Beyond the buzz: 3 reasons to take note of Citymapper’s smart bus

Hamish Vallabh
By Hamish Vallabh under Insights 11 May 2017

Over the course of seven years, we’ve been helping our clients rethink the ways people get from A to B in one of the greatest test labs in the world - London. Our experience has reinforced, time and again, that there is no doubt apps are changing the way we move.

So it will come as no surprise that our ears perked up when we heard that one of our favourite apps, Citymapper, was launching a ‘pop-up’ experimental bus service in the heart of London. We rushed out and hopped aboard route CMX1 to get the low-down on what Citymapper is dubbing 'the bus of tomorrow'.


Back in TAB HQ, we have been reflecting on the experience, and asking ourselves what Citymapper’s experiment means for our transport clients and transportation more broadly. Is it nothing more than some headline-grabbing exercise, or does it signal something altogether more significant?

Below, we share our three key takeaways:

1. A powerful first attempt to reinvent bus transportation with data.

Amongst the sea of London’s iconic red buses, Citymapper’s bright green ‘sprinters’ turn heads wherever they go. Some feel it's no more than a PR stunt - it’s not: we believe Citymapper has far greater ambitions. What seems like a stunt is actually a very clever way to test and showcase how its powerful software can reinvent bus transportation for the smart city era.

Harnessing its users’ data, Citymapper can analyse in near real-time the transport demand across an entire city - even one as complex as London - and identify underserved routes. Leveraging this data, they can create entirely new, more effective routes.

Citymapper has even built a simulation tool codenamed ‘Sim City’. It simulates how additional routes would impact existing demand, whilst estimating the number of vehicles needed to serve demand, potential income, and route efficiency. It’s powerful stuff!

For transport providers, it’s a clear wake up call: if they aren’t yet collecting or partnering to get similar fine-grained data on customer behaviour, traffic, vehicles - data that can make their services more responsive and efficient - well, let’s just say they’re at risk of missing the bus.

2. Testing ‘in the wild’ to get to a reliable solution, fast.

Citymapper told us they’re using the CMX1 experiment to validate its ‘bus technology stack’ - a mix of hardware and software solutions conceived in their London innovation lab.

That’s great - and for many organisations, the lab is as far as they go when it comes to testing, let alone ideating. But as Citymapper know, and we’re all too familiar with at TAB, going from an idea conceived and even tested in the controlled environment of a lab to a real-world, working solution is tricky. Even more so when you strap it all to a bus full of people and drive it around the streets of Central London during rush hour!

Lots of things can - and will - go wrong. The internet connection can drop out. Hardware can fail. The list goes on and on. Testing a transport solution in the wild is the only way to really identify these issues early. That’s why the pop up route is so important - it’s a live experiment, in action; and transport operators should take note of the speed with which a company like Citymapper can deploy it.

The quickfire, real-world experiment allows Citymapper to iterate and get to a robust, reliable solution faster than they would be able to achieve in the innovation lab alone. But, crucially, by working in coordination with Transport for London, it also ensures they too see the benefit of this accelerated speed to value.

3. Empowering drivers and passengers with smart software.

Citymapper has developed a tablet app to provide drivers with critical information about traffic, passenger numbers, and headway (the distance between buses). The company believes realtime information will empower bus drivers to make better decisions on the road, reducing their reliance on radio commands from HQ.

Behind the driver is a smart display, which keeps passengers informed about where the bus is at all times as well as upcoming stops, and the ETA to the next two stops. You might think that’s pretty basic information at this stage, but it’s significantly more than what is currently available in most buses. It also solves a fundamental issue that many bus users face - not knowing where their bus is in relation to their destination. Anyone who relies on the Citymapper app itself to move around London will know how valuable it is to be able to see where you are en route, and when you need to get off.

So what does this mean for transport operators?

It’s not yet clear what Citymapper plans to do after the smart bus experiment this week. One thing is certain though: London currently doesn’t have the regulatory framework in place to permit such a demand-responsive public transport system. Given the regulatory hurdles, we can’t imagine Citymapper actually wants to become a transport ‘provider’ and directly compete with London’s big red buses. So what does the company want?

What is more likely is a licensing approach to enable existing public transport operators, like TfL, to leverage Citymapper’s demand-based systems and technology stacks. CMX1 reinforces the importance of data as the key building block for public transport experiences in the smart city, mobile-led era. As cities continue to expand and we rapidly outgrow our existing transport infrastructure, perhaps now more than ever does it make sense that private and public work together to solve the future of transportation.

To learn more about our successful client stories and our point of view on the future of mobility in the smart city era, drop us a line.