CitySwift

Digitally transforming bus journeys

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Digitally transforming bus journeys

MOVE – Mobility Reimagined – brings together disruptors, their technology and their attitude with stakeholders across the mobility spectrum.

CitySwift CEO Brian O'Rourke was invited to speak at MOVE's recent London event. Here's an excerpt from his presentation.

How did airlines digitally transform?

Before I talk about digitally transforming the bus industry, I'd like to say a few words about low-cost airlines. Because planes are just buses with wings, right?

In the low-cost airline sector, Ryanair were the pioneers of online flight booking. This helped them improve customer service while reducing staffing requirements (which, in turn, helped them keep flight prices low). But it also meant they could access more passenger data, optimise load factors and generate more ancillary revenue.

Ryanair are also one of the top airlines for punctuality. They were one of the first to board and off-board passengers using both the front and rear aircraft doors. This allowed for faster turnaround times and more passengers per hour, per seat. 

Ryanair understand that poor reliability costs money – and that there's a direct correlation between reliability levels and passenger numbers.

The problem with buses

How does this relate to the problems currently facing the bus industry? Well, the first problem is that buses can't fly! But perhaps the biggest problem is that the bus industry hasn't seen the growth in passenger numbers that the low-cost airlines have seen. Why?

Back in the day, people tended to travel from A to B, along fixed paths at around the same time each day. Now, they might travel from A to B to C, using different forms of transport and at different times of the day. But our bus networks haven’t been able to react to these changes.

As our towns and cities get more and more congested, bus journey times have been getting longer. Over the last 50 years, bus journey times have increased by more than 50% – and every year this increases by a further 1%.

Transport Focus surveyed 50,000 fare-paying bus passengers in 2018. 7% said they were dissatisfied with bus journey times, 15% were dissatisfied with bus frequency, and 17% were dissatisfied with bus punctuality. Generally, these areas are the responsibility of bus schedulers to fix.

The problem for bus schedulers

It's a bus scheduler's job to ensure their network runs on time.

In London alone, there are more than 9,000 buses (compare that to Ryanair, who have less than 500 planes in total). Twice as many Londoners use the bus compared to the Tube – that's five million bus journeys per day.

But, every day, things go wrong with buses... extreme weather, roadworks and various expected and unexpected issues can cause spikes in traffic or demand. They can cause buses to be slow, late, full or bunched (with two buses arriving at the same time).

In a digital age, surely these things can be planned for or fixed in advance? Well, not currently. 

Most of the tools that bus schedulers use were built over 20 years ago. They're non-cloud based and they don't take advantage of advancements in technology and the wealth of data that bus operators now have available to them. In fact, some schedulers are still using pen and paper to design their schedules and plan their operations.

Bus schedulers want buses to turn up on time and not be empty or overcrowded. Basically, they need to match bus supply with passenger demand. But they must work to tight budgetary constraints. 

If each bus makes an average of ten trips per day, it means there are 90,000+ trips made by buses every single day in London. 90,000 journeys that have to be planned for and scheduled. Frequency, run times, layovers, driver and vehicle rotas... To change things is a slow, tedious and potentially error-prone process. Long routes can take weeks to schedule. And schedulers are unsure if their changes will improve things until their schedules are implemented. 

But there has been a massive change over the last five years that could be a catalyst for the digital transformation of the bus industry. Bus operators have started to keep digital records. Since real-time information boards and contactless payments were introduced, there have been digital records of every GPS ping (every 30 seconds) and every time a passenger boards (and sometimes off-boards) a bus. 

There has been a massive change over the last five years that could be a catalyst for the digital transformation of the bus industry. Bus operators have started to keep digital records. 

Every day, London's buses generate 130 million GPS pings, 376,000 bus stop arrivals and departures, and five million passenger boardings. That's a lot of data!

This data has led to a number of passenger-focused innovations. Planning apps such as Citymapper, simplified ticketing and fare structures with daily/weekly caps are already making passengers' lives easier. But what hasn't been digitally transformed yet is the operations side – the backend. How do we speed up our buses, and how do we improve scheduling? 

The solution

CitySwift has built the solution to these problems: a data-driven decision-making platform for bus networks. The CitySwift platform integrates with every legacy system used by the bus industry, and we combine data from these systems with external 'big data' sources (weather, events, census patterns, IoT sensors etc) to create much richer datasets.

Then, using AI and machine learning, our technology does three key things: It predicts delays, predicts journey times, and predicts demand spikes. This information is then fed back into bus schedulers' hands in a format that's easy for them to understand and action.

Using AI and machine learning, our technology does three key things: It predicts delays, predicts journey times, and predicts demand spikes. This information is then fed back into bus schedulers' hands in a format that's easy for them to understand and action.

This is done using two products:

• SwiftMetrics delivers user-friendly business intelligence dashboards that allow bus operators to instantly visualise vast amounts of data from their network; identify and act on trends; predict future growth areas using big data; set custom alerts; and track KPIs such as operating hours, load factor and passenger count.

• SwiftSchedule enables schedulers to automatically create optimised timetables that take into account traffic, events and hundreds of other external factors; understand the impact of disruption and changes to their schedules; and model multiple future scenarios.

Unblocking our cities

There are massive benefits for all stakeholders. Bus operators can reduce their operating costs and improve reliability (leading to an increase in passenger demand); passengers can be more confident that their bus will arrive on time, not be overcrowded and quickly transport them to their destination; and over time our cities can become less congested, less polluted and nicer places to live – with an overall reduction in private car usage!

At CitySwift, our primary aim is to help bus operators and local authorities unblock our towns and cities. Our data indicates a one minute bus journey time reduction leads to a 1.3% average increase in passenger demand. This has the potential to accelerate the shift back from private car journeys to bus networks, allowing cities to become less congested and more environmentally-friendly.

To learn more about the CitySwift platform and how it could help digitally transform your bus network, contact us or request a demo.

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