3 September 2011
Some evenings on my way home from work, I play a small private game of chicken. Now I have played it for the last time.
If there are too many people at the bus stop – and no, I don’t know how many makes too many – that’s a sign that the gap between buses is longer than it should be. That means that when the bus does come, it will be more crowded than it should be. So far, so straightforward. But it also may well mean that there is a second bus not far behind the first. That’s reasonably likely partly because the second bus may be on time even if the first one isn’t, but partly because it is the iron law of buses that once one is delayed and fills up, the one behind will start to catch up.
So as the first bus arrives, I have a choice. I can get on the first bus with complete certainty, but less comfort, or I can wait for a possible second which may or may not be close behind and may or may not be relatively empty. Most people don’t make that choice: with rare exceptions, everybody else crowds on to the first bus. On good days, the second bus comes round the corner when the first bus has barely moved away from the stop. On bad days, there is a long wait for a bus which is eventually just as crowded as the first.
It’s a gamble, but I have learned to be canny with the odds, and mostly I win the game. Mostly.
The game only exists because of an information deficit. TfL knows where all its buses are, but the rest of us can only guess, except at the fairly small proportion of stops which have dot matrix indicators. The value of making that information more widely available has been self-evident for years. Just over two years ago, a team at Young Rewired State calling themselves TfHell won the Public Strategist award for “the service which most obviously ought to exist, for which there is no good reason that it does not exist and which now just needs to happen”.
But alas it did not just happen – until now.
I played my game for the last time this evening. Or rather today the game played me: the first bus was so full that it went straight past without stopping, so I didn’t get to choose. But within a couple of minutes of finding a seat on the second bus I found that the world had changed.
The effects should be interesting. Right now, it may not do much more than give me an edge in my decision making. If it were to get widely used, though, it should in theory produce an extraordinary feedback loop. If enough people wait for the second bus, knowing it is only just behind, rather than scrambling to get on the first, buses will get more regular and less crowded. A whole of host of individuals doing nothing other than making self-interested decisions based on a small but critical piece of information they don’t currently have, would improve the efficiency of the bus network.
The seminal work of observations of commuter behaviour, Notes from the Overground, is sadly very long out of print. Its author distinguished goats who seize and act on information to make their journey easier from sheep who do not. It’s a reasonable bet that even with better information, most people will still crowd on to the first bus (that is, after all, what happens now with tube trains, with the information available to everyone). That means that buses will continue to bunch up. But I will know that there is a second one, and that’s the one I will be on.
The web page says firmly that this is a test service – and indeed as a I write it is not working. Perhaps these last few hours have been all that we are to get for a while, and I will have to keep playing the game a while longer. In any case, there needs to be less to it than there is: web pages designed for full screen browsers are a great way of consuming many kinds of content, but waiting times at bus stops is not one of them.
The first version of this has come much later than it should have done. Let’s hope the second is not very far behind.
Update – 7 September
I have since discovered that there are three versions:
Desktop – with interactive maps
Text/Accessible – with static maps
Mobile – which is pure text with no maps.
Slightly confusingly, the desktop version has links to what it calls a text version, but is actually the sub-domain called ‘accessible’. The version which is actually text-based is not linked from either of the other two. Slightly more confusingly, although all three versions allow you to record a set of ‘My Stops’ for quick reference, the cookies which hold the data are held separately in the three sub-domains and so are invisible to each other (at least I think that is what’s going on; mine keep disappearing, even though I have given them an exemption from my standard cookie setting of eviscerate).
There is a page on the TfL site which explains a bit about the project – and it’s worth saying that this appears to be an unintentionally public beta at the moment, which deserves some latitude.