Is it possible to slash the cost of providing timetable displays and improve quality? Thanks to new technology, the answer is yes.

Let’s face it, the provision of bus service information at the UK’s 450,000 bus stops is generally quite poor. There are exceptions – London is the obvious one – but there are too many examples of sub-standard or non existent provision. Who is going to give their local bus service a try when the information on display at their nearest stop is virtually impossible to read, and is out of date anyway? And how often to find another retailer who makes such poor use of a marketing opportunity?

The bus stop has suffered in many parts of the country because it’s unclear who is responsible for it – bus operators and local authorities look to each other, and in too many cases neither delivers the goods. It can be a labourious task to keep up with ever changing service information and ensure that roadside displays are up to date. And with local authorities having to cut back on their resources, the challenge becomes greater.

New technology, however, can provide the answer, and Ipswich-based ITO World has developed a system that automates the process. A job that used to take weeks can now be completed in less than a day.

It’s a solution that has been embraced enthusiastically by Norfolk County Council and Hull-based bus company EYMS. In both cases new constraints on local authority budgets were the impetus for adopting a new system, but the result has also been a much higher quality of information.

Norfolk found itself struggling to keep up when the team that deals with roadside information was cut back from five people to one and a half. In April last year the council approached data and visualisation experts ITO World about automating the process.

A suite of bus stop information templates was created and information is now fed into them at the touch of a button. Creating a clear and attractive bus service timetable display now takes around one minute. Previously it had taken around 20 minutes to construct even the most basic display.

Norfolk is now using the system for around 2,000 of the county’s 6,000 bus stops. A QR code can be added to displays to enable bus users with smartphones to download access timetable information on their phone, or view real time information where it is available. A QR code sticker can be provided for stops without bus timetable displays.
“We’re absolutely delighted with [ITO World]. They’re a good firm to work with,” comments Jeremy Wiggin, travel development team manager at Norfolk County Council.

The cost of the system is around £5,000 to set up. This includes template development and the first year’s license fee for up to 2,000 stops. For larger authorities and operators the annual cost is around £1.50 and £2 per stop. This arrangement enables a limitless number of service changes to be processed at no extra cost. Wiggin says the cost of the system is “extremely low” and claims that Norfolk is saving a lot of money.

“We can do a timetable change now in half a day whereas before we would have been allocating two or three weeks.” he explains.

“We were a bit sceptical about the ability to automate the process but to be honest we have been able to do it.

“I can’t over-emphasise the difference it makes. We don’t have to allocate days to waysides any more. We would encourage every other authority to look at doing this because it has worked for us.”

Norfolk is now talking to ITO World about other ways of harnessing technology to take the pain out of information provision. Rail information and travel information for hospital appointments are two areas of discussion.

EYMS turned to ITO World when East Riding of Yorkshire Council decided that it was going to stop providing bus stop service information and instead focus its limited resources on maintaining supported services. Information provision had always been something of a mixed bag in the county with the council providing displays for some routes, such as those in the main towns of Beverley and Bridington, but not others.

EYMS suddenly became responsible for 1,000 extra displays and it arranged a meeting with ITO World in June last year – in October the first roadside displays using the ITO World system were posted at bus stops. For EYMS the appeal of this system was that there is no need to purchase software or use an in-house design team, and price is fixed. They developed a suite of templates with ITO World, and timetable data is now uploaded and automatically fed into these templates via a web-based system.

For EYMS, the ability to step in and provide information in a cost effective way was essential. “It’s an important part of our marketing as we see it,” explains EYMS commercial manager Bob Rackley. “I’ve always said that any business would bite your hand off for the opportunity to have an advertising display every 400 yards along the road.”

 

About ITO World

ITO World was formed in 2006 to provide web-based services for transport professionals and transport users. Its services are based on an advanced multi-modal model of the UK’s transport system, which includes roads and public transport, displaying the results using state-of-the-art visual effects techniques.

The company’s co-founders, Peter Miller and Hal Bertram are well placed to deliver this. Miller is a “transport data fanatic” who was formerly chief technology officer at ACIS, the real time information system supplier which has now been rebranded as Vix. Bertram meanwhile harnesses the skills that he acquired during his career in Hollywood’s CGI industry to render complex data in a crisp, beautiful way.

In its early days the company was focused on checking the quality of data for a list of clients that included the Department for Transport, Traveline and Google. However, it has since diversified into other areas, such as information about onward journeys at railway stations. ITO World moved into bus stop information displays following a number of approaches from organisations who felt that the existing provision was poor. Miller was at first unconvinced, but after an investigation he believed there was a gap in the market for a company that could handle information and generate displays quickly and cheaply.

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