Transport Direct: information in action

Posted: 1 April 2005 | Miles Jackson Transport Direct Team, UK Department for Transport | No comments yet

Last December saw the public launch of the UK Government’s Transport Direct portal, a multi million pound project delivered with the help of local authorities, transport providers and technical experts. The portal unites and integrates existing sources of transport information and is part of a wider programme, which works to improve the provision of British travel information.

Last December saw the public launch of the UK Government's Transport Direct portal, a multi million pound project delivered with the help of local authorities, transport providers and technical experts. The portal unites and integrates existing sources of transport information and is part of a wider programme, which works to improve the provision of British travel information.

Last December saw the public launch of the UK Government’s Transport Direct portal, a multi million pound project delivered with the help of local authorities, transport providers and technical experts. The portal unites and integrates existing sources of transport information and is part of a wider programme, which works to improve the provision of British travel information.

In a recent issue of Intelligent Transport, David Clowes, the then Director General of ITS UK wrote that “we are only at the start of the information revolution in transport” and described how a transport system of the future might look, based on technology that already exists. The Transport Direct portal, online at, is an example of how that vision is already being realised. Features of the portal include:

  • Door-to-door journey planning for any journey within Great Britain, supported by step-by-step instructions and maps
  • Air, coach, rail, road and intercity public transport ‘quick planners’
  • Road journey plans and timings that take into account predicted traffic levels for key roads
  • Real time information for rail and road users
  • Ordnance Survey maps at a range of 13 scales, containing around 30 million addresses and 300,000 bus stops
  • Seamless retail hand-off (preventing the need to re-enter journey details when buying tickets) for rail and coach journeys
  • Find nearest railway station, airport, coach station
  • No need to register, free to use

The British transport system has begun to move towards becoming better integrated, but is nevertheless composed of many disparate elements – transport providers, local authorities, central Government and its agencies, to name a few. Prior to Transport Direct, British transport information mostly reflected this, being scattered across many sources, varying in quality and format and therefore differing in its usefulness and accessibility. The UK Government recognised the need to address this and that new Internet-based technology could be the key to delivering better transport information.

A chief drawback of the information age is the difficulty of navigating one’s way through the ever rising number of sources of information. The Transport Direct programme aims not to create a new set of information on top of the already numerous others, but to assist in improving them as well as integrating them via the Transport Direct service. The service is currently accessed online but will soon be available via mobile phone and other handheld devices, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs). It brings together and integrates sources of transport information and adds a user-friendly interface, reducing the need to hunt around for, and assimilate, information on the different ways of making a journey. In tandem with the service, the wider Transport Direct programme works with industry stakeholders and data providers to develop internationally recognised technical standards in the creation and formatting of transport information – particularly, but not exclusively, to meet the needs of the Transport Direct service itself.

The diagram ‘Transport Direct portal design’ illustrates how the portal obtains its data and how the data is processed. A partly distributed planning approach is employed – that is to say that the portal itself does not hold most of the data required for the service, but instead obtains that data ‘on demand’ from external data suppliers, converting it into a readable style to provide the output for the user, via the Internet portal or another device.

Distributed and centralised planning is used according to the relative advantages of each and the availability and maintainability of the relevant datasets. The distributed planning approach has various advantages. It reduces the amount of data that Transport Direct needs to hold and if the external data is updated by the service provider it is automatically updated within Transport Direct. The downside is that this makes the portal heavily reliant on external service providers for its data. Yet to simply create and maintain a new set of data would, in the long term, be even more labour-intensive and would arguably make Transport Direct a symptom of the problem it intends to cure. Where centrally held data is likely to be more up-to-date than locally held data – such as the national rail database, which is imported from source to Transport Direct on a daily basis – the architecture of the portal allows for the use of that, thus ensuring that the user always has access to the best available information.

An initially explicit aim of Transport Direct was to raise awareness of all travel opportunities in order to increase uptake of public transport. Several parties have therefore expressed surprise that it should incorporate a road journey planner aimed at drivers. What is more, journey plans that show a car route to be the quickest option are fairly commonplace on Transport Direct, leading some to wonder whether it could have the opposite of the intended effect. However, some 85% of UK journeys are made by car. To fail to cater to drivers would be to neglect a huge section of the potential audience and to gear Transport Direct towards an audience already in the habit of using public transport. Significantly increasing uptake of public transport can only be achieved by giving people who would usually travel by car reliable information on what other options are available to them. Furthermore, Transport Direct’s road journey planner uniquely considers historical traffic level data, routing drivers away from busy areas, if appropriate. It also allows users to see how travelling at a different time or date could mean a quicker journey, whilst Transport Direct’s ‘Live travel’ pages give details of current disruptions. Measures such as these promote more efficient use of the British transport infrastructure, spreading demand away from peak times and areas where transport services are disrupted.

The British public are broadly in favour of encouraging greater use of public transport. However, whilst people approve of measures such as improving services or subsidising them, they express a marked hostility towards weighting information in favour of public transport, for example, by omitting information for drivers. Here was another argument for the inclusion of a road journey planner in the Transport Direct portal. Transport Direct honours this wish for impartiality in all its work. It is open to all potential data providers, providing that their information is of a standard and format that can be incorporated into Transport Direct. Where this is not the case but the data relates to a significant transport service and can be brought up to the required standard without disproportionate effort or cost, the Transport Direct team can work with the data owner to achieve this. The desire to increase usage of public transport remains implicit in Transport Direct – and public transport constitutes a major part of the solution to road-related problems – but integrity and impartiality of information are key in gaining public trust of Transport Direct and thus making people aware of public transport services which they might not otherwise have considered using.

Gaining the cooperation of the transport industry was crucial from the outset of the project, since much of the largely deregulated industry does not answer directly to central Government yet creates and owns the information Transport Direct would seek to use. Industry buy-in was achieved not only by meeting with senior management and convincing them of the case for Transport Direct, but by seeking their views on every aspect of Transport Direct’s implementation. This process continues in the form of Transport Direct’s Advisory Board, which meets twice a year and a Sounding Board, which meets every quarter. The Advisory Board comprises senior figures from the transport industry and local Government and considers strategic issues, including the longer-term ownership of Transport Direct. The Sounding Board, comprising senior managers from stakeholder organisations, considers technical and marketing issues. The input and expertise of both has been, and remains, crucial to the successful delivery of Transport Direct.

Transport Direct offers benefits to both public and industry alike at a relatively low cost, compared to most national transport initiatives. Its primary aim is to assist and enable the travelling public, yet better transport information also brings benefits in other policy areas such as tackling social exclusion and accessibility. For transport providers, Transport Direct represents a significant new channel for reaching a wider audience than they would usually have access to – particularly since car owners are catered for by the service. Hence, most data is provided to Transport Direct free of charge, since it is in the owner’s interests to publicise their services as widely as possible. The Transport Direct team works with data suppliers to guarantee the accuracy and future supply of information, since no amount of modern, sophisticated technology can compensate for bad data. Improvements to the quality and format of data can produce residual benefits for the data owner, improving business efficiency. For example, maintaining data electronically, rather than with a paper-based system, makes it more easily manipulable and communicable. The soon-to-be-launched Electronic Bus Service Registration (EBSR), whereby smaller bus operating companies can take ownership of their own route and timetable information, is an example of this. The Transport Direct team are also keen to share their knowledge and experience internationally and have recently welcomed visitors from Norway and Japan who have been very impressed with Transport Direct’s portal and related work.

An accurate map of a landscape with a rich and diverse topography will necessarily itself be a complex article and so it proves with British transport information. There is more work to be done to consolidate Transport Direct’s existing service and add new features which will deliver real benefits to people. Car parking and cycle routing are just two examples of where Transport Direct is working with stakeholders with a view to the future provision of comprehensive information. Yet Transport Direct already represents the first step in producing a truly joined up ‘map’ of British travel information and points the way forward in its strategic and inclusive approach to delivering better transport.