The journey planning app unleashed three Mercedes-Benz minibuses onto the streets of London last week for a two-day “pop-up” bus service trial

 

Three new Mercedes-Benz minibuses bristling with the latest software were used for the “pop-up” trial

 
By Andrew Garnett

It was at the ALBUM Conference in 2015 were Stagecoach chairman Sir Brian Souter warned the bus industry, urging it to wake up to some of the threats that it faces, particularly from new technologies.

Fast forward two years and transport planning and navigation app Citymapper last week launched a two-day ‘pop-up bus service’ in central London using three brand new, specially branded Mercedes-Benz Sprinter minibuses as a testbed for a host of new technologies. The tech company partnered with Impact Group, a subsidiary of London-based bus operator Tower Transit, to operate the vehicles.

The service includes a range of innovative features. Citymapper has developed tracking software for real time integration with the app and a passenger counting system that updates not only the app but the control room too.

Display screens offer more information about the next stops, an overview of the route and even a friendly first name welcome from the driver (this is a bus service imagined by Silicon Valley, remember). Speaking of the drivers, they also benefit from a tablet display screen and bespoke app that keeps them in touch with the control centre and provides live traffic information.

We believe smarter buses lead to better mobility and cities

Citymapper says that the trial, internally known as Project Grasshopper, has been a long time coming. “We’re reinventing the entire software stack for running and operating a bus,” it says. “We believe smarter buses lead to better mobility and cities.

“We built software for everything, including real-time operational control to driver management to scheduling systems. We’re reinventing how to think about all of these in the real-time world. We’ve taken systems that haven’t traditionally talked to each other and integrated them.”

The trial route launched last week, called the CMX1 Circulator, was a small circular route taking in both sides of the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. Citymapper says it chose the route as it has “a bit of everything” with particularly heavy traffic in the peak hours that allows the company to test the technology to the limit. It also has the benefit of being very close to the company’s head office on London’s South Bank, allowing easy access by staff to tweak the onboard tech  and create updates in real time. It also offered staff the opportunity to speak with and get to know some of the pioneer service users, allowing them to gain feedback on both the trial and the app.

Transport for London supported the “pop-up” route and Citymapper pays tribute to what it describes as “the most forward thinking transit agency in the world”. “They released open data that gave us the opportunity to build an app to help the people of London,” it adds. “They are now supportive as we mutually think about the future of the bus in the city.”

So what is that future? Citymapper is keeping its cards close to its chest. Staff questioned on-board each of the three minibuses on the first day of operations were emphatic that it was a trial to thoroughly test out the tech in a real world environment; a live test lab that would allow any glitches to be ironed out and new opportunities for improvements to the technology to be identified.

However, a ‘pop-up’ bus service that has seen the company invest in three bespoke Mercedes-Benz minibuses suggests Project Grasshopper is more than a flash in the pan. It is highly likely that it will lead to some form of app-based demand responsive service, filling in between mainstream bus routes. That is something the company confirmed in an exhaustive statement published on story-sharing website medium.com.

“In the future, we’ll explain in more detail how smarter bus tech leads to better mobility and cities,” said the company.

“First we built an app to help you get around town, using open data, but we found the data needed fixing, so we built tools to do so. We also built tools to analyse the data and learned a lot about how people are moving around. When we studied the existing public transit routes, we realised that they don’t always serve people best.

“We built an ultimate tool (codenamed: Simcity) to evaluate routes utilising our demand data and routing. We found we can figure out how to improve existing routes in all of our cities. We can also identify new and better routes. London is actually not that badly served, but other cities have major gaps.

We also feel buses haven’t evolved enough. They still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology

“We also feel buses haven’t evolved enough. They still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology. If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones we can have responsive buses that react to realtime needs.”

Citymapper also expresses concerns about the image of the bus, noting that they “get a bad rep” and are seen as a subpar experience. “Even when they’re the best transport option, some people don’t take them,” the company added. “Perhaps we can help change that.”

The company said that its app helped people to choose which bus to take and how to get to their destination in the most timely manner. “Now it’s inevitable that we help make them work better,” it added. “We don’t have to do it all ourselves, we’re glad to partner with others. We built an easy to use app by being users ourselves. So we feel the best way to build software for buses is to run buses ourselves and learn from running some public experiments.”

What shape those experiments take, nobody knows for now. However, it is clear that Citymapper has some big plans up its sleeve for its tech.

 
The £250m transport group

Citymapper was only founded in 2011 by former Google employee Azmat Yusuf. Beginning life as an app exclusively for Londoners, Citymapper has since been rolled out to more than 30 cities around the world. In the UK you can use the app not only in London, but in Birmingham and Manchester too.

This ambitious expansion is backed up by some serious money. In early 2016 the company concluded a funding round that raised a substantial £28m, giving the company at that time a market valuation in excess of £250m. The company said that it was looking to push into “massive emerging market cities” where data and infrastructure are sparse.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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