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Could these simple ideas boost bus ridership?

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Transit app Citymapper shares lessons learned from a bus service it piloted in London

Large, full-color displays with detailed route information improved Citymapper’s bus rider experience.

It looked more like a pub crawl than public transit: Londoners laughing, taking selfies with strangers, and enthusiastically sharing their thoughts on social media. For a few months last summer, most of the images tagged with a popular transit app featured people having the time of their lives—on a city bus.

Last May, the transit app Citymapper announced that it was putting its data to use by launching a bus service in London. The idea was that by studying the transportation habits of its users, the tech company could design an experience that would better serve riders. Almost a year later, the tech company is reporting on how well it worked.

To start, Citymapper’s Smartbus provided a well-designed, well-branded, tech-forward experience for riders. In addition to brand-new interiors, the buses had USB ports in the seats that lit up when people plugged into them, and large, full-color screens for sharing route and stop details.

The buses also offered more options for paying than most transit networks do. Passengers could tap with a contactless debit card, use Apple or Android Pay on their phones, or pay directly through Citymapper’s app. This is where many cities are going—or trying to, at least—but a U.S. city has so far not been able to unify so many methods of payment on a single bus with such ease.

Real-time data is a widespread tool used by most U.S. transit agencies to help passengers plan their trips. But since Citymapper already has such a robust real-time data interface for its app, it was able to add even more features for passengers to map their trips and track their buses. Passengers who planned their journeys through the app would get assigned an emoji to watch for on the screen which told them when to get off the bus.

Citymapper also actively worked to improve service for its regular riders. After running free test buses with Transport for London along fixed circulator routes, Citymapper looked at the end-to-end journeys of the people who rode them the most, and came up with new routes.

For example, after looking at travel patterns in an underserved area of East London, Citymapper addressed the gaps in service by launching a night bus. Which, of course, became a party bus.

Microtransit—on-demand, flexible-route bus service, autonomous or not—is often cited as a smart solution for cities to help cut down on short car trips, or as a first-mile/last-mile solution to help get people to fixed transit lines. Cities like Los Angeles are already tweaking some bus routes to prep its circulator lines for an on-demand future.

But there’s still a lot of skepticism about on-demand transit, and not every urban planner agrees with Citymapper’s approach. Gabe Klein, head of CityFi and the former transportation head of both Chicago and D.C., got into a Twitter debate about the Smartbus strategy with bus champion Jarrett Walker, who gave a talk at the National Shared Mobility Summit in March entitled “Fixed-Route Buses Are the Future.”

As part of its series, Citymapper does address the many challenges of launching a fleet of Smartbuses in a major city—including pricing, staffing, and paying for such a service—then uses the final installment to outline its vision for a responsive, flexible network of autonomous transit vehicles. But even if this particular service wouldn’t work at scale, some of the ideas are worth stealing.

While some of Citymapper’s innovations might be easy to dismiss as gimmicks, when you compare them to what riders often ask for in transit surveys—clean seats, WiFi, USB ports, app synergy—simple improvements to the design of the bus can go a long way. That emoji alert in particular isn’t just a clever use of technology—it could also be a useful tool that would be exceptionally helpful for seniors or tourists.

But what riders ask for the most is reliable service—something that’s a concern when almost every major U.S. city is seeing declining ridership. Pairing a good onboard experience with frequent buses and real-time updates, and also using that data to figure out new routes for the places people want to go, is something that all cities should be looking at to reduce car trips and increase transit confidence. As Citymapper has proved, there’s no reason that riding the bus can’t be fun, too.