The bus of the future is here. Citymapper, the transportation routing smartphone app, started its two-day smart bus trial — a “Pop-up Route” — on Tuesday on a small circular route around London. It’s the first time the app has created its own method of public transport, and it draws on Citymapper’s wealth of user data to understand what people want most out of a bus. In the future, it could lead to passenger-focused bus routes that change shape to fit residents’ needs.
“We basically want to rethink every aspect of it,” Vinay Trivedi, product manager at Citymapper, tells Inverse. “We want to try different sizes, layouts, seat structures, fully rethink what is a bus supposed to be, not just because someone designed a bus this way 100 years ago so we keep making environs the same way. We wanted to start thinking through what does make sense, and what passengers want.”
The pilot program is very much work-in-progress, but Citymapper has made some interesting changes:
- Real-time tracking software that integrates with the app to show exactly where all the buses along the route are.
- Routing system that accurately tracks the time until the next stop.
- Passenger-facing screen that shows the bus’ current location, time to next stops, and information about subway transfers.
- Driver’s tablet with route information that integrates with the app.
- A real-time occupancy counter.
- Route display on the front of the vehicle that shows the next few stops.
- USB ports on the rear of the seats for charging phones.
The bus itself has been under secret development for the past several months under the codename Project Grasshopper, and it was only revealed to the world on Monday. Despite the short notice, the route has seen a lot of interest. Trivedi says the company has had around half its passengers come from members of the media, while the other half were simply looking to get across London and noticed the route offered on the app.
“We can hop on, hop off, test,” Trivedi says. “We’re actually changing the software in real time, so we can run down there and see how it manifests down here.”
So far, that’s led to some minor changes about how the passenger-facing screen displays information. The team found the icons were a bit too small for a bus in motion, so they changed the sizes and updated the software immediately.
But perhaps the most groundbreaking part of Citymapper’s venture is the focus on user data to create smarter routes. An internal tool, dubbed Simcity, can analyze bus timetables around a city and suggest new and better routes.
Citymapper got its start in London back in 2011, using Transport for London’s open data policies to build a modern routing app. Today, the app supports 40 cities around the world, but in its first foray into physical transportation, the company has received support from the agency that helped it start all those years ago.
But to the agency’s credit, London is well-served by its bus network. Citymapper claims the Simcity tool, which it will provide more detail about at a later date, will help other cities that have major gaps in service. In the future, Simcity could lead to responsive bus routes that adapt based on a population’s evolving needs.
Citymapper won’t necessarily operate the routes, and it can use Simcity to work with local authorities to improve service. If a lot of people are making a transfer along a route, for example, it could be a sign the route needs redrawing.
“There’s a number of axes you could make to improve an existing journey, and then you have to trade that off with the cost,” Trivedi says.
It’s early days, but Citymapper’s bright green buses could be a common sight in the city of the future.
“What does the future of traveling around a city look like?” Trivedi says. “That’s the real question.”
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