One of the hidden benefits of COVID-19 has been the imperative progression of technology to assist in making the coach and bus industry safer. Transdev and its technology partner Passenger are now using tools to engage with customers and make buses safer; with benefits they believe will long outlive the pandemic.
An announcement in late January had already turned 2020 into a pivotal year for the bus industry. It was charged with the task of conforming to the government’s Bus Open Data Service, a scheme that will standardise information from operators to help passengers plan journeys through third-party app makers.
Passenger is one such app maker, and while coronavirus COVID-19 has put the brakes on much of daily life, one area which has seen a rapid acceleration has been on its branch of technology. The scramble to use tech to make coaches and buses safer has been visible across the industry, such as through the provision of flexible timetable updates, app-enforced social distancing through pre-booking of seats and passenger counting functionality through ticketing providers.
Now Passenger has begun its user-reported social distancing feature. But like many of these functions, it did not exclusively spawn as a result of coronavirus COVID-19. Rather, it was technology already phased for introduction. The swift reaction required in the face of the pandemic has heightened conversation and development of such platforms – and both developers and operators are already considering the future benefits of this sudden blossoming.
The Passenger app
Transdev launched a new platform on its websites and mobile app ‘Transdev Go’ on 28 May, which allows users to report on passenger density for the vehicle they are using. The platform then allows others to judge space availability of the vehicle before starting a journey. No specific numbers are used, but general terms such as ‘busy’ and ‘very busy’.
The ‘Transdev Go’ app traces its origin as a platform back to 2015, when it was a white label solution for bus companies from Passenger. Its accompanying back-end system, Passenger Cloud, allows relevant teams within the operator company to update data as it sees fit. Passenger combines network data with real time system data, which is then rolled out to operators under their own brand.
CEO of Passenger, Tom Quay, explains how a project begun last year to compile enhanced vehicle information offered the framework for the new social distancing feature.
“You were already able to look at a real time feed and see a bus’ location on its route,” Tom says. “But you could not see whether it was a double-decker or single-decker, whether it had wi-fi or USB connections, or what payment types it accepted.
“From our research, apprehension about public transport use relates to these uncertainties.”
Passenger therefore began working with 20 operator partners mid-2019 to begin introducing such enhanced vehicle data, including Transdev and its six registered bus companies. As the medical emergency gripped the country close to the February launch date, Passenger quickly looked into adapting that functionality to the present situation.
Crowd sourcing for data
Focus started on gaining information around vehicle capacity and rebuilding confidence in the network.
Crowd source systems rely on passengers declaring and contributing what they see.
Rebecca Reeve-Burnett, Marketing Manager at Transdev Blazefield, says that the speed at which the operator could obtain that data was the primary driver – and that good existing interaction with customers made crowd-sourcing a strong proposition. “There’s no better way to gain information on the buses than by asking the customers who are already on board,” she says.
Shortly, Passenger intends to integrate information from ticket machines for a more accurate picture of capacity in real time for those buses represented on an app or website. “That should give confidence to people that social distancing is possible on the journey they want to make,” Tom adds.
Crowd sourcing is just one of several data sources. Passenger’s already apps connect to ticket machine providers, which offer a variety of data. “Because of the need to introduce this data quickly, we did not wait for every single provider to come forward,” Tom continues. “Our crowd source system provides functionality to everyone – we can leverage the desire for people to look after each other, something we’re seeing a lot more of during this pandemic.”
Passenger had been looking to introduce such functionality since the start of social distancing measures, but found that passenger counting was not mature in its provision. “The reality is that passenger counting is not very well understood in the UK,” Tom explains. “There isn’t much infrastructure for us to tap into.”
User encouragement will thus largely come down to marketing and social media channels. The Passenger app is entirely configurable for an operator to share vehicle data it sees fit. Transdev is working on a campaign to raise awareness among its customer base. Rebecca adds: “We are working on traditional posters and communication on social media, as well as places where customers look for times and track their buses. As soon as people start using the service, the information feeds through to other users almost instantly.”
COVID-19 as the driver
Tom says there is ‘no question’ that coronavirus COVID-19 has been the driver for this technology. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “It would have been pushing water uphill to get this focus on passenger numbers.”
For Passenger’s perspective, it has long been pushing operators and suppliers to offer customers more data. “Accessibility is a huge aspect for us. The user base across the app is huge. We’ve got many different kinds of user and travelling public with different needs.”
That information will be especially pertinent for those who are wheelchair users or with special needs, where information on accessibility is crucial for safe and convenient journey planning. “As the conduit for that information our job is to keep pushing the bar,” Tom says. “This unique situation in which we found ourselves in an opportunity to push these agendas further, and faster.
“As a tech company we have a clear road map for the year and are geared up for the fast introduction of this technology. It’s a modern software-provider approach.”
Prior to its introduction, Transdev had long been discussing with Passenger ways in which it could communicate to customers, and has found the added functionality a boon for future operation. “In some places where we had exceptionally busy buses at peak times, we would have liked to communicate this to customers,” Rebecca adds. “There will be many instances where this added data will be useful to improve such communication to customers.”
However long social distancing and the surrounding attitudes may last, the technology introduced by Passenger to help users plan safe journeys will be useful during, and long after, coronavirus COVID-19.