The power of information – strikingly ineffective edition

When transport is disrupted, the first casualty is information. People who know what the alternatives are, what’s working and what’s not, what’s impossibly overcrowded and what merely unpleasantly so can make intelligent decisions. Those who don’t, can’t.

That doesn’t make it an easy problem to solve. Situations change quickly. Crowds bubble up here and disperse there. Second, third and nth order effects make prediction a challenge. But that’s no excuse for not getting the basics right.

Yesterday,  London was routing round the damage of a tube strike.

On my way to work, I just missed a bus. No problem: I knew from having checked before leaving home that there was another one just a few minutes behind – but then a very long gap before the next one. But the sign at the bus stop was clear that there wasn’t another bus for 14 minutes. I spent the next couple of minutes failing to get my phone to give me the broader picture (since, in 21st century London, the bus stop sits in a mobile data hole) at which point a bus turned up, unheralded and almost empty.

Earlier in the morning, my son had had to decide whether to take an almost normal or a massively inconvenient route to school. The deciding factor was whether the Victoria line was running at our local station. At 6.55, the TfL website was clear – the service would start at 7 and would not include our station. Rather despondently, off he went on the circuitous route with the long walk at the end. Just after 7, the message on the website changed: the service had indeed started – and did include our station. Things change of course, but it stretches credulity to believe that on the dot of 7, TfL discovered that they could run a different service from the one signalled just a few minutes earlier.

One of the second order effects of tube strikes is that buses get busier and traffic generally heavier. That leads to a third order effect that it becomes very difficult to maintain a regular pattern of bus services. A consequence of that is that buses may need to truncate their normal routes in order to maintain any kind of regularity.  Understandably, that’s not very welcome to those wanting to go further. But it’s also irritating to those waiting. Yesterday evening, I waited to catch a bus home. One came, already very full and a lot more people struggled to get on. I waited smugly, knowing that there were more buses close behind, likely to be less packed. Online they were clearly shown as going to the end of the route – but the next one came with the destination on the front showing as the stop I was already at, and everybody on it was turfed out. The same happened with the next bus. And the next. The actual destination and the destination displayed in TfL systems did not match for a single one of them.

This is not a complaint about the performance of TfL in the difficult conditions of a strike. From what I saw, they coped as well as they could be expected to in difficult circumstances – at least in terms of moving people from roughly where they were to roughly where they wanted to be. But there looks to be plenty of scope for improving the quality and dissemination of information.

Interestingly that’s not much to do with how it is published, as TfL has a generally good track record of publishing data and allowing others to re-use and re-present it.1 The root cause in all three of the examples described above is further back in the system: status descriptions not matching status reality; equipment on buses for some reason not broadcasting their position (or existence); not updating the system view of a bus’s destination as part of the process of changing it.

The challenge is getting all the necessary parts of the system to recognise the value of accurate information.  The opportunity is that in all three of my examples better information could come very easily from slightly better processes – this isn’t a technology gap, it’s a behaviour gap.

  1. Though with odd glitches, including their remarkably unhelpful attempts at describing the first order effects of the strike, which I wrote about earlier in the week. And their fetish for the tube over all other forms of transport continues to result in some very strange information design.

Comments

  1. View from a (regular) visitor to the capital and coping with available info and then trying interpret: 1: tfl list of tube stations/lines open was just that…a list which took some working out and 2. as helpfully passed on the other day the ‘amended’ tube map was a much better tool. 3. Yesterday (to get to fulham) chanced the district line and it was ok with a few stops (not, as i hadn’t checked my amended map, that it stopped at Broadway thus cost me extra 10 min walk to get to my destination) thus 4. on the way back, for the first time ever, I took a BUS back to town. An hour later, after only getting to Victoria station got off and walked the rest.

    So what…I missed the tube being what it normally is (I know locals complain about it but it’s brilliant given its comparators public transport wise elsewhere) and I walked quite a lot (in the rain a lot but, hey I’m from the west of scotland). Can’t wait for next Wed when can’t avoid being down there again. This time I’ll be in another part of town so same but different…?

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