On the Glider: Belfast’s new bus rapid transit system has triggered a political row over bus stop names

A Glider outside Belfast City Hall. Image: Nick Birse/Wikimedia Commons.

Is it a tram? Is it a bendy-bus? Is it a bendy-bus-tram? Is it just a long purple bus running on a not-quite-continuous network of bus lanes? Or, is it, as former Ireland rugby international Stephen Ferris (and now self-appointed part-time traffic infrastructure spokesperson) wrote on Twitter, a shambles? 

In Belfast it’s known as The Glider: a new £90m diesel-electric hybrid bus rapid transit (BRT) system launched – to mixed reactions as a quick #Glider search on social media reveals –  at the end of 2018.

Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and run by local transport company Translink, the BRT connects the east and west of the city with the city centre via 15.2 miles of bus lanes and mixed traffic lanes – a symbolic move given the, still, divided geography of the city. 

Recent figures released by Translink appear to reveal the early success of the scheme: around 30,000 passengers are now using the service as their primary choice of travel, equating to more than 4,000 car journeys every day. With Belfast being the most car-dependent city in the UK – the average person in Northern Ireland making 81.5 per cent of all their journeys by car, compared to 63 per cent in the whole UK - the Glider seems to be getting, at least some people, out of their cars and onto the purple-bendy-bus-tram. 

The central Belfast section of the route map. Image: Translink.

The launch of the scheme has not been without controversy: in Northern Ireland, the sectarianisation of literally anything is unfortunately still regarded by some as a legitimate political weapon. This time it was the weaponisation of bus-stop names. Short Strand, a historic inner-city (broadly nationalist) community had its Glider stop named – spoiler alert – “Short Strand”. In a letter to her constituents DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly claimed that the naming of the stop did “not reflect either the area or the history of the area”, even though the bus stop on the site was called that already. She instead suggested, without any hint of irony, that the city-bound stop be named “Albert Bridge” – that’s the British Prince Albert, grandson of Queen Victoria – with the name “Short Strand” being retained for the return journey stop. Translink responded that this would cause confusion for passengers. The stop remains named Short Strand. Little-Pengelly claimed that it was “not a sectarian issue at all”.


Next, consider the strange but significant connection between taxis, civil servants, bus-lanes and the Court of Appeals ruling on planning permission for the construction of a waste incinerator (stay with me, here). The court upheld a ruling dismissing planning permission for the controversial Arc21 waste incinerator, saying that civil servants, who had approved the scheme, did not have the power to act without ministerial approval. (NI is currently without a devolved parliament.) In line with the ruling, without ministers in place, a scheme to allow taxis to use bus lanes could not be approved – and with bus lanes creating more peak-time traffic congestion, it’s a decision that could likely affect taxi drivers livelihoods. 

Then there was the small oversight of mis-timed traffic singles in the city’s Titanic Quarter, which, in conjunction with the new bus lanes managed to cause massive traffic congestion in the area; people parking in the bus lanes; confusion about the automatic doors on the buses; the problems with the ticketing system…

Within a week of the Glider launching, a petition was started to get rid of the bus and restrictions altogether. And yet, the bus lanes remain and the city appears to be getting used to its new BRT – it’s standing room only during rush hour. 

So: is it a tram? A bendy-bus? Or just a long purple bus running on that not-quite-continuous network of bus lanes? 

Yes, it’s a bus: but a nice warm bus, with comfy seats, Wifi and USB chargers. It’s a small but significant change in a city that has the highest car ownership in the UK, is one of the worst polluted cities in the UK, and the third most congested. It’s a positive change in a city that has the highest rate of obesity and the highest rate of avoidable deaths.

The Glider, bendy-bus or not, might only make a small contribution to changing these statistics – but if nothing else the scheme has opened up a much-needed conversation in the city about the future transport infrastructure. 

 
 
 
 

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.