Modernization, at last! or: Why I’m Joining Optibus

By Leon Daniels

My last job, from which I’ve retired, was at Transport for London. I was Managing Director of Surface Transport, which is a £3.5bn business that covers all passenger public transport in London, except the Tube. I had the fortune of doing this in preparation for and during the 2012 London Olympic Games, making sure that everyone in London got where they were headed despite the huge disruption of the Games.

My career in public transport taught me that scheduling is the cornerstone of mass transit operations. I was one of the early adopters of computerized scheduling, when it was first became available, about 25 years ago. I was just amazed at what it could do. Until then I had teams of people drawing lines on graph paper with pencils. They were doing a great job, but the process was entirely manual.

Yet, I must admit with great sadness, that when I took a look at the scheduling systems that transit operators are using now — not much has happened in the last 20 years. Certainly, the equipment that is used on is a little bit more modern, but in essence, it’s the same thing. It’s something that requires detailed manual intervention, at all stages of the planning and scheduling process. Optibus is fresh: a fresh start, fresh thinking and people. It takes advantage of the superb computing power on the Cloud, a great user interface and advanced technology.

Mass transit operations need to be absolutely right

Schedules should be absolutely right: be feasible for drivers, for the buses you have and any other regulatory requirement or business need. Whenever we get schedules wrong it is a bit like flying a plane just one degree off course. It doesn’t sound like much, but it will end up being a really long way off course. So, it’s really very important for operators to have a schedule to keep them on-course so that the quality and the quantity of trips happen as it should, and that this will be done at the lowest economic rate.

Scheduling is a bit like magic: the public sees a timetable; the staff get their instructions. It takes place behind the scenes and has been a dark art for ages. Schedules are tricky and getting them optimized is trickier. I think most people aren’t aware that the technology to create schedules hasn’t come of age until very recently, and that they were more dark art than science based.

Early in my career, people tried hard to make sure I didn’t ask about scheduling

When you start asking questions, you start to uncover shortcomings, on a micro and macro level. People tended to think about planning and scheduling as averages, but, in real life, the characteristics of each day are quite different. Fridays are quieter than Thursdays –people are working from home, in anticipation of the weekend. Equally, school days are busier than school holidays. When it’s raining the traffic is slower. But the manual scheduling that we’ve always used in transit tended to ignore this and has been a pretty heavy average, designed to cope with all conditions.

I think it’s also fair to say that for a long time especially the beginning of my career, the schedules, to some extent, suited the operator and the staff. In London, the night bus network all arrived at Liverpool Street Station once a night, not because there was any demand, but because that’s where a 24-hour canteen was. Things like this, that don’t consider passengers, don’t happen now.

Today’s tools are different

The tools we have nowadays allow us to be much more precise, using real-time information, using all the knowledge we have about the different traffic conditions, and different demands on different days of the week. I can remember asking for special schedules for Fridays and being told it was impossible. It has to be the same as Mondays and Thursdays. Now I think we can have schedules for school days, Fridays, non-school days Fridays, summer Fridays, Christmas Fridays, Friday the 13th…….

The market is changing

All around the world, operators are under a lot of pressure to reduce costs — and it’s not because no-one needs public transit, but because consumers are more discerning. People are making tougher value for money decisions and want the money they spend for public transit to deliver value. At the same time, the sharing economy is all around us and in public transit we will see services that fill a bit of a gap between the top end of taxi, and the bottom end of the mass transit bus.

The biggest change is the smartphone interface. You use the phone to indicate where you want to go and get anything from a taxi to a demand responsive bus. If the market is going to be continuously optimizing its network, its transit options, than the mass transit operators must move with those times.

In the future, mass transit operators will be in the business of providing services based on demand. Not historical demand, but much more short term demand, something that consumers will indicate on their smartphone.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in the future. I am also interested in transport history. During my career we’ve had amazing sorts of developments on the engineering side, on the operational side, and here we are now — just on the cusp of some huge developments. We are approaching a time where everybody’s life is far more reliant on their smartphone. The future is extraordinarily exciting. I’ve always really been interested in the future and one of the reasons I chose Optibus is because — having had a career in the transport industry, I am as fascinated as ever to know what’s going to happen in the future, and it was really important to me to join a company who was absolutely focused on the future.

About Leon
Leon Daniels served as Managing Director, Surface Transport at Transport for London until 2017. Before joining TfL, Leon built and sold his own venture-capital backed business to a FTSE 100, multinational transport business. He also held the position of Commercial Director at UK Bus, overseeing new ventures in UK and international transport. Leon is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Transport, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Couriers and a Member of the Court of the Worshipful Company of Carmen. Now retired, his projects include working as an advisor to Optibus.