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Viewpoint: Issue Issue 26 19 Dec 2011

Countdown to the future: real time revolution opens up our knowledge

The latest technology is allowing us to put very high quality information about services in front of users. It also allows our futures to be planned based on today’s realities

Peter Warman

Technological visions and applications for passenger transport are being offered with increasing confidence, and the evidence from the Travel 2020 event in November is that the speed of their development is accelerating. Two weeks before the event, on 17th October, saw the official launch of London Countdown II from Transport For London.  This enables access to real time information on bus arrival predictions for all London’s 19,000 bus stops via the web, mobile web and SMS. A healthy appetite for such information was demonstrated by the recorded demand of 560,000 users of the service on its first day. Simon Reed, Head of TFL Technical Services Group, and responsible for the Countdown II project, explained at Travel 2020 that an average of 0.5 million hits a day for this service has been maintained. 

Reed acknowledged that the capability of today’s technology for such projects was no longer the main concern. The challenges for public transport authorities and operators are more associated with ensuring the necessary professional skills are in place, and an organisational structure that ensures the outcome is real value for money and effective project management delivery. Just as important is recognizing the significant funding required to maintain these systems and ensure the accuracy of the underlying data as public transport continues to evolve with changing schedules, repositioning of bus stops, coping with disruptions like road works. Providing real time information is an on-going and demanding operational task where performance is continually under scrutiny and public expectations rise as they become dependent on it. Introducing systems that then decay in quality  and accuracy would be a very unhelpful step.

There are capacity issues too. As Countdown II increases in popularity, the limits of the 2G and 3G mobile networks will become apparent at certain peak demand periods of the day. Trials of the 4G networks are under test already in London, in anticipation of the Olympics next year. As travellers become even more reliant on handheld devices other challenges will need to be resolved. They relate to the battery life of mobile devices as their use becomes more intensive and possibly business-critical in providing smart ticketing and assisting with way-finding throughout the day, as systems migrate from fixed equipment to mobiles.   

Simon Reed stressed that the nature of the technical challenges is changing. Radio coverage and computer power have significantly improved during the last three years. Databases were now too large to leave any analysis options to chance. Tim Johnson, the Product Manager for Trapeze PTI - one of the companies involved in the delivery of Countdown II – meanwhile explained some of the challenges of the project given its size, the high expectations to deliver quality information and the importance of ensuring interfaces for the public were easy to use on web pages and mobile devices.

Extensive testing in public user groups was done before the project launch to ensure the interface designs are acceptable to consumers, he said.  This resulted in changes and additional features to allow sites to be personalized, store ‘favourite’ bus stops, and allow quick searches of nearby stops to determine the best option for any given journey. This is just the start, as TFL will make a public API (application programme interface) available for Countdown II and encourage a list of approved app developers to add further enhancements to the service. 

Travel 2020 demonstrated that organisations responsible for planning and operating public transport are still coming to terms with the implications of this new era involving real time vehicle tracking, responsive booking systems, electronic payment, detailed information in the hand of the traveller, and the way in which social networks are providing growing feedback to fellow travellers and operators. Are today’s working practices evolving to take full advantage of what is on offer?

Tom Steinberg’s presentation on My Society’s latest web service ‘Fix my Transport’ highlighted the issues. It cost £60,000 to build a site for the whole of the country, which allows passengers to report issues for any public transport operation in the UK – train, bus, underground, tram, or coach. “We’ve found, with previous projects, that putting issues in the public domain can sometimes get them solved” Steinberg explained. “Not all of them, admittedly – but it’s a start.’ The site consists of over 330,000 pages covering every public transport stop and route in the UK, something made possible by the open data policy of the UK information system Traveline. For any given problem, the site is able to work out who is responsible and pass it to the relevant transport provider. All emails and their replies are publicly available. A thousand reports have been generated in the web site’s first eight weeks of operation.

The new matrix of information delivery channels and ‘Crowd Sourced’ data is opening up a new paradigm for both managing and planning services.

With his responsibilities in TFL as a Portfolio Programme Manager with a particular interest in the concepts associated with smart cities and leading on the modeling and design of key London interchanges, Nick Bromley suggested there were new tools becoming available that can achieve a lot more than our traditional transport planning modeling techniques. Coming from a background where in 1983 he was developing software for tracking buses with ICL and then from the late 1990’s working as a partner for seven years with Autonomy, he is aware of the analytical power of the new data sets that are becoming available.

 Bromley recognises that not only can we now track every bus in real time across London, but also follow up 50% of travellers within London and beyond from the trails made possible from smart mobile data generated by the devices they carry. The interest is not in the individual journey, and Bromley fully acknowledges that personal privacy must be protected. However, such collective data sources will allow the very latest overall patterns and volumes of movement across an urban area to be understood in detail, revealing variations throughout the day and week. It is early days to say the extent to which such data can be used, but if we are serious about really understanding and responding to the patterns of movement in our cities, and the choice of modes, Bromley believes that these new rich data sources should surely be explored. 

The real paradigm shift is that three-dimensional virtual models of the life of our cities can now be developed, incorporating different data layers that reveal travel patterns by all the different modes, including cycling and walking. Such models will become part of the tools used by operational control centres, with historic data logs revealing how and where the problems are occurring, and prompting new responses.

The same virtual realities will be able to test the impact of new developments, new transport investment plans or the effectiveness of contingency plans to respond to oil shortages or major movement challenges – and to plan more sustainable transport services.

We have the opportunity to take a much more traveller-centric approach to transport planning, using techniques that have only become possible in the last couple of years given the power of computers and the availability of data.  The next challenge is how transport specialists can join with the animation and software specialists to conceive how these new working practices can be developed and their outcomes be presented.

After all, as we develop these new transport planning and operational management techniques, it is important to consider the requirements of our politicians and the general public to help them share in the visions that are becoming possible. The role of localism suggests the public will appreciate realistic simulations of transport proposals for their local area that show how it could be changed. Fear of change often comes from poor communication of what is proposed. We now have the tools to display our ideas and their impacts much more clearly.

The development of new methods for testing different futures may meanwhile make our profession more appealing to future generations as they realize such work becomes an outlet for their skills learnt on interactive games in virtual reality and  simulation and animations can be fed with real time operational information and movement data.

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