Since it was launched in 2012, the transit app Citymapper has improved the bus riding experience just by letting users know how long they’ll be waiting at the bus stop. Now that it’s grown into one of the world’s best-loved apps for getting around cities, Citymapper is using its data to build what they claim will be the world’s best bus system. And it’s testing it right now on the streets of London.
In a Medium post, Citymapper explains how years of looking at transit data in cities revealed gaps in bus service—as well as solutions to address them. “We found we can figure out how to improve existing routes in all of our cities. We can also identify new and better routes,” reads the announcement. “If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones we can have responsive buses that react to realtime needs.”
Citymapper’s Smartbus is currently operating two free test buses in partnership with Transport for London that run fixed circulator routes along high-demand corridors. But the idea is that once Citymapper analyzes the passenger data from those buses, it will be able to create on-demand, customized routes based on who uses it the most.
So eventually, when passengers use the Citymapper app, it will not only give them the ability to choose the smartbus option among the various trip-planning options, it will also change the route to pick passengers up who are slightly off the route, adjusting the course on the fly.
What’s so smart about this is that Citymapper will be able to look at ridership information like a regular transit agency, but also how and where the buses fit into its passengers’ overall trips. Citymapper’s very passionate users will help the bus improve just by using its detailed trip-planning tools.
The other great thing about Citymapper’s buses is that they can use all the city’s existing infrastructure, including bus stops, and when appropriate, will even mimic the city’s own bus routes. Citymapper designed two custom buses, outfitting them with real-time trip screens that plot the route ahead and let passengers know what stop is next.
Autonomous, on-demand buses have been heralded as a better solution for helping passengers travel distances that are just a bit too long to walk. In fact, cities like Los Angeles are working on their own pilot projects to integrate this kind of on-demand bus into the city’s larger public transit fleet.
Citymapper’s Smartbus—which still uses human drivers, for now—is a good step in that direction to show cities what’s possible. And Citymapper is giving away everything it learns in the form of open data so cities can improve their own bus ridership.
So far, the real-world business models of these types of services have been uneven at best. Just last week it was announced that Bridj, a similar on-demand microtransit system that had launched in a few U.S. cities, was going out of business. Meanwhile, its main competitor, the Ford-fueled Chariot, announced it’s launching in seven more U.S. cities in 2017 after testing its service in cities like Austin. Now compare that to Citymapper, which already has five years of comprehensive information about how people ride buses in cities all over the world. The competitive advantage that makes one bus line of the future succeed over another may very well be its data.