This week we launched Space Checker with FirstBus. Space Checker predicts how much space there’ll be on a bus, throughout the route, for the week ahead. Its designed to help people catch the bus with confidence during the recovery from the COVID pandemic.
Catching the bus during a pandemic
At Prospective we think about buses a lot and we’ve spent the last couple of years using transport simulation to make them better. For example using our product FlowOS to make them run on time and pick up more passengers.
But the pandemic has turned bus travel on its head. Governments across the world have told people to stay at home and if people have to travel, to avoid public transport. Clearly some people -like NHS staff and other essential workers -have to travel and for many of these people, the only option is to catch the bus so bus operators have been working hard to make bus travel as safe as possible. This has included limiting the number of people on a bus, and at the height of lockdown a typical double decker bus that normally carried 60 people could only carry 15.
In many countries, we’re now talking about ‘the recovery’. The government is actively encouraging us to ‘go back to work’ and use public transport again. That means many people who spent the last four months avoiding buses at all costs are deciding whether they feel comfortable catching them again.
And if they do, they’re thinking about when is the best time to ride, because we’re not back to ‘normal’ yet. There are still far fewer buses running than there were before and they still have limited capacity. But as more and more people start to travel again there is a real chance of getting to your bus stop (face mask and contactless payment in hand) only to see a big sign on the front of the bus saying ‘bus full’.
To help prevent this, the government and the bus industry have been encouraging people to ‘travel outside peak times’. This is great if you know when ‘peak times’ are, but many people don’t. And even if you thought you did, you might not know now — because since lockdown, the peak has moved and spread out across different times of the day.
This messaging and the impact it has on the occupancy of buses is a form of occupancy management — the aim is to reduce the number of people who travel at the peak without reducing the number of people who travel over the whole day and to maximise the effective capacity of a fleet to accommodate the ebb and flow of passengers.
Occupancy management will be really important in the coming months to give people confidence in returning to the bus. Without it, bus ridership may never return to pre-lockdown levels. There is a strong link between transit reliability and ridership. It won’t take many ‘bus full’ signs for a passenger to find an alternate way to get to where they need to and this can cause long term travel behaviour change. If people find it easier and more reliable to drive their cars, they probably will.
What we’re doing to help
So what’s this got to do with Prospective? Well, over the last couple of months we’ve been developing a set of occupancy management tools to help reduce the number of full buses that leave people waiting at the bus stop. The first of these is a really simple tool to help people know when is a good time to go to the bus stop and which service to catch.
We launched it with our friends at First Bus and called it ‘Space Checker’. And that’s what it does — it predicts how much space there’ll be on your bus when it leaves your bus stop, for every hour of the day over the next seven days. If your bus is looking busy, then you can check other buses from your stop too and choose a quieter one.
Space Checker means you can confidently travel by bus to work, or to see those friends and family that you’ve only seen on a screen since lockdown began. It’s really simple to use and has been designed to be accessible by anyone with a mobile device, tablet, laptop or desktop.
Space Checker is just one part of what we’re doing to help the bus industry get back on its ‘wheels’, because the real challenge is not predicting occupancy but managing it — to the benefit of passengers.
Space checker works because we can estimate the origin and destination of every passenger that boards a bus. That’s a really powerful tool as it means we can predict how each boarding passenger will affect space on the bus later on in the route. Once we know when and where a bus is going to be busy, we can give instructions to operators to spread out vehicle capacity more efficiently, reducing the chance of the bus getting full.
Demand Predictive Transit
The way we see it, the response to the pandemic is a big moment for the bus industry —and it will speed up change. We see a future of constantly changing travel patterns, local lockdowns and ‘new normals’. To carry on operating efficiently, bus companies will need to anticipate changes to demand and supply on the network and quickly adjust the services they’re running to reflect an ever changing picture. If they don’t, many people who used to catch the bus will start using their cars — with all the negative environmental, congestion and health impacts this implies.
So we’re building tools that will help bus companies not just react to but predict the state of the network. We call it Demand Predictive Transit and in the long run that might make the old fashioned bus timetable a thing of the past — and also the feeling you get when you can’t get on a bus that you’ve been waiting for in the rain.
We’ll tell you more soon and in the meantime, take a look at Space Checker and tell us what you think. It’s just for First Bus services in Glasgow now, but we’ll be rolling it out across the country soon.
And if you want a bit more information on how Space Checker works, keep stopping by here over the next couple of weeks.