If you’re in central London this afternoon, keep an eye out for a little green bus running in a loop over Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. It’s Citymapper’s CMX1 “pop-up bus” – three of them are running for a couple of days over a short circular route so the company, which makes one of the best-known transport apps for smartphones, can see how the data it uses and collects interacts with the dirty business of running a bus service. There’s not much money in free apps, so Citymapper is musing on the idea of running buses itself to generate some revenue.
In any case, it’s bloody good publicity. I had a little ride yesterday, and found most of my fellow passengers were Transport for London staff, curious to see what was going on. Citymapper uses TfL data, and TfL is interested to see how it works. Waiting for the bus was a little frustrating – the countdown timings for CMX1 weren’t as accurate as TfL’s for its normal buses – but otherwise, it was just a normal bus ride, beset by dreadful traffic as the afternoon rush hour kicked in. (If you want to ride route CMX1 on its second and final day, hurry – the service is free to use, and runs about every 10 minutes until 7pm.)
Some of the things Citymapper wants to explore with this experiment include “demand responsive” buses (think a bigger version of Dial-A-Ride) and services that can take different routes depending on traffic conditions, which will mean routes without many stops. So don’t expect Citymapper’s buses to be replacing the 53 yet.
But in this part of London, services like this could be useful – we’re seeing lots of new housing, with new residents increasingly expecting to use transport hubs such as North Greenwich, Lewisham (which will explode if the Bakerloo Line comes), Woolwich and Abbey Wood (Crossrail’s just 19 months away). With TfL under serious financial pressure, it’s going to struggle to satisfy this demand. Imagine a Citymapper-style bus that can run when needed from, say, the back streets of East Greenwich (think the new homes around Enderby Wharf) up to North Greenwich station. Or from Shooters Hill and Woolwich Common. It could take different routes to avoid traffic jams, and possibly do the job quicker and maybe more efficiently than the existing services.
But how would this fit in with the existing bus network without chipping away at its simplicity and accessibility? To do all this would mean a change in the regulation surrounding buses to allow them to have more flexible routes. (Even commuter coaches have to specify the routes and alternative routes they wish to use.) Could it pay its way, and would it fit in with the London fares system? We already have riverboats that operate outside the TfL fares system for those who can afford to use them – but having a second range of buses on different fares is unlikely to go down well with regulators.
Lots of questions – and that’s why Citymapper is running the trial. And that’s why TfL staff piled on board yesterday. Citymapper’s next step looks like being a night bus – the Impact Group, the bus company which is working with the app firm, has put an application in to run a service from 9pm to 5am between Highbury & Islington, Dalston, Shoreditch and Aldgate East on Friday and Saturday nights, with options to take different routes if the traffic’s bad or passengers express a preference. (Insert joke about wipe-clean seats here.) You could see something like this working to supplement the Night Tube at locations such as Canada Water or North Greenwich.
It may well be that Citymapper’s playing with buses comes to nothing (at least in London) except a big publicity boost. But it strikes me as something a little more relevant to our immediate needs than the driverless vehicle trials on the Greenwich Peninsula, which are being conducted while traditional networks are struggling. If it ever fancies toying with the commuter market or night passengers, it could find a willing market in south east London.