How long is a Dublin minute? Adventures in waiting around, with ‘real-time’ bus predictions

It definitely said five minutes. Passengers awaiting a bus in Dublin, 2010. Image: Getty.

It’s one of the little quirks of our postmodern wonderland that slight imperfections in a quasi-utopian service are complained about far more than the absence of the same thing: you’d rather no WiFi than slow WiFi, that kind of thing.

In a similar vein, until quite recently all the humble bus user had to go on when waiting on their chariot were timetables and some educated guesswork. How quaint it must have felt. In the last few years, though, the development of various breeds of real-time software means you can see your bus’s ETA down to the minute, via apps and on-street displays.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Dublin’s version of this, the Real Time Passenger Information system (RTPI), was launched in 2011, supplying travel information to a network responsible for 128m passenger journeys in 2016. And it has a bit of a reputation.

Every commuter has a story about buses supposedly coming closer before receding into the distance, or showing up on the displays, only to vanish entirely. “That thing’s been saying ‘6 minutes’ for a quarter hour now” sits alongside “shite weather, isn’t it?” in the annals of Irish small-talk. Different countries have their own version of the same popular discontent - some a little better, some a little worse.

Basically, RTPI works by inserting a GPS signal into a bus and working out how far it is from each subsequent stop along the route. Jeremy Ryan, head of public transport contracts with Ireland’s National Transport Authority, says that the system is fed with regularly-updated ‘profiles’ of how long a bus should take to get from stop to stop, with different profiles for different days and times. These profiles are aware of normal traffic and pre-planned roadworks, but can’t know about ad-hoc things like heavy rain or emergencies, which leaves the predictions a little sticky.

The NTA carries out quarterly surveys to assess the system’s accuracy. According to this research, about 97 per cent of Dublin buses arrive within three minutes of the scheduled time, which the NTA and Dublin Bus say is “well above industry norms”. Reassuringly for people convinced that their own area is cursed with malevolent software, there apparently aren’t significant variations between routes, directions, or times of day.

Approaching these assertions with the swivelled eye of healthy scepticism, I decided to engage in a bit of citizen’s quality assessment. I walked to some strategically-placed bus stops around central Dublin, waited for a bus’s expected arrival time to tick over to “5 minutes”, and measured how long it took to roll up beside me.

Not having all day, I limited myself to clusters in Phibsboro and Rathmines, 2-3km north and south of the city centre respectively, and to the city centre itself from O’Connell Street to South Great George’s Street.

And what do we find? Well, probably unsurprisingly, on the whole the RTPI system does indeed appear to be remarkably accurate. Averaged across 62 buses, the average time it took for one to arrive after the ticker moved to “5 minutes” was a lean 5:58. Bearing in mind that nowhere is it claimed that “5 minutes” should be taken to mean 5:00 exactly, keeping the average error down to less than 20 per cent is not too shabby a performance.

This makes all kinds of sense. A system with much more of an inbuilt error would be nigh-pointless to continue using from a passenger’s perspective. And it’s easy to see how a system with even a 3 per cent error would develop a negative reputation, considering how many people it stands to annoy every time there’s a slip-up.


That said, at different points of my experiment, “5 minutes” could have meant either 2:32 or 11:21. If you arrived at a stop proclaiming “5 minutes” on a given day last week, it seems there was about a 1 in 4 chance of the bus being more than 2 minutes early or late. Insofar as there was any variation between areas, buses heading into the city centre from the south side averaged 6:41, though there were hardly enough trials here to be statistically significant.

In sum however, we’d probably be advised to give the software some credit. For all I know, it may well have a conception of time divorced entirely from our idea of reality – but for the most part, when RTPI tells you your bus is 5 minutes away, it’s not exactly lying to you.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.