Real-time passenger information supplement: Real-time reality

When real-time information first appeared a generation or so ago, it was a pretty remarkable thing, for all its shortcomings in accuracy, readability and coverage, writes Mark Cartwright, Managing Director of RTIG. In the decades since, we have rather got used to it (warts and all); and today it’s just another part of the system.


True, some real-time systems are better than others (just as some public transport is quiet and clean while others are noisy and smelly). But the basic idea of telling us, as I wait – or possibly before – when our bus or train is coming, is no longer a novelty. We expect it.

Perhaps we professionals have grown a little too comfortable with real-time systems. The world around us has changed in many ways, and it’s a good time to take stock of where we are, and what we are aiming. I don’t just mean we need to make more use of smartphones and social media; I mean we need to go back to basics, and make sure we still understand the requirements.

New technology, new people

It’s worth recalling that the first real-time information systems were around before the public internet. It’s hard, nowadays, to remember what life was like back then. But just 20 years ago, even sending an email was a pretty geeky thing.

If technology has changed enormously over that period, it’s changed all of us too. I’d highlight three major effects.

I need to know

The first effect arises when we use technology to find things out. Sometimes this is general and open-ended, as with the online editions of newspapers, or the more specialist sites of interest groups. Sometimes is it specific and targeted research: through online encyclopaedias and journals, through price searches, or through media archives.

The public transport sector has made full use of these opportunities. Transport operators, cities and others kindly provide us with a full range of information about their network, at all levels from the annual accounts down to (in some cases) the identities of individual vehicles. We can, and do, plan journeys, buy tickets and check status in large numbers.

It’s about me

The second major change is that we are now all performers, almost whether we like it or not: characters in our own one-person drama, or directors of our own mini-operas. Simple text blogs are still popular; the more adventurous can create and post through video sites like YouTube, and of course the social media platforms enable (encourage) their members to tell as much of their life story as they can. This is the ‘Web 2.0’ concept of user-generated content.

When it works, it works brilliantly. Personally I am a great supporter of wikis and how-to advice. Again, the range is comprehensive: whether you’re servicing your central heating or looking how to do a tonsillectomy, there is online advice, with pictures and often video.

I’m an expert now

Finally there is a big change in our background knowledge. Ten-year-olds understand what an operating system update is, why antivirus protection is important, and (with a few sad exceptions) the nature and risk of online threats. They can couple devices and applications, explore app stores, download illegal content without their parents’ knowledge, and even understand what to do with the ‘settings’ button. Many adults are almost as adept.

This has a couple of big consequences. First, we can do a lot more using the information we have. There is a huge spectrum, of course, from the old lady who is still scared of cash machines to the teenager who manually edits her registry files, but the direction of travel is clear.

But second, we see through poor technology more easily. If it isn’t easy, accurate, effective and fun, then it’s rubbish, no matter how good it looks. A big shiny screen, or a fancy app skin, is no longer enough to impress us. And by extension, the powers that be are no longer keen to invest in white-elephant systems: it’s got to work, or you don’t get the money.

Where am I going?  

So, people and their relationship with technology have changed. Has the travel environment has also changed?

Well, there have been some qualitative shifts: more of us now work flexible hours, the demographics of car ownership is shifting, we have some guided busways and even some Personal Rapid Transit, and so on. All of these, though, are marginal shifts, with a relatively small impact. Most time-series curves – modal split, average journey length, bus/rail patronage, bicycle ownership – show pretty gentle changes over the past 20 (or even 50) years.

Within modes, the shifts haven’t been much more dramatic. Bus passengers are still dominated by the old, the young, and the less well-off. It is true that metropolitan services have done well in attracting commuters, and Park & Ride has also been successful, but the bulk of business travel, family travel, long-distance leisure and even shopping is car-based (with some rail and air travel admixed). The policy pressures that exist to change this – removal of city centre car parking, for instance – are slow-acting and indirect.

There is one other change, small in absolute numbers but significant for those affected: the change in opportunities for disabled travellers. Today’s society is (happily) much more understanding of the problems of those with physical or mental challenges, and these therefore represent a new cadre of public transport user whose needs are relevant.

Public transport users mostly don’t have a choice, and have the same levels of urgency to be on time as they always have. Opportunities for in-journey re-planning are few. Often, the only real choice is whether to carry on waiting, or give up and go home.

What I really want

OK, the concept of real-time multi-modal journey planners is neat, and it’s a fun engineering challenge to see whether we could build one for the whole of Europe. But we should be clear that this is a political choice, not supported by much evidence from travel behaviour. After all, how many people really want to travel from Faro to Tallinn by bus?

Researsh studies, such as those conducted by Passenger Focus in the UK, are quite clear on what travellers really want from real-time information. They want confirmation that their service is running to time. Failing that, they want to know how long the next service is going to take to arrive. If it’s a long time, they want to know what else they could do – but at this point they start wanting a person to talk to.

There are some more surprising findings. A high proportion of young people now have, and are keen users of, smartphones. They use them while travelling. But they don’t much use them for travelling, at least on buses. Why would you want to drag out a real-time information app when you could be ‘Snapchatting’ your mates? (If they are on the bus in front, they may be able to warn you of any problems. Social media will provide relevant real-time information, naturally, and without any involvement from the operator.)

Transport for London (TfL) staff have a nice phrase for this: they say that bus usage is a ‘low-engagement activity’. The vast majority of bus journeys are regular, familiar ones, and are largely undertaken on autopilot. If the service is reasonably reliable, nothing more onerous should be needed than glancing up at a display screen for confirmation. I suspect the situation for tram, metro and even commuter rail is similar.

If that is the case, what is the benefit of providing real-time information services through web and app channels? There are a few possible answers to that.

The first is that it will take time for people to catch on: real-time information apps are still quite new. In five years’ time it will be much more normal. The trouble is that this isn’t very convincing, and the more time passes, the less justified it is. People will have more and more other things – fun things – to do on their smart devices, and less time and interest searching for (boring) travel information.

The second is that it will make more sense once there is a way of integrating real-time information into more important things in life. For instance, if you are going to a concert or a sporting match, you may well be spending your journey there looking up the score, or listening to recordings of the performer. Maybe if there were a pre-event channel from the venue, it could quietly incorporate background messages concerning your journey (your phone would of course know your location, and your ticket might include a public transport journey).

The third is that these services are only really worthwhile for geeky transport professionals (politicians, project managers or developers) and will never have more than a minimal impact on the real world. If this really is the case, then investment in real-time information – other than simple at-stop signage – is a waste of money.

We don’t have a clear answer yet. The risk of the third possibility should drive us to take a hard look at our own projects: don’t just put in a real-time information system because ‘everyone is doing it’ – make sure you know why you are doing it. But the opportunities of the second possibility should be attractive. Real-time information is not a benefit ipso facto: but it might become a valuable component of a smart city.

About RTIG

RTIG is a collaborative association of local authorities, public transport operators and systems/service providers. Its aim is to facilitate better public transport operations and a better passenger experience through the use of technology systems. It does this through developing system specifications and good-practice guidance, and through topic-focused community events.

While RTIG is a UK-based organisation, it is not just for UK stakeholders. Members are drawn from across the world, not just in mainland Europe but as far afield as the USA and Australia.

It is RTIG’s ambition to reflect as wide a range of interests as possible, and it is always open to new members. If you are interested in becoming a member of RTIG then please visit our website, or contact us at [email protected]


For the past 20 years, Mark Cartwright’s main focus has been intelligent transport systems and standards, specifically in the management of national initiatives. He is Managing Director of the public transport community RTIG, where he has led operations since 2004. He also has interests in traffic management and other ITS. Mark began his professional life in the academic world, where he taught mathematics at the Universities of Oxford and Nottingham. He has previously worked as a consultant working for clients in defence, telecoms, broadcasting, finance and energy sectors, at European, national and local levels. Mark joined Eurotransport’s Editorial Board in January 2014.

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