Addressing Public Transport User Needs

Post by: Dr Caitlin D. Cottrill, Centre for Transport Research, University of Aberdeen

My first experience on a bus in the UK (in 1997) was a trying time – jetlagged and unsure of prices, routes, or destinations, it took multiple leaflets, careful scrutiny of the posted schedules, and conversations with at least three drivers until I finally figured out where I needed to be, how I could get there, and how much it was going to cost me. On that first trip, I sat as close to the driver as the seats allowed, and anxiously hoped that he would remember to tell me when it was my stop.

Fast forward 20 years, and when I travel I pull out my smartphone from my pocket, hope I can get a signal, and start searching for the app that can point me in the right direction as accurately as my first driver did.

While some public transport users still look to leaflets, posted information, and driver expertise to help them on their way, I’m certainly not the only person who has started to increasingly rely on information technology to get me where I need to go. In a survey we conducted in October 2016 of over 900 public transport users in Birmingham (nearly 90% of whom own a smartphone), we found that about 79% of our respondents look to websites for travel information, while nearly 56% will look to a mobile app. With these figures far higher than any of the other sources of information queried, it’s evident that where we look for information on our travels is evolving along with our technology.

When we look for information is changing also. Mobile apps and websites have given us ever increasing opportunities to look for information as we travel – in response to disruption, because our plans change, or simply to reassure ourselves that we’re still on the right track. This, too, was evident in our survey – while 31% of respondents indicated that they look for information while at a stop or station, a further 55% reported looking while at home or work, and 15% while on-board public transport. The freedom to plan on the move, enabled by the availability of accurate and timely information, can help us make more efficient use of our time while travelling, better plan to meet people along the way, alert us to options we didn’t know existed, and give us the confidence we need to undertake unfamiliar journeys.

Of course, this freedom requires that we have accurate information, along with the ability to access it when and where needed. While over 80% of smartphone owners in our survey reported having an internet data plan, 36% reported that they worry they may run out of their data allowance – the last thing you want if making travel decisions away from home using a smartphone.

For Smart Routing, the survey’s revelations about user needs are clear – travel information that’s convenient, accessible, timely, and doesn’t use up our limited internet data plans. The Smart Routing project, by focusing on information collated from a wide range of trusted sources, enabling journey planning in your local travel area without access to the internet, and making it all available on a convenient, user-friendly platform, is working to make sure that other travellers don’t experience the same frustration and uncertainty I faced two decades ago.