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‘It's not the future anymore. It's the present’

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Opinion
‘It's not the future anymore. It's the present’

Claire Robinson’s 13-year career in the bus business has coincided with a period of huge change, driven by advances in technology.

As Marketing Manager of East Yorkshire, Go-Ahead Group’s Hull-based bus company, these changes can assist her in achieving her ultimate goal of persuading more people to use buses – a mission that is more important now than ever before.

So much has changed.

Flexible app-based tickets that are quick and easy to download and use are now available, responding to changes in how people live and work. A ‘live chat’ facility is offered on the company’s website, providing a near instant response to customer enquiries. Lost property is sometimes located before a vehicle has even reached the terminus.

And the buses themselves are not the rattling, old vehicles that many people recall. They have Wi-FI, USB sockets and comfortable seats. When new additions to the fleet are displayed in city centres, observers typically remark ‘I didn’t know buses were like this!’.

This rapid modernisation of the industry has brought with it a mountain of data, offering bus operators new opportunities to gain insights into their operations and enhance their service offering to customers. Our recent eBook, ‘The data-driven bus operator’, explores this phenomenon. 

East Yorkshire, along with its Go-Ahead sister companies, is a great example of a data-driven bus operator, as our conversation with Claire demonstrates.

“Data. There's so much of it nowadays,” she observes. “We've got so many systems in bus companies now – internal systems for measuring tickets bought, Wi-Fi megabytes downloaded, app downloads, website views...

“Everything from how many times somebody has used a weekly ticket within a week, and exactly where they've used it, and on what bus and who was driving that bus, and which exact bus was it, and was it a single decker or a double decker, and what was its capacity. There's so much data out there.”

This mountain of data contains treasures for bus operators, but locating them can be a challenge.

“You could have departments of people just looking at it and finding information all the time, but sadly we don't have that,” Claire explains. “We just have to try and work out what we need to know for a specific task or problem ... and then work out what data we have that will help us solve that problem.”

“We just have to try and work out what we need to know for a specific task or problem ... and then work out what data we have that will help us solve that problem.”

When2Travel – a quick response with a lasting purpose

Data analysis tools and artificial intelligence can help bus operators sift through this mountain of data to deliver actionable insights that add value for transport operators and passengers alike. Claire cites Go-Ahead’s collaboration with CitySwift to create When2Travel as an example of this. Powered by our bus data engine and SwiftConnect API, When2Travel provides a dynamic colour-coded online timetable, showing which buses will be busy, to help passengers plan safe, socially-distanced journeys. 

When the UK-wide lockdown was relaxed, the dilemma for East Yorkshire and other bus companies went from ‘we have too few people on our buses’ to ‘will we have too many?’. When2Travel helped East Yorkshire and its sister companies to reassure passengers about their journeys and spread demand throughout the day.

“I think people were surprised that we managed to get it out so quick,” she says, “I don't think people realise how much data there is there ... We didn't have anything looking at capacity or telling people where there was capacity on buses.”

When2Travel was created as a response to Covid and the requirement to maintain social distancing on public transport, but Claire says that this tool would have been useful before the pandemic, and she’s certain it will still have a role afterwards.

She explains: “Even in normal time, pre-lockdown, it would have been useful information because some people like to travel on quieter buses, especially people who might have conditions such as autism or dementia or anxiety issues and things like that.”

“Even in normal time, pre-lockdown, it would have been useful information because some people like to travel on quieter buses, especially people who might have conditions such as autism or dementia or anxiety issues and things like that.”

New ways to use data to boost bus travel

East Yorkshire combined When2Travel bus capacity predictions with a live checker that uses ticket machine data to tell people how busy an approaching bus may be, enabling them to adapt their plans in real time.

The company has worked with partners to provide this information through its own channels, but third parties can also make use of the data because East Yorkshire publishes it on its website.

“Anything that makes travel easier for our passengers is a good thing,” Claire explains. “As I say, we've got all this data lingering in the background ... and maybe someone else can use it to do something whizzy that we haven't even thought of.”

East Yorkshire itself is continually looking for innovative new ways to use its data. For example, the company has recently introduced bike racks on board two services into York and is now developing an online tool that will let passengers check whether a bike rack is available on an approaching bus. Drivers’ ticketing machines were updated so that bikes are now checked in and checked out.

Data is also being used to rethink the company’s ticket products. The Monday-to-Friday commute was already in decline before lockdown blew it away. With many more people working from home and only commuting to an office once or twice a week (or less), the data has shown a decline in the sale of weekly and monthly tickets.

East Yorkshire responded with the launch of its new app-based ‘Flexi5’ ticket, which offers a discount on the purchase of five individual day passes. These passes can be activated when the user requires them, rather than within a particular seven-day period. “We just wanted some flexibility because that's what passengers are looking for,” says Claire.

Because Flexi5 is app-based it gives East Yorkshire a wealth of information about how and where the tickets are being used.

“We just wanted some flexibility because that's what passengers are looking for.”

The era of the data-driven bus operator

Claire is a very long way short of being an industry veteran, but she has already witnessed big changes over her 13 years at East Yorkshire.

“When I started in 2007, I think Twitter had only just been invented,” she recalls. “No-one knew about it yet. We had a website which some people who know about IT in our office made themselves!”

The era of the data-driven bus operator has arrived, and Claire says that big changes can now happen very quickly.

“The speed of things has changed a lot,” she observes. “The stuff we did in lockdown - the capacity checking and the ticketing stuff - that happened so quickly. That was Ticketer and Passenger and CitySwift and us all working together and all having to get things done really quickly, and everyone did.

“So the final product for the passenger is out there when they need it, within weeks if not days.”

Comfortable, modern buses; convenient ticketing products; payment methods; clearly presented live and predictive travel information available to passengers in the palms of their hands – all of it underpinned by data. The bus product has changed so much over the past decade.

“It's not the future anymore,” Claire concludes. “It's the present.”

 “It's not the future anymore. It's the present.”

To download CitySwift's case study on the success of When2Travel in partnership with the Go-Ahead Group, complete the form below.

CitySwift Case Study: The Go-Ahead Group