Open data? Let’s get the basics right first.

‘We want a mobility ecosystem that delivers seamless intermodal transportation faster, cheaper, cleaner, more responsive and safer than today. This will be enabled by open data on fares and journeys across all modes – data that is available to everyone to access, use and share’.

No, they’re not my words; it’s the “putting passengers first” vision spearheading the DfT’s grand Bus Open Data consultation launched at four roadshows around the country over the last couple of weeks. I just hope this latest craze for all things open and techy is going to be a lot easier to understand than that gobbledegook of a vision the two consultants, Deloitte and ODI, have cobbled together with DfT mandarins. It might sound good to wordsmiths, but it’s totally meaningless to me. They might want a ‘mobility ecosystem delivering seamless internal transportation’; I just want a bus map that shows me where all the buses go and easy access to timetables.

In the old days you could pick up a bus timetable which would include lovely clear maps making it easy to work out how to get from A to B and maybe wander on to C too. There’d even be town plans showing bus stop locations and information about market days and other stuff. In the not-so-old days you could go online and find all that information even easier. Now vast bus map deserts are opening up across the country making it impossible to work out where buses go. London, Kent, Dorset, Somerset, North Yorkshire… the bus map desert list is getting ever larger. How ironic at a time when Open Data has become the latest fad!

Those ever helpful timetable books are getting more and more hard to find too. I spotted Conwy Council still produce a lovely clear and helpful book so as I’m planning a few days in that lovely county next week I gave the public transport team there a ring and asked if they could send me one in the post. They weren’t sure if they could do that; nor whether they had any available. “They’re like gold dust” I was told on the phone, “everyone wants one but we only produce a few now”. Agggghhhhhhhhh! (I’m pleased to say one arrived in the post yesterday. Gold dust definitely).

Everyone uses journey planners these days, I’m told. Well, that might work fine if you know there’s a bus from your A to your B and you have a pretty good idea approximately how often it runs; but what if you don’t know anything? What if you’ve just moved into a new area? What if you’re wanting to be helpful to an environmentally friendly mobility ecosystem and take a car-free holiday using public transport for a week (having been convinced by Catch the Bus Week and all that)?

Using a Journey Planner in such circumstances is like a game of Battleships. Try square B7 – has that hit a battleship or a cruiser? No, neither; you need square C6 for that, which if you’d had a map showing where they all were, would have been obvious.

And come on guys, journey planners are totally robotic in their travel advice. Take my plans tomorrow. One of the routes I’m catching is split due to the ridiculous bureaucratic 50Km rule; it’s not actually split, just technically split, so Traveline thinks it’s two separate services instead of one through bus, and because the ‘connection time’ between the ‘two’ journeys at the split point is too tight it insists I need to catch a bus half an hour earlier to change on to the one I could have got at the technical ‘connection point’. A human being reading a timetable can work that out; a journey planner following pre-set algorithms can’t.

There’s a classic in the Scottish Highlands where a once a day connection leaves Lairg station four minutes after one of the four a day trains arrives. Our helpful journey planner reckons such a seamless modal transfer needs more than four minutes so ignores it, instead insisting you have to make a two day adventure of a journey, yet there’s a footnote on the timetable that buses will wait for late running trains!

But my biggest beef about journey planners is this. Suppose an infrequent bus departs at 8.50am and then at 11.30am. You optimistically put in your origin and destination and a desired start time of 9am. Assuming you’ve managed to pair up precisely the correct originating bus stop from a menu which can stretch to many alternative options (and the same with the destination) then it’ll tell you the only option available is a departure at 11.30am rather than suggesting starting out just 10 minutes earlier. You’re denied that option.

It’s the greatest irony to see techy people salivating at the idea of soaking up data on bus fares and real time journey planners to develop Apps we never knew we needed when the basic rudiments of maps are being ditched by local authorities. Some bus companies are just as bad, by either not producing network maps or burying them so deep on their websites it’s like that illusive one square submarine yet to be found on the grid.

But hang on a minute. What on earth has happened to get us to the point where the DfT are employing consultants to carry out a massive consultation with hackathons, live streamings and all the techy gizmos you can muster so that I, as a customer, can work out what the fare is for my journey. Err, shouldn’t commercially orientated bus companies in a competitive travel marketplace be telling me the great value prices on offer anyway? Why do we need legislation and regulation for what should be one of the basic propositions of selling a product? Frankly the industry needs to hold its head in shame that for far too long it’s made information about prices and ticket options opaque at best and non existent at worse. It’s like we’ve not grown up from the days when the Road Service Licence conditions pre 1986 stipulated every bus driver or conductor must carry a fare table for inspection by the passenger on demand. (It was usually kept hidden away in their bag although London’s buses always displayed a fare chart on an RM  or RT for the particular route the capital’s restrictive operating practices designated it to be operating on that day). That requirement disappeared in the mists of time so bus companies breathed a sigh of relief and decided the best thing was to pretty much forget about telling anyone about fares information at all. Even in those areas where you are required to have the correct fare with no change; and there’s a fare box. And it’s not a flat fare. Glasgow – I’m looking at you (as I recall my no-change fare of £1.88 for a journey in that city; unhelpfully it needs one of each coin, admittedly some time back now!)

Mind you, I’m not convinced clever Apps developed in all-night pizza-eating Hackathon sessions in geeky-novetly-warehouse type settings which tell me all the fare options, day tickets, capping, weekly variants et al for my journey will make an iota of difference to modal shift. Unless pricing is made a whole lot simpler and attractive as part of the purchase offer the reverse may happen. “Blimey, now I’ve got all this information through the Holy Grail of Open Data, I never knew it was all so complicated. I’ll stick with the car. So much easier. You just fill up every so often and it’s one price.”

The DfT’s grand consultation has a second strand to it; and that’s Accessible Information. ‘Talking Buses’ to use the more colloquial term. In her forward to the consultation document the Minister says “I think every passenger, regardless of where they travel in Great Britain should be able to do so confident they have boarded the correct vehicle and are travelling to the right place”.

Well, hear hear to that. But hang on, why are we having to consider regulating bus companies to be doing something that is just so basic and should have been done as standard many years ago when the technology first became available. It’s not as though it’s expensive in the overall scheme of buying a bus which is going to last for the best part of 15 years and maybe more.  Instead we’ve had boasts about virtually impossible to log-on to WiFi provision, faux leather seats that aren’t any more comfortable and splashes of silver or gold in the external livery from most Groups but a complete block on spending a couple of grand or so on something that really is useful and welcomed by all passengers as the Minister observes.

She continues “with Regulations which focus on the information needs of passengers rather than the means of providing it, I believe we can encourage the change which is so desperately needed”. Commercial bus companies – change desperately needed by passengers – information needs ………………… Regulations.

What a terrible indictment of a so called commercial industry which aspires to entrepreneurial freedom and baulks at regulation and franchising that we need Government to regulate for something passengers “desperately need” (and she’s right, us passengers do desperately need it …. and maps too please!).

 

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Roger French            20th July 2018

2 thoughts on “Open data? Let’s get the basics right first.

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