UPDATE 3rd Oct 2011 -

TFL have now released the mobile web bus tracker, some people have created iPhone apps including Next Bus London, Bus Checker and the awesome Twitter account which tweets you back with your bus arrival details!

If you’re a commuter in London, you will no doubt have at one time or another felt the pain of the waiting ages for a bus. Finally, a solution is being developed using the mobile web and SMS to give commuters much needed bus arrival information.

The London bus service isn’t as predictable as the Underground for obvious reasons. Things such as traffic, crazy school kids, crazy passengers and accidents all happen hundreds of times every day across nearly a thousand bus routes, which is why the printed time tables displayed on bus shelters can only give you approximate times. These times mean nothing if any of the previous incidents have happened and delay the bus. During the day this is a pain and at night it could be dangerous if you’re on your own. There also might be situations where it could be quicker to take the next available bus and change again rather than wait for your bus to arrive in time.

TFL currently has a system called Countdown (below) which provides real-time bus arrival information at stops, which is great apart from….

countdown_tfl

..its not on every bus stop:

countdown_tfl_2

Although Countdown is on ‘key’ bus stops, it’s not on nearly enough across the capital. That’s where the SMS and mobile web step in. TFL already have a pretty good suite of mobile services using WAPSMS and Java Apps that cover live updates, journey planning, interactive maps and taxi hire – all for free.

How Will It Work?

Every bus in London features GPS tracking to enable bus operators to regulate the service more accurately. This data is input into a live bus tracking feed which will allow TFL to tap into it using mobile.

At the top of every bus stop in London there is a unique code which is clearly visible. The commuter will simply text these numbers into a shortcode to receive bus arrival times for that stop via SMS.

bus_stop_london_code

I’m pretty sure the mobile web version will work in the same way, you input the unique code using a form field and get returned a list of buses that will be arriving along with the expected times.

This is something I thought of years ago when doing the whole night bus  ’I’ve already waited 20 minutes, should I wait another 10 or just a get a cab home ‘ routine that always happens at non-Countdown enabled bus stops. It will make commuters more informed and probably save TFL money on having to install Countdown displays at more bus stops.

I’m really happy it’s finally being developed, it will be amazingly useful especially in the winter when you can wait for that perfect moment to leave your house instead of standing in the cold. Hopefully TFL will make a big song and dance about it to spread awareness across London.

Clare Kavanagh, London Buses’ Director of Performance, said:

‘These improvements will mean you’ll never have to run for a bus again – with accurate, reliable information on bus services at your fingertips, you’ll be able to find out exactly when the next bus is due to arrive at your stop.”

TFL expects this SMS and mobile web functionality to start rolling out around early 2011.

Ideas

SMS is perfect for mass reach across London but I have been thinking about the possibilities of using TFLs live bus-tracking data feeds in a more visual way. iPhone and Android are perfect for adding that extra layer of functionality of showing users where the buses are in real time using maps.

tfl-idea2

Sometimes buses may only be 1 or 2 minutes away from the stop but could be experiencing problems. The Countdown timer will usually still show its expected arrival time at the stop related to its distance. I recently waited nearly 15 minutes for a bus that was apparently 3 minutes away. Using iPhone or Android applications could mean that the user is notified by messages on the screen or icon changes.

This could also be done via mobile web but will obviously not be as slick.

TFL probably won’t produce something for the iPhone or Android as I think their strategy is to spend public money on solutions that work on the majority of handsets (which is great) but there are definite advantages.

  • Paul

    I have had this idea for years- i was trying to develop it but due to the huge cost just didnt try- but i am happy they are finally implementing it- but like many government initiatives it may not see the light of day- they may simple just talk about it

    • http://www.mobileinc.co.uk Murat

      I guess without being awarded a contract it’s probably pointless trying to integrate into their systems off your own back. The SMS part is a breeze, it’s just linking into the TFL bus tracking bit that would be difficult.

      I think it’s really going to happen seeing as Countdown is being revamped

  • http://www.alteranlabs.co.uk David

    Ever since the introduction of iBUS, the Countdown displays have been far more effective at giving an accurate ETA for buses. Routes that were initially ignored by Countdown (such as auxiliary routes, school routes and limited services) are now displayed on Countdown screens where available.

    I knew someone in the Public Transport industry, who was able to tell me all about the latest and greatest transport developments, including the specifics on how iBUS works. and that there were plans for a “Countdown 2.0″ several years ago. Whether this has been integrated into what we now know as iBUS, I do not know. I was also told that bus stations and controllers originally had access to PSA’s (Publis Service Announcements) on Countdown displays (the scrolling marquee text at the bottom), to inform passengers of any hold-ups or issues. Apparently, Center-comm (as dubbed by the majority of London Bus employees) took this privilege away from most stations.

    I’m sure that once they’ve made their Mobile Web tracking system public, that a rookie from the Mobile Development Communities (Android OS or iPhone OS) will offer to do the job. TfL must surely realise that the iPhone already dominates the mobile market, and that Android is also on the rise, as all manner of Network Operators and Handset Manufacturers heartily adopt the Android OS platform in an attempt to compete with the iPhone. Developing for both platforms is a no-brainer.

    • http://www.mobileinc.co.uk Murat

      Thanks for the fantastic insightful comment.

      I noticed that the scrolling marquee had gone which is a shame because this was vital to keeping people updated when stuff went wrong. I wonder why they would remove such a privilege?

      I’d love to see some innovative applications that use the data provided by TFL, do you think that data will be made public?

      • Dan

        You forgot Windows Phone 7 which has come out to the market and is briliant, why whould they not develope an application for each platform?
        Iphone, Android and WP7?

  • Farhan Akbar

    Hi – I am small to medium level invester. Couple of weeks ago I was exactly thinking on the same lines and was even devicing my own box inside the buses to transmit the location signals….but iBUS has solved that part…

    Now any chance we can make iPhone Apps or simple sms for general non iPhone users ? will be nice to know if the market opportunity is still open…

    Farhan

    • http://www.mobileinc.co.uk Murat

      Hi Farhan,

      I’m hoping the data will be available to the public so developers can do whatever they like, could be some pretty innovative ideas out there.

      The SMS solution by TFL on bus stops will solve one part of your question but the iPhone part remains to be seen..

  • Jaimie

    It amazes me when I go back to Edinburgh that they have a much better system than London.

    The system they use is mybustracker and you can use an iphone app or website page to find out when the next bus is.

    It is extremely accurate, unlike the countdown system in London that sometimes seems like a work of fiction.

  • http://magpiewebsitesolutions.co.uk Steve Graham

    They have this system in place in Brighton and it works very well.

    I doubt they will let you track the buses realtime movements as this may raise critisism about their journey planning strategies.

  • Amnon

    This would be a great service for London’s millions of bus users. All TFL needs to do is publish an API for real-time bus locations. Many phones have GPS or can calculate location using mastid, so there is no need for users to even enter the bus shortcode.

    When is TFL likely to publish it’s real-time bus locations?

  • http://www.raulhernandez.co.uk Raul

    Hi, just wondering if you aware of any updates about the real-time bus locations API…is it open? for when an iphone app?

    Thanks!

  • JK

    I’ve thought about an app like this for years! I had an idea to track buses on a live map just like you, but since I have no experience of programming or making apps I didn’t do anything about it. It might be quite a difficult thing to set up with TfL, but it would be so useful! Looks like someone has already developed it for certain areas in the USA…http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wheres-my-mit-bus/id401561847?mt=8#
    Would be great to have it for London too!

    • Murat

      Hey JK,

      A dev has made it for TFL too check it out – http://itunes.apple.com/app/london-bus/id315676704?mt=8

      • JK

        Cool! In the description though it doesn’t mention viewing the location of buses in real-time on a map (unless I’m being blind!). Can it do this? I can see from one of the screen shots that it can give an estimated time of arrival, so I guess this can work in the same way. The thing I like about it being shown on a map is that if there is a road accident or severe traffic, you can gauge whether the bus is moving or whether it is “stuck” in the same position.

        Thanks for the reply Murat

    • http://twitter.com/En1gmaEngine En1gmaEngine

      JK,

      you want this for London? You can have it right now!

      Text locate 07585400148 to 60300 to get my current UK mobile phone location….. The system is live, scalable and available right now!

      Mark@En1gmaEngine.co.uk
      http://www.En1gmaEngine.mobi

  • http://Www.ulrikpoulsen.dk Ulrik

    @Murat

    The app you’re pointing to doesn’t include live bus updates and gets terrible reviews. As far as I know the system still isn’t finished.

    I would certainly hope that an API is included, in which case we will see a host of apps shortly after it is released.

  • Craig Nelson

    What needs to be done is for TfL to provide real time data to Traveline so it can be accessed via http://www.nextbuses.mobi or via the API available to developers. SMS is such an outdated prospect.

  • Anup

    Android users can have this app for free. https://market.android.com/details?id=com.buscount

  • Chanté Leacock

    Me and my friends have come up with an idea called ‘Bus Tracker’. Basically the wallet which you also put your oyster in, bleeps and flashes when your bus is near (e.g. 3 stops away or 5 minutes away) so you know if you have to speed up to get to the bus stop. Its a basic idea for those with basic resources!

    • ola

      hi chante, what’s your background and are you into programming, kindly let me know, we maybe able to work on something similar together. thanks