I was a little optimistic when I wrote this in September 1997: “Bus and tram information is available on the Web, and can also be viewed in the windows of mobile phones and pagers. By the millennium we should be able to log on to the internet to discover when the next Number 63 bus is arriving.”I was wrong with the timing, but it’s here now – or at least it would be if I lived in Singapore, Vancouver or Washington DC. Yet another example of the promise of the late 90s coming true, only a little bit late.
Using the web (and, at least as important, mobiles phones and PDAs) to provide transport information makes great sense – it means we travellers get direct access to information that would otherwise have to be processed and passed on by an agent of some sort. Airline passengers have become used to looking up scheduled departure and arrival times, and then checking to see if they are being kept to. But I am more intrigued by the other end of travel, train and particularly bus, where the challenge is not only to provide information in usable form, but also to make sure the great non-technical public uses it. Much of the activity is in the public sector, but that does not mean it is irrelevant to business: if Joe Public gets used to turning to a screen rather than the phone for all his travel information, then he will naturally turn to it to for other information too.
In some ways, remarkably little has changed in the last decade. As well as describing a pilot mobile information scheme in Gothenberg, I also wrote about three British projects: North West Trains providing live arrival information, BAA’s arrival boards, and Vauxhall giving access to the TrafficNet congestion map. North West Trains no longer exists, at least under that name, but real time train information has now spread across the network. The National Rail site (www.nationalrail.co.uk) has a live departure board system that covers the country - put in any station, and you can see whether a train is on time. BAA’s system has a developed a little, and TrafficNet is still available from Vauxhall (www.vauxhall.co.uk).
Similar services are available around the world. French rail travellers can check for delays (at www.infolignes.com), so can Germans (reiseauskunft.bahn.de) and Indians (www.trainenquiry.com). In Los Angeles, where they don’t do public transport, drivers can look at a real time traffic map (rtmap.metro.net), which shows how fast traffic is moving.
These are clever, but I am not sure how popular they are. I do use the Vauxhall TrafficNet system, but generally only when a friend rings up while from the motorway to ask if she should sit in a jam or head off on the country lanes. Such systems are now fitted in cars, of course, but when they are simply available on the web they have limited appeal. Real time train information is more useful, because you can check before you leave home, but I wonder how many people do.
It seems to me that travel information really comes into its own when it is delivered onto the appropriate device. The web is terrific at handling complex information, but needs a decent screen and a decent keyboard; and it is not (despite what phone companies tell us) very portable. Mobile phones (or PDAs) are surely the medium for live information, but it must be simply presented and simple to use.
That is why the web is good for planning travel in advance. Interactive journey planners are now common – even the New York subway network (travel.mtanyct.info) now has one: it has not been a leader in this field, to put it politely. The leaders are, oddly, the British, with their famously complicated public transport infrastructure. Actually it may not be so odd - the UK government has thrown money at the communication side, presumably to counter the fragmentation of the physical network.
The National Rail site is a well established source of timetable information, with individual train companies tapping into it for their own sites. It has been joined by three sites that are highly sophisticated, but that appear to compete, or at least overlap. Transport for London’s Journeyplanner (journeyplanner.tfl.gov.uk) lets you put in two points and works out ways of getting from one to the other using all kinds of public transport, as well as bicycle. Traveline (www.traveline.org.uk) does the same for the rest of the country, though only within regions, while Transport Direct (www.transportdirect.info) covers the whole of the UK, and throws in car journeys for luck. The functionality is amazing and ever-increasing – you can now use Transport Direct to locate a car park or work out the carbon your car journey will generate. But they are all publicly funded, and there is a huge overlap – I’m not sure how that fits government value-for-money objectives.
Anyway, I shall now move on to live information. The UK is quite advanced on this too - you can get live rail information sent to your mobile, but other countries are leading in the trickiest area: buses. While trains can be logged as they pass set points, buses have to be tracked by satellite. It also makes huge sense if the information arrives on a mobile phone, rather than just a website.
The US has not been a great leader in transport information, but when Americans get their teeth into something they tend not to let go. There is a company in California called Nextbus (www.nextbus.com), and it is well named. Its system tracks buses by GPS and sends the information to websites or mobile phones. To see an example look at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority website (www.wmata.com), and click ‘When’s the next bus?’ on the home page. Enter the stop number, route and direction, and you will see the next buses listed. Tap in the stop number to your mobile phone, and you will receive an SMS message with the same information. You can do the same in a number of cities in the US while similar systems are available in Singapore (www.sbstransit.com.sg) and Vancouver (www.translink.bc.ca).
So there we are: bus information has arrived, if a little late. Just like most of the buses I catch.