Both the internet and smart phones have transformed the availability of travel information and especially real time data. No more having to consult bulky paper timetables (that many people struggle to understand), ring up telephone enquiry bureaus, or wait at the station or bus stop not knowing when your next train or bus will arrive. The information you need is now at your fingertips wherever you are, or whenever you want it. Or is it?
A quick look at usage data for transport information websites highlight there are still some glaring gaps where the market is potentially missing an opportunity to provide the information that customers want.
Figure 1 provides an interesting snapshot of digital information provision and usage. While the numbers relate to unique monthly website users for September 2020, when demand for travel was considerably less than usual due to the pandemic, it shows usage of a selection of travel websites in the UK and Ireland ranked in comparison to Transport for London’s website TfL.gov.uk.
A quick look at usage data for transport information websites highlight there are still some glaring gaps where the market is potentially missing an opportunity to provide the information that customers want
The multi-modal Transport for London website attracted nearly 6 million unique users in September 2020, highlighting the benefit of having all public transport information readily available on one website. In second place was thetrainline.com, which despite its name also provides information and sells coach tickets. The success of Trainline, despite charging transaction fees on ticket sales which can be avoided by using any of the other train operating companies’ websites, is an indication of what can be achieved through advertising and branding.
In third place is Uber, highlighting how much the firm has disrupted the public transport sector by simply providing better information to users and suppliers of taxi/minicab services. In London, research shows that over 50% of Uber users would have previously used public transport for the same or similar trip, highlighting that good quality information can change travel patterns.
While Bustimes.org, the sixth most heavily used website is in its own words “the unofficial home of bus, coach and ferry transport information”. It’s surprising that an ‘unofficial’ site has been far more successful in attracting users than say Traveline.info.
Especially so given that Transport for Manchester’s TfGM.com, which might be expected to offer local transport information for Manchester, similar to TfL.gov.uk’s offering for London, instead suggests people use traveline.info or citymapper.com for local journey planning instead. Hence, despite Manchester’s population being a third of London’s its website receives just 6% of the hits TfL.gov.uk receives. Traveline and its Scottish and Welsh versions do provide national multi-modal public transport information, but they are little known or used despite being promoted by a number of transport authorities. Citymapper.com which provides similar multi-modal information for around a dozen UK and Irish cities receives slightly more hits.
Rail travel has the reputation of being expensive but I must confess I was surprised there is a separate and well used website just for selling railcards. And trainsplit.com is one of the many websites that have now sprung up offering the opportunity to save money on some train trips by splitting tickets. One website used by a mixture of travellers and enthusiasts is realtimetrains.co.uk, ideal for identifying which platform your train is likely to go from before it comes up on the station train describer. Its historic data also tells you exactly how late your train was when claiming delay repay compensation.
With moves towards greater bus regulation, the establishment of Great British Railways and the need to meet our net zero carbon targets there is an opportunity to radically improve and promote multi-modal real time information to passengers. This will help them realise that many journeys are possible by public transport, provide them with relevant information from one source so they can better plan their journeys, and help them find the best available fare.
John Siraut is director of economics at Jacobs
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