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Viewpoint: Issue Issue 26 19 Dec 2011

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What am I waiting for? We can tell you lots if you’d like

Information is not just what you need to know, but what you might value. Peter Stoner reflects on wider uses of real time data for passengers waiting and traveling.

Peter Stoner

It is always good to be challenged by practice elsewhere, and theTravel2020 conference this year did this very effectively, not least with the talk from Kenneth Lin of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s New York office, bringing us up to date with passenger transport developments around the world, and in particular America. 

I was especially interested by a photo of electronic roadside displays in Phoenix, Arizona which, if I understood correctly, show how many seats are available on the next bus.  The operator RAPID’s website ( has this approach too, stating "Choosing a RAPID Trip.  If you'd like to know which bus trips have more seat availability....”. 

This got me thinking. Some of the exhibitors' stands at Travel 2020 were devoted to passenger counting, and they confirmed that it would not be too difficult to achieve real time seat availability information using the existing communications that link vehicles and passenger information systems.

My first thoughts were that in Phoenix they were attempting to guide passengers to lightly loaded buses to get the best utilisation of the available capacity and in so doing probably also get faster boarding and alighting.   However it seemed to me a bit likely that passengers already waiting at a stop would try to board the first bus, unless perhaps they could actually see the bus behind.  Maybe if the information was available earlier (and from an analysis over a period of time about specific daily runs)

that would be helpful. Unless seats can be reserved, there would be no guarantee that the seats would still be available nearer to the time of travel, of course, but knowing recent actual experience is surely a useful thing?

The policies on the Phoenix RAPID bus routes may be more to do with helping attract people out of their cars in summer temperatures that average 38°C.  As they wait in the heat knowing there are seats available is reassuring, and a helpful part of the welcome associated with the quality brand.   Whether or not this is the true motivation of the transport authority, it is useful to consider if passengers more generally would welcome more information about the bus, tram or train they are waiting for.  It’s hypothesis that could be tested in customer research.

Many real time management systems do feed back to the route or network managers, or the vehicle engineers, a wide variety of ‘running’  information and this is often seen as one of the main benefits of automated vehicle location management systems. However, up to now, what information is actually given to the passenger is probably decided on a "need to know" rather than “can be done” basis. The justification is that provided the passenger knows the bus or train is on its way, all other information will be revealed when it actually arrives. Some rail information displays have featured the number of carriages on expected trains, and the position of first class and buffet cars etc.  Other real time systems also give an indication that the vehicle has low floor access or space for a wheelchair. But this is another case of passengers, this time those with disabilities, being seen as "needing to know".

The hypothesis I am constructing is not whether passengers need to know, but whether they would like to know more about the vehicle they are about to board, or other things that would be useful before they get on it.  There are the physical characteristics of it, the type, the seating format, the livery to look out for etc. Perhaps even a photo!  Some companies have taken to naming their vehicles and associating them with people or causes, or schools, for example. This could be promoted, as could a sponsor or advertiser who have adopted that vehicle. Some information about the fares it is offering might also be welcome.

It would be possible to give the driver’s name before boarding too, and "the vehicle was cleaned this morning by ... at .... depot" could give recognition to all the behind the scenes work to clean and maintain the vehicles, show the team involved and perhaps emphasize the commitment of the  company to safety and quality.

There are issues of course with any increase in information. If five people are waiting at a bus stop and passengers know there are 20 seats available on the bus they will be relaxed. But stress levels may be raised if there are more people at the stop than the number of seats available!  Will passengers value knowing this before the bus arrives?   Will the upper decks of buses or the front and rear coaches of trains be better used if the seating available is given?

In a sense, these concerns may become increasingly academic. With ‘open-data’ thinking and crowd sourcing of information being undertaken by passengers themselves, it is perfectly feasible for an app to be created that alerts mobile phone users to all this data. Just one person on a bus or a train is capable of feeding in its condition, time-keeping, occupancy, driver’s performance and other observations to be shared by everyone!

A further lesson from Phoenix is that their guidance to passengers does not take anything for granted:

"To confirm you are taking the right bus, check the bus destination sign - it is the lighted sign in front of the bus above its windshield”, their information says "Let others exit before boarding. Move quickly to a seat. If no seat is available, stand behind the yellow line near the front of the bus."

They might easily add that if anyone has a comment or suggestion, it would be welcomed. Information is now very much a two-way street. And who knows precisely what any of us ‘need to know’?  

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