Home News Smart Cities The rules refuse to bend as Citymapper moves to disrupt London transport

The rules refuse to bend as Citymapper moves to disrupt London transport

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When is a bus not a bus? When it only seats eight people and changes its route on demand. Journey planner app Citymapper is extending its reach on London’s roads with the launch of a service somewhere between a bus and a taxi. It’s been dubbed Smart Ride.

However, this wasn’t the company’s intent. Citymapper wanted to launch a “responsive”, “smart” bus, but Transport for London (TfL) regulations limit its buses to “dumb”, unchanging routes and restrict its on-demand services to a van — with Omid Ashtari, president and head of business at Citymapper, suggesting those rules hinder innovation.

“We don’t see enough encouraging frameworks that allow private entrants to actually play in this field,” he says. “I don’t want to single out TfL here — it’s a global phenomenon. There’s a clear distinction between what cabs can do and what buses can do… currently the cab frameworks are the easiest way.”

Ticket to Smart Ride

Citymapper says the regulations it faces have led to the mutant Smart Ride, a bus service using a van that operates like a ride-hailing app limited to a specific catchment area. So rather than go stand at a bus stop and wait for one to trundle by, travellers book a seat in a Smart Ride vehicle at a specific time along a route shown in the Citymapper app. “Think of it as a bus, because it has stops and can be shared, but think of it as a cab, because you can book it as close as possible to you on the network,” Ashtari says.

The not-a-bus is an eight-seater Mercedes-Benz Viano, with rear seats arranged facing each other to encourage social interaction, Ashtari says — suggesting a surprising lack of understanding of how silently Londoners commute. While there’s space for guide dogs, the vans are not otherwise accessible for disabled people and drivers aren’t trained to offer such assistance. “We’re working on ways to make this accessible too, but it isn’t available off the bat,” says Ashtari, noting the larger buses Citymapper wanted to use are designed for accessibility.

So far, the coverage area is limited to one small slice of the capital’s centre, from Waterloo to Clerkenwell, conveniently taking in Citymapper’s headquarters. (Ashtari says his staff want to try the not-a-bus, but are “a little bit lazy”.) The route will change depending on requirements, but stick to a specific network of roads, in response to “demand fluctuation throughout the day”, Ashtari says. “We have a lot of dynamic information about the city’s pulse… the network could evolve through the day or week.”

For the first week, the rides are free. Ashtari would not reveal the final price, but said it would cost — in fitting with the entire idea — something between a bus ticket and a cab fare. A single ride on a public bus would cost £1.50; a cab from the company’s office to the centre of Clerkenwell would cost about £10.

Testing times

This is Citymapper’s third such attempt to not only direct, but deliver, passengers, alongside a bus route and a tie-up with a taxi firm offering shared cabs along fixed routes. The trials comes at a time tech companies are eyeing mass transit and public authorities are struggling, TfL’s halted all major improvements to the city’s roads for two years amid a budgetary black hole that could hit £1 billion.

Tech companies love to complain about regulators slowing down their innovation, perhaps forgetting that the often arcane looking rules may have purpose. TfL says it’s open to innovation but wants to be diligent — a statement that’s no surprise after the regulator refused to renew Uber’s license to operate on the grounds it wasn’t “fit and proper” after allegations around failures to report sexual assaults quickly enough. (Citymapper jokes in its app that Smart Ride is both “fit” and “proper”.)

In this case, TfL argues it’s been fairly easy going with Citymapper, granting its temporary private hire license for Smart Ride as well as one of two requests for a bus route — and two out of three ain’t bad, after all. The second bus route was refused over local congestion concerns. A similar Ford-run bus service called Chariot faced similar challenges, with two of its six proposed routes refused; one was turned down after strong opposition from residents to mini buses hurtling down their streets.

Citymapper said in a blog post that its approved Smart Bus route, dubbed CM2, fell short of its own expectations because the company “built tech for the old bus world, with all its constraints.” And by constraints, the company means regulations. The post notes that within the first weekend the bus ran the company had gathered enough data to tweak the route to be more efficient, but TfL wouldn’t let it do so without weeks of discussion and consideration. Why? Changing a route requires something close to a public consultation, TfL says, and can often come up against the same local opposition that nixed the two Chariot routes.

Ashtari argues that innovation requires iteration and quick feedback loops, but that doesn’t work when TfL needs weeks to consult on every route change. “Global bus regulations aren’t meant to support that [innovation],” he says. But local residents perhaps don’t care about innovation theory when there’s unwanted buses clogging up their streets.

That means Citymapper’s best route to testing and developing on-demand flexibility is to operate as a private-hire company. However, such operators have an upper limit of eight seats, forcing Citymapper to run the smaller Mercedes vans rather than actual buses.

All change?

While the smaller vehicles at least let Citymapper hit the road and get testing its idea of responsive routes, perhaps TfL needs to expand its rules for a new category, somewhere between a bus and a taxi, says Tom Colthorpe, researcher at the Centre for London think-tank. “The regulatory framework is lacking for anything that doesn’t neatly fall into a private hire vehicle/taxi or bus,” he told WIRED.

That think-tank argues that a more flexible regulatory regime could become necessary if such on-demand mass transit schemes prove popular. “We argued [in a recent report] that TfL should trial some of these demand-responsive routes, but in their current financial climate, it may be more difficult to so,” Colthorpe says. “This kind of transport is only going to become more popular in the future and TfL risks losing passengers if it doesn’t somehow monetise this service.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is TfL — even with the financial constraints — is already good at bringing together private transport operators with public authorities, and could integrate tech startups, existing bus operators and whoever else leaps into mass transit into a single platform, an idea known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS). “TfL are in a really unique position to pull this together in London, and could take a slice of the charge,” Colthorpe says.

That would benefit TfL and private tech firms looking to roll out their own services, as well as other cities and rural areas suffering without sufficient — or any — bus services, where on-demand, responsive buses have plenty of appeal. Indeed, once this idea is proven in London, Ashtari says, it’ll be an easier sell to other local authorities. “Our intention is very much to roll this out in many more places, whether it’s rural or urban,” he says.

And that’s why we need fewer complaints about slow regulatory frameworks and more clever workarounds to get testing within the system, just as Citymapper has done here. That’s commendable and necessary: it’s easy to run buses more efficiently if you break laws — breaking the speed limit wrong way down a one-way street may be faster, but that doesn’t mean we should call it innovation. While Citymapper has complained a little its blog posts that it hasn’t perfectly gotten its way, it’s also found a route to get on with it, working within the rules — that, not anti-regulation “disruption”, is real innovation.

Some regulations need to change; others are there for a good reason. Working together to find that balance is key, as in the end, TfL, Citymapper and the poor Londoners commuting in and around the city every day have a common goal of better transit. “We believe the raison d’etre of our company is to solve the shared transportation problem that we’re facing,” Ashtari says. “The future of cities can not be single-occupancy vehicles driving around. That’s a dumb city.”

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