Bad Bus (Part 2/3)

Smart bus on a dumb route

In Part 1 we wrote about the good stuff. Now here’s the bad. But don’t worry, there’s a Part 3 as well, where the Jedi returns…

We’ve learned a fair amount about buses over the year, developing our own smartbus, and launching a route in London: CM2. But to be honest, it stopped short of our expectations. We built tech for the old bus world, with all its constraints. What we need to do instead is build for the future we believe should exist.

Here’s why that’s hard:

Buses serve regulations

Who’s the customer? It varies by city and country, but in many places it’s the regulator, not the passenger. Regulation doesn’t reward buses and drivers for passengers or experience. They must instead follow rules, driving up and down a number of times per day, independent of demand. Sometimes there are punitive measures for operational performance.

Regulation leads bus systems to run on outdated models

There’s a concept in the bus world called ‘headway’, i.e. where buses on the same route aim to maintain an equal distance. The assumption is that all bus stops are the same and passengers could come from anywhere.

la de da

This assumption is incorrect and outdated. And therefore the manner in which buses are allocated and run across cities is inefficient.

We’re in an era where we have data on real demand, and mobility patterns across days of the week, times of the day, and seasons of the year.

It’s possible to allocate supply more efficiently, minimise waiting times for users, and reduce unnecessary traffic and congestion for the city.

But our tools and data are underutilised. Regulation makes it hard to be smart.

Various items of smartbussery

Regulators are cautious, so operators don’t change

Regulators and operators are sometimes focused more on what can go wrong, rather than what can be improved. Bus operators are often afraid to try things for fear of losing their licence. Our operating partner was reluctant to make perfectly legal minor improvements to CM2 due to perceived regulatory consequences.

Regulation is ancient!

Regulation for buses, at least in the UK, is using the same framework developed for horses & carriages in 1831. We are working with regulation for horses!

Ok, to be fair (and after consulting with our lawyers), actual bus regulations date from 1930, and were updated in 1981. So the regulations that are currently in effect are only two years behind the first mobile phone.

Thus change is slow

In all markets, it takes weeks and months to change anything in bus land. We waited months to get approved to run our night bus. It took us only one weekend before we learned enough from operations to want to change how we ran the route. We had to wait weeks before our change was accepted. It’s hard to innovate and iterate on such timelines.

Buses and cabs are treated differently

Carry 9+ people in London and you’re a bus and have to follow strict regulations on fixed routes, schedules, and service frequency. Carry 8 people or fewer, and you’re a private hire vehicle that can go wherever you want, however you want, how often you want.

As a result, a private hire vehicle can respond to demand, a bus cannot. That makes it hard for a bus, even a smart green minibus, to be part of the ‘demand-responsive’ future.

This artificial division between the behaviour of buses and cabs exists in many countries.

People don’t love buses

Buses are used a lot, but let’s be honest: they are the least liked mode of transport in every single city where we operate across Europe, the U.S., Asia and Latin America.

But why do people dislike buses? Is it because people dislike sharing? Apparently not, since there are popular metro and train systems.

A sad passenger on a sad bus on a sad day (photo by Lvnatikk)

Other transport modes have gotten better and smarter

Cabs have gotten smarter. Cycles have gotten smarter. Sure both have their issues, but technology has reinvented both industries, and there is real innovation that is serving users.

Meanwhile, buses are still doing the same thing they have been doing for decades.

Therefore, duh, buses are in decline

Ridership is down in most major cities.

New York City
UK, up for a bit in the past decade, and now back down

Uber has made cities nervous, making collaboration hard for others

The first generation of transport tech has often given cities a headache. This makes it hard for other players to engage in a meaningful manner.

This is bad for the future of collaborations between the public and private sector. Transit agencies and bus operators run bus systems, but don’t always have the right capabilities for software and data analytics.

It’s hard for the public sector to buy good software

Government entities need to utilise complex and bureaucratic procurement systems. These are won by companies with project managers and sales persons who are willing to deal with inane procurement processes, rather than product or technology companies that have the capability to do the best job.

There is lack of investment in the bus industry, compared to other transportation verticals

Venture capitalists and growth investors have put billions into the cab and cycle industries, due to their ability to innovate, scale, and serve users. They have not invested similarly in the bus industry, perhaps because there is little opportunity to improve anything.

Regulation, amidst other challenges, is holding the industry back and making buses uncompetitive.

But solving for shared transport is essential to the future of dense, affordable cities!

We cannot settle for single person vehicles congesting our streets.

We cannot settle for expensive single passenger rides that are environmentally inefficient.

Getting shared mobility to work is important. Buses need to work.

A popular gif finds another great moment

What we’re going to do

We recognise the instrumental role buses play in cities everywhere, providing affordable access, and social connectivity. Subsidies help extend this access to an even greater segment of society. As a smart-ass tech company that thinks we know better, we’ve struggled with critiquing an industry that performs these necessary functions.

That said, we see a lot of potential for improvement in this vital industry, and feel this is only possible by pushing the boundaries using technology. Regulation needs to evolve, but we cannot wait.

We cannot build technology for the past. We need to build the future for shared transportation that we believe cities need.

So, we threw away our old tech. We started again, and rebuilt everything.

In Part 3, we will share the most important innovation in our company’s little history.

And we will back it up with a real launch in London.

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