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.