Bus operators around the world have responded admirably to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
They have provided regular updates to passengers about how and when to use services safely. They have offered additional protection to their staff and have implemented enhanced cleaning regimes. And they have taken steps to ensure that it is possible to maintain social distancing on their services.
CitySwift has helped bus operators develop technology that helps customers plan their journey before they travel and see how quiet their bus is predicted to be. Using our data engine, these web-based platforms combine the latest timetables with highly sophisticated predictions about the number of people who will use the service, on a stop-by-stop basis, at any particular time. This reassures bus users that they will be able to maintain social distancing and won’t be refused entry due to the bus already having the maximum number of passengers on board.
The latest of these, an innovative, AI-driven predictive bus capacity checker, has been launched by National Express West Midlands. Passengers in the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham, can now determine the best time to travel - up to two weeks in advance - based on predicted available bus capacity data. The platform, at nxswiftconnect.com, seeks to spread passenger demand out across the day, by presenting capacity information to bus users in a quick and easy way.
Andy Foster, Deputy Commercial Director at NXWM, hopes that the clear presentation of likely bus loadings will offer reassurance to people who are thinking about using the bus – especially those who are nervous about being in public spaces.
Equally important, however, is the additional background information it gives the company on bus loads for planning purposes. Foster and his colleagues can quickly identify where extra capacity is required.
“The main driver was trying to avoid the problem in the first place of a bus becoming too full, rather than just saying, ‘oh well, it's full and we're letting you know it's full’,” he says. “I think that's going to be particularly important as we head towards September and schools and colleges return, and potentially more people go back to work and so on.”
"The main driver was trying to avoid the problem in the first place of a bus becoming too full, rather than just saying, ‘oh well, it's full and we're letting you know it's full’."
The technology will also help NXWM to maximise the use of capacity, and therefore revenue.
“It's more important than ever to optimise capacity with the demand,” Foster explains. “It's normally something you try and do. Before coronavirus and social distancing, if you had a couple of buses that were full and standing, it wasn’t ideal from a customer point of view but you weren’t leaving them at the roadside. They might not have had such a comfortable ride, but it was less of a problem than it is now.”
“We don't want to be saying, ‘you can't travel or it's difficult to travel’,” says Foster, “But where we can sort of nudge people in the right direction, that's what we want to do. Lots of people can change the times that they travel.”
"We don't want to be saying, ‘you can't travel or it's difficult to travel’. But where we can sort of nudge people in the right direction, that's what we want to do."
Ironically, at the moment, NXWM’s buses are quietest at eight o'clock in the morning, the traditional morning peak. But Foster expects that to change. The new morning peak is between seven and seven-thirty, but then it quietens down before building up again after nine o’clock. NXWM’s busiest time is currently between about midday and two in the afternoon.
Foster believes that this kind predictive passenger information is a sign of things to come, rather than a sticking plaster to help get the company through the current crisis.
“I am certainly not seeing this as just something we do whilst Covid or the current crisis is around,” he says. “Once it's there, why would you take it away? We are going to be using the data anyway, so this nice front end bolt-on might as well stay and be useful to customers.”
“I think it will make people think about other things that you can do. It sort of naturally fits into live journey planning, doesn't it? You can see this moving into journey planners that take account of how full buses are, and live traffic situations.”
"You can see this moving into journey planners that take account of how full buses are, and live traffic situations.”
NXWM has a strong track record on making use of technology. The company, which is part of National Express Group, is the UK’s largest bus operator outside London, and the first outside of London to offer contactless fare capping on its services. This was a major step forward that recognised that the way people work, and therefore travel, has changed – a trend that now looks set to accelerate.
The 1,600-vehicle company has already been using our bus data engine to take the guesswork out of an unprecedented series of network recasts following the easing of the lockdown. It has deployed the SwiftMetrics network analysis platform and SwiftSchedule timetable optimisation technology across its entire bus network to optimise services and accurately match vehicle supply with passenger demand.
“SwiftMetrics helps us deliver the best possible service because we can quickly analyse trends and probe demand, vehicle speeds and identify problem locations,” Foster explains. “Meanwhile, SwiftSchedule enables us to complete analysis of running times in hours rather than days or weeks. These products will help us to optimise our bus network, for the short, medium and long-term.”
"SwiftMetrics helps us deliver the best possible service because we can quickly analyse trends and probe demand, vehicle speeds and identify problem locations. Meanwhile, SwiftSchedule enables us to complete analysis of running times in hours rather than days or weeks."
Foster sees big potential for big data. “It's really, really exciting,” he enthuses. “We've always used data to quite a degree. We still use ETM (electronic ticket machine) data, that's still a useful tool as well. So this is a further development of what I think we've done for quite a long time. But obviously the big data thing is bringing in probably a greater element of forecast potential and looking at other factors that influence or are likely to influence demand, such as the weather or one-off events and so on.”
He thinks that big data will quickly embed itself in the bus industry in the same way that previous technologies have. “It's difficult to see that it won't become embedded in how we do things going forward,” he says. “It's like computerised scheduling. No one can seriously see that going away now and everyone reverting to big sheets of graph paper and pencils.”
"It's difficult to see that [big data] won't become embedded in how we do things going forward. It's like computerised scheduling. No one can seriously see that going away now and everyone reverting to big sheets of graph paper and pencils."
NXWM’s bus capacity checker is now live on their website. You can experience it’s AI-driven predictions at nxswiftconnect.com.