So, the network is a simple one. But it could have been a lot more complex if the visions of a few Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) chiefs had come to pass a decade or so ago.

In 2007, a “feasibility study” outlined the SPT’s desire to expand the Subway network before the 2014 Commonwealth Games came to town. The plan would have involved creating a second circle, covering the east of the city, where the newly created Emirates Arena and Athlete’s Village were to be housed.

At the time Alistair Watson, a Labour councilor, released a statement promising:

 “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

Unequivocal, no less.

The proposed line would have interchanged with the existing network at its busiest station, Buchanan Street (which connects with the Queen Street mainline station), as well St. Enoch’s station. There would have been seven new stops, too, including Celtic Park. The whole lot was projected to cost £2.3bn.To research the project, in 2007, SPT executives flew to New Delhi to learn more about their underground set-up and transport preparations ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Despite this promising maneuver, no extensions ever materialised beneath the streets of the East End.

An extract from a 2007 leaflet showing the proposed extension. Image: SPT.

That’s a shame. Because Glasgow boasts an abundance of very usable and intact underground tunnels and old railway lines, some of which would have been re-used in an East End extension. Throw in road improvements and some new cycle routes, and there would have been clear benefits for a fairly tattered and beaten up part of the city.

The area certainly did benefit from hosting the Commonwealth Games. According to a post-games survey, the residents of Glasgow’s East End, where much of the regeneration activity was focused, welcomed the physical improvements to their neighbourhoods, and “felt safer living there than they had before” after a post-2014 Games survey.  Venues like the Emirates arena have attracted more events to the city, and an estimated £18m worth of new contracts have already been credited to the 2014 Games’ legacy.

And SPT’s “Subway Modernisation Programme” is very much in full swing. Some £270m has been spent or set aside for improving stations across the existing network, and the introduction of a Smartcard system has proved popular amongst travelers. It looks a lot better, too, with a chunk of the 1970s stylings now gone from the city.


But there remains a widespread feeling of frustration. The Commonwealth Games seemed to be the perfect opportunity – the perfect excuse – to radically upgrade Glasgow’s Subway system. But the city missed it. Only time will tell if this bold and radical idea will rear its head once more.

 
 
 
 

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.