In 1839 George Bradshaw published his railway guide. In a time when competing private railways exposed only proprietary times, fares and standards, he united them all into a single book anyone could carry around.
Later on the state took over, concentrating the information at a single desk where travellers could go to plan their trip. A kind of state-managed Bradshaw’s guide came into effect and was in place for many decades.
It’s now early 21st century and, after a new wave of deregulation in the transport sector, we are once again facing the lack of coordination among a myriad of private operators. These companies struggle to meet the demands of their customers successfully while praying that they don’t ever leave their cluttered websites and alienating reward programs for the concurrence. The lack of specialisation and paranoid fear of competing operators — even those who could feed them with connecting travellers — renders a pitiful user experience. If Rick Blaine decided to leave Casablanca and go for Ilsa Lund in Paris, his 21st century experience wouldn't be too far from this:
There’s always room for exaggeration but many users face today very similar experiences when it comes to book a trip. The problem has many angles that are easier to understand if we compare the current travel planning experience to that in the pre-digital era, a time where very few people knew what the term booking engine stood for.
One. We had maps.
Maps mean context. They mean exploration. You can browse a map, use your eyes to estimate approximate distance, focus on the general or get closer to the details. When you use a map not only you see a destination but the places that surround it. Maps are the closest you can get to exploring a territory before you can actually get there.
Two. Actors were a few and very well known.
As a rule of thumb, each country had a railway company and a main airline. If you knew which countries you were to visit you knew who you had to contact to get first-hand information.
Three. They were not afraid of collaboration.
Because they had well known operating boundaries, the French Railways didn't usually mess with the business of the Italian Railways. But in the current situation the barriers are down and everybody is potentially interested in playing everybody else’s game. Since all compete to carry passengers, they have the false feeling that there’s no room for specialisation and you could say that most operators are getting pretty paranoid. They obviously have their reasons but the traveller experience is suffering as a consequence. Indeed, operator companies are not so eager now to inform us about what the others are doing or to collaborate on cross border services, information portals or exchange terminals.
Four. They had network maps.
Operators had a thing called network map or connection map where you could see lines representing the various connections between places. Sometimes they would even signal the periodicity of these connections: four services per day. Think of it like a chess game: network maps mean that if you are at one square of the chessboard you actually know which other squares you can jump to next. This is no longer possible, and you are asked to find out your travel options by trial and error.
Five. They had timetables.
A timetable usually looks like a boring table of numbers. They do have an advantage, though. They come in handy to understand trains or ferries that, unlike most planes, are usually organised to have more than one stop. Once you have chosen one destination, knowing that the same train you plan to ride is also going to other places you may want to visit could make you reconsider your choice. All this is visible in a boring timetable but it’s usually hidden from you in modern travel search result pages.
Six. No fancy coloured websites that are SQL queries in disguise.
A Web form with three fields — origin, destination, travel date—is equivalent to a SQL query to a database with three fields — origin, destination, travel date. Period.
This is a slow, context-deprived, unimaginative way of giving transport information. It is equivalent to placing multiple desk clerks to whom you can only ask a template fitting question, who have no memory and can only answer simple phrases. It is giving up our ability to analyse distance, recognise patterns, converse or interact. It means burying your customers under layers and layers of trial and error seasoned with slow response times — witch is highly effective to get as much resistance as you can in their learning process.
The Basque name for place, toki is short, even agile. Tokiz toki means going from place to place. Planning your travel means travelling beforehand. It means going from place to place — tokiz toki — in your imagination. It means having an eagle view of the World that surrounds you and iterating different approaches over the terrain learning from them, understanding how places are connected and which route suits you. Tokiz Toki means to stop planning itineraries blindfolded, uncovering your eyes and using the fast feedback loops and the context that allows for exploration.
This is the project I am building out of a personal frustration with travel planning. And I would like to discuss it with you. Help me get back our expectations with travel planning and regain consciousness about how the world is connected.