Telling passengers “the bus is full” is only half the solution

May 29, 2020
Carl Partridge

‘Tis the season for Covid-19 transport solutions, and rightly so. It’s great that so many tech companies, ours included, are stepping up to contribute ideas for how to deal with social distancing on public transport.

One proposed solution I’ve been seeing a lot of lately amounts to figuring out if an approaching vehicle is full, and then presenting this information to passengers.  This could be via an app, a display board, website, or ideally all of the above using some form of Open Data feed. Providing passengers with live occupancy information is a great start to solving the problems we have with social distancing on public transport. Particularly for ‘turn up and go’ services, where some form of digital queuing is not possible.

But it is only half the solution.

Passengers don’t need to know the occupancy of a train or bus when it’s arriving at their stop.  They need to know the occupancy when it’s leaving. 

At busy interchange points, a bus or train is more likely to be full, but it is also likely to shed a significant number of those passengers at the stop. This is particularly true of commuter routes that run along ‘spokes’ through a central town hub, or via business parks, retail centres and other interchange points.

So, if you tell passengers to avoid getting on at those stops because “the bus is full”, there’s a very real risk you’re giving them misleading information, potentially even putting them off public transport as a result.

transit stop

This is where we need to think outside the box.

To really tackle this problem, we need to learn more about the historic boarding and alighting points along known services, and at known times.  

When, and where, do people tend to get off the bus?

Historically, this data has been collected through passenger surveys or expensive door counters. But modern approaches now allow this information to be collected rapidly and affordably. If passengers are required to “tap out”, then card tap data can be collected and analysed. This is not an ideal solution as tapping out can increase dwell times and potentially reduce social distancing at pinch points such as vehicle doorways. At UrbanThings we use onboard Bluetooth beacons that automatically tap passengers out, collecting this data without the need for them to do anything at all. 

Heat map should alighting data

Once passenger check-out data is available, it can be analysed and used to predict the likely occupancy of vehicles when they leave a stop, not when they arrive. This data can be fed back to passengers to indicate how crowded a vehicle is likely to be.  Not just right now, but also in the future when they want to travel, allowing them to plan a safe journey in advance. Operators can also use such data to make important operational decisions to manage capacity. 

This improved approach, building an ‘occupancy predictions engine’, forms the basis of the work we’re completing as part of our recent Innovate UK award to help manage social distancing on public transport. We’re actively looking for partners to help trial this new technology and become world-leaders in tackling the challenges posed by social distancing.  

If you’d like to speak to the UrbanThings team about how you can get involved in the trail, or would simply like to know more, please get in touch