If you are under the impression that the digitisation of passenger transport planning, information and payment is still a far-off train heading for your station, you need to check the real-time departure board app on your phone. When you do, you will find that it's already sped past you, and catching up with it will be no mean feat.
Over the past 18 months FWT has been developing the CartoGold suite of online interactive travel planning solutions. By using scheduled and real-time passenger transport data from local authorities, the system can plan a journey at bus stop-specific level.
We can also incorporate a UK-wide journey planner, show zonal overlays for demand responsive transport in rural areas, incorporate data that shows cycling and walking routes and their popularity. But while this is all good stuff, there is still the assumption that these websites are used at home to plan future journeys.
So, what about the man and woman on the street? This is where our latest innovation comes in handy; a range of interactive touch-screen information kiosks and e-paper bus stop information displays, both of which will be working in live environments in the UK and US by the end of the year.
It is worth considering a couple of first principles, to avoid us seeing technology as an end in itself rather than informing and reassuring our industry's customers:
Be sure of your data sources and put yourself in the mind of a passenger unfamiliar or nervous about using public transport. Ask: What does that person need at that time and place to reassure themselves that something good will happen? Does the source of that data recognise the importance of getting it right? Test it, test it, and test it again.
White space is OK. Don't be afraid of it. Keep the message simple and don't over-burden the user. Apple's iPhone packaging is literally their logo on a white background and that fills millions of people with confidence!
Incidentally, these principles apply just as much to traditional static information sources as they do to digital solutions
OK, that's the science bit done, now back to our new toys. The interactive kiosk and e-paper unit ranges were both conceived, designed and implemented by FWT's US arm CHK America. Installations are now live, or nearly so, in Dallas, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas.
FWT has taken CHK’s lead and applied specifics from our own CartoGold know-how to adapt the interface to handle the specific hurdles of the UK's TransXChange means of entering and transferring public transport data and, not least, the particular pressures of our own market-led, deregulated provincial bus industry. Not for us the luxury of one network operator with fixed bi-annual service revisions of most US cities!
When we say ‘kiosk’, we really mean our software within. The housing around it is just that, something durable to withstand the British climate. The software inside it will work in pretty much any touch screen-enabled hardware. The displays have been designed to be relevant to anyone in a bus/rail station environment or, indeed, any location reliant on good public transport access.
The default home screen shows a rolling list of next departures, able to absorb real-time feeds and including nearby boarding points, which is of obvious use to almost everyone passing by. But on interrogating each departure, you have instant access to routing information and scheduled journey times, as well as being able to access the journey planning function to reach a destination by any mode.
These instructions can then be texted or emailed to the passenger's phone, enabling them to take the details away with them, again adding to the feeling of reassurance.
It is also possible to incorporate links to M-ticket apps to encourage less use of cash on the bus, and also links to your nearest Costa for example (other coffee outlets are available). This opens up the possibility of enabling passengers with a 15-minute wait for a bus to order and pay for their coffee, possibly with a discount, and gives the retailer a definite incentive to contribute towards the costs of buying and maintaining the kiosk in the first place – a rather neat virtuous circle.
The best way to describe our e-paper units are to envisage a Kindle. The technology is moving on and coming down in price all the time, but the dimensions of the screen are likely to be those of an individual Kindle, or two or three stacked vertically within a bespoke bus stop case.
The e-paper unit offers the ability to remotely update both planned and unforeseen changes to times and routes, whilst saving on the costs of printing and laminating static posters, not to mention the time taken to physically update them. This also has the added advantage of ensuring that new information is posted on the day of a change, rather than a week before or later.
The unit is vandal-proof to ATM standards and the behind-the-scenes software will alert you if it encounters a problem or is damaged in some way – but even then, as with a Kindle, it will continue to display the last active screen.
Because of the current limitations on screen size, we are not advocating slavishly replicating current static posters that incorporate route diagrams, or scheduled departures for every day of the week. Where these are used for the busiest stops on a network, they should ideally be updated to show the next real-time departures, or a summary of scheduled times for the remainder of that day.
They can also be incorporated into a bus stop flag where real-time information is needed in conjunction with existing static departure posters.
We are in discussions to bring both these units into the UK in a multi-site project to test the concept of remotely-managed bus stop information. We have been interested to see Transport for London's demonstration stop on Waterloo Bridge, installed late last year. These units will, in the short term, be a precision tool for high profile demonstrations, but it is important to test and adapt the technology now to benefit from the longer term savings and efficiencies that will accompany them. We are also expecting to agree a trial of 200 e-paper units in the United States imminently.
We look forward to seeing you at Smarter Travel LIVE! Whilst there, you may wonder why our demonstration kiosk and e-paper unit have been programmed to represent installations in a medium-sized UK town. Simply, we want to prove the point that you don't need to be in London, Birmingham, Manchester or even Las Vegas to afford or benefit from this technology. Medium sized UK towns offer just as much potential for engaging audiences and raising awareness and patronage as their more glamorous city relations, and indeed their comparatively simple networks make the advantages quicker and easier to implement.
Robin Bennett is FWT’s commercial manager
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