Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Guide Dogs calls for 'next stop' announcements

The Guide Dogs charity has enlisted Macclesfield MP David Rutley in its campaign for all new buses to have audio and visual 'next stop' announcements. Cheshire Today explains how such a measure would help make bus travel easier for those with limited vision.

It would also make life easier for anyone using a bus route that is unfamiliar to them, removing a significant barrier to bus use for those who are currently put off.

Outside London, 'next stop' announcements are extremely rare, so this blog supports Guide Dogs' campaign wholeheartedly.


  1. The campaign by Guide Dogs is a nice desirable aim, but the cost of providing this on every bus in the country is not currently an option that can be afforded. There are many mobile phone apps which will do some of the job, but almost all are visually based, so of little use to the visually impaired. However, there is one, designed and sold by visually impaired people that is available now to anyone from the Google Play Store for 99p - Georgie Buses from Screenreader.net. As well as being a vital tool as part of the Georgie suite of apps for the visually impaired, it can be of great benefit to anyone making an unfamiliar journey.

  2. The biggest problem the Guide Dogs have is when they started this campaign they commissioned a report into how difficult it would be but asked the wrong question - the report centred on how expensive the on-bus equipment was, a couple of grand in general which isn't a lot but will quickly add up across large fleets, when it should have looked at the whole life costs including the back office admin. For these systems to work you need a lot of set-up work to get it going and a great deal of ongoing information maintenance work to ensure its continued accuracy.

    You need to assess every bus stop, identify a suitable name (short enough for announcements whilst being accurate & useful) & ensure this is utilised consistently across all methods of information provision (currently each operator will name their bus stops themselves which is often different to that used by council which is almost always different to that used by Traveline and so the Google Maps database), it is no good having announcements when the passengers is looking for a different name making everything next to useless (I have been on a bus where the audio announcement had a different name to the visual display which was then different to the name affixed to the bus stop flag none of which looked like they would have matched the name used by Traveline. Having had to set up data for real-time tracking, for which it doesn't matter what you call the stop as no one will see most of the names, it is a lot of work to set that up taking weeks for even a small network, if we are going to go this way it is going to increase the costs at all operators to manage this, I work for a major regional independent operator & we simply don't have the staff to handle this so it would require the recruitment of extra staff at a time of staff being made redundant due to increasing cost pressures it could lead to companies selling up as they can't afford the costs. These systems can't handle 'Hail & Ride' stretches, which are very common in rural areas & in outlying housing estates (even TfLs system just shuts down in these sections), rely on a tracking system that isn't reliable enough (we have been running a Real-time vehicle tracking system for a couple of years and we still struggle to get tracking rates above 80% for our fleets due to a variety of issues), need to be done with actual recordings (computer generated announcements aren't great due to the number of non-phonetic pronunciations in the English language especially when referring to geographical locations) & as such have a significant on-going cost as they have to be updated for every diversion & service change (& outside London operators actually get very little warning of even very significant roadwork & road layout change diversions which makes updating the systems challenging).

  3. Simply put the technology isn't ready yet to handle a system like this, Guide Dogs are working under the false presumption that all smartcard enabled ticket machines are GPS fitted which they aren't and they never need to be to work, and the industry isn't equipped to handle it without loading so many costs onto it that it may well kill off many marginal routes as outside major tourist locations and a few core corridors in big cities there simply isn't the business case that the campaigners suggest. Given that technology is available (& apps have been developed) that can do this on a personal level for each passenger that desires it, it seems unnecessary for the cost of a system to be forced on commercial businesses that cannot afford it, it would be more cost effective to supply every blind person with a smartphone with voice recognition & a program to guide them to fit the entire British Bus fleet with a announcement system that is unreliable & risks being misleading if done quickly on the cheap.

    A question needs to asked, which it hasn't as yet, as to whether it is really the best way of providing mobility for all disabled by forcing them to use a form of mass transportation that is designed around shifting a lot of people from a lot of individual locations along a route with the minimal interaction with staff as the government are doing at the moment. If it is the best way of doing this then more funding needs to be made available to enable modifications to be made that help meet this need, if it isn't (which I believe in many cases is the answer) then funding needs to be provided to the modes that better provide this mobility (such as taxis & DRT) to ensure full coverage & transport where & when the users need it. At the moment it feels more like the government saw a cheap way of looking like they are dealing with the problem by forcing commercial operators to carry these passengers for free (with a small payment, often insufficient to cover the actual cost of travel) without ensuring that these businesses actually have the systems & technology to be able to fulfil this role. Where the disabled have a degree of independence and can manage the barriers that exist then public transport is a good solution but it won't suit all and each of these modifications being asked makes it harder to provide any sort of service to anyone. Is it better that all have access to a service that some may struggle to use due to disabilities or to have no service at all for anyone as no one can afford to provide it with all the bells & whistles that legislation has forced on them? A line has to be drawn and due to the limited amount of funding that the UK bus industry (outside London) actually receives that line has to be drawn a lot further forward than people may see as ideal, you want more someone has to pay for it and the bus industry is struggling as it is.

  4. These constant announcements become a serious nuisance after a while. Have a visual display is ok though. I doubt the reliability of this information though give the lack of accuracy of the so called real time bus infornmation

  5. This discussion just shows the sorry state of the British bus industry.

    Standardized stop names are important for normal passengers as well. I lived in Sheffield for about a year. When the driver did not know the stop name I used (the one on the bus stop flag...), I was often charged a higher fare. It took me several weeks until I had figured out, that "my stop" was known to most of the drivers as "the one next to the Kentucky Fried Chicken". I guess for a casual user who has access to a car, such experiences are reasons enough not to use the bus any further.

    Stop announcements have been a standard feature on bus services in many cities across Europe for many years. Before the digital age, the driver had a microphone and did the announcements himself. This had the additional advantage, that he could also make other announcement if necessary (for example inform about route diversion or tell passengers not to block the rear door ...). Admittedly it can be a problem if the driver speaks heavy dialect. And of course the driver needs to know the route...

  6. Since all bus companies I know ban their drivers from using hands free phones the use of microphones for stop announcements would not be a practical proposition and that is before you get to the point that in many places in the UK bus stops are very close together so drivers would be constantly making announcements of the next stop with no rest.

    Standardised stop names in terms of stop announcements would not help with the difference between what the drivers know the stop as & the passengers as the drivers would have no more idea of the official name as they do now (they only get the designated timing points on their paperwork) as they will 'tune out' the announcements for their own sanity so are unlikely to have any better idea.

    Fares & fare stages and how to market them to the public is the biggest problem area that the industry has not been able to solve, how to produce a fair fare that is simple to explain. Flat fares only work in constrained urban areas (or if heavily subsidised) otherwise the fare jump for short distance travellers is too high. Since you can be picked up anywhere & dropped off anywhere on route there will always be boundary issues & confusion over stops & there is probably no correct answer to this as every option will have a different collection of optimum cost base, network layout & fare levels that will apply in each location to determine which method of layout & how course a structure will work best.

  7. Standardised stop would absolutely help as everyone would be using the same name for the same stop. I'd suggest that the names used on Traveline (and Google Maps, which many customers and potential customers use) be used by all.

    Another MP has back the Guide Dogs campaign: http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/MP-backs-AV-bus-campaign/story-21346317-detail/story.html

    Some operators are working hard on making fares transparent and understandable for passengers. First are certainly showing the way in Southampton and the West of England. There is so much more that could be done to make fares clearer across the board and more attractive to potential passengers. A clear, consistent and transparent fare structure will get more people on board than a fare cut in many cases.

  8. That should read "standardised stop names".

  9. SotonBus, the problem is the names used by Traveline are taken from the Naptan database and these are in many cases hopeless (the people setting them up rarely have any local knowledge & are relying on a computer road map that only shows roads & not landmarks like churches or shops). They are certainly too long to use on stop announcements (or to show on the flags), many have inaccurate location names and they rarely refer to local landmarks (and often use road names that people would need a map to find as they aren't always the most recognisable) that most people recognise & most operators use for their timing points.

    Most major operators are working hard on making fares more transparent, it is just the problem of balancing understandability, change in cost for customer, affect on revenue for passenger & the level of detail for the operator of where passengers & travelling between. I have worked for an operator who greatly simplified their fare structure (Bluestar in Southampton as it happens) & there were a lot of complaints about cost rises for short hop passengers that rumbled on for a fair while afterwards, not insurmountable but something to be born in mind. The problem is that what works for one operator in one place may not work in another area or for another operator so each operator has to come up with a solution for themselves. My current employers have retained a fairly traditional fare structure but have then put all fare tables up on their website along with calculators for the various ticket options above singles (which have been simplified in how they are calculated to ease explanation). As long as you can understand the fare table (not a given, I still struggle & I have worked in the bus industry for over a decade) then everything is there, and has had a dramatic effect in reducing fare enquiries over the phone, but it is still a little difficult to market beyond that.

    The problem with the Guide Dogs campaign is that it seems so simple (£2k per bus & it is ready to go with them driving a competition to reduce the installation cost) so politicians not having any other knowledge can't see a reason why this won't be an easy win, but it isn't. The hold up isn't the cost of the installation, it's not excessive (about twice the cost of installing Wi-Fi) or excessively complicated, but the issues over the programming & management of system once it is installed (which will be lengthy, complicated & ongoing) & whether the technology is truly ready, which given the tracking rates we are getting on our basic RTI system are hovering around 75% is debatable. To put it in context TfL employ more people maintaining & running their IBus system than a major regional independent employs managing the whole company (Head Office & Depot managers & supervisors) those sort of resource requirements are what makes AV an issue that few operators are equipped to deal with at this time.

  10. I don't think Traveline's stop names are too long at all. Once you've stripped out the locality name, you're usually left with a road name or something else taking up two to three words: perfectly reasonable.

    Good point about the costs of maintaining such a system. Maybe the politicians arguing for this ought to also be arguing for adequate funds to be allocated to it. Another one today: http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/11335437.MP_backs_bus_information_call/?ref=var_0

    Just a thought: TfL is a public body and is already running such a system. How about getting them to help manage such a system nationwide using tried and tested technology?

    Many operators outside London are already including stop announcements on certain routes, so they can clearly see the merit of having them. We just need to work out how to have them on more buses and how to manage the system so that it serves its purpose well.

  11. Well yes, if you remove most of the name used by Traveline then the name isn't too long but it isn't really the Traveline name anymore but that would then risk inconsistencies & they still aren't always the most helpful or accurate.

    Everyone lauds the London system but as a user it isn't always the most helpful, the worst aspect being that the stop names don't always match what the passenger is expecting to hear, particularly at the terminus (and the message to say this is the terminus tends to be stated after the driver has closed his doors and begun moving away so a passenger who isn't sure where they are can be left onboard as the driver goes off to park. It has happened to my Dad a couple of times & he was born & raised in London! The other problem with getting an outside contractor involved is that such systems require an intimate knowledge of the operators systems & schedules & integration with the on-bus systems for it to operate accurately so there are far more costs & introduced weaknesses if it is done outside the operators structures, and the issues over Traveline with accuracy & clarity indicate the problems that can occur when the operator is removed from the data provision equation (operators have no input into what Traveline shows, how it shows it or anyway to easily check what is displayed by Traveline & too much dubious data/results show for me to be entirely happy truting it), not all operators are a lot better but you have a chance of entirely useful data if the operator is involved & none if they are not.

    I'm not sure it is all that many and as far as I can tell they are all what I call 'legacy operators' (formerly or currently businesses that can trace lineage through state ownership or with major owners that mean they have retained a larger back office staffing than smaller operators would ever have reached) & all are urban where such systems have the best chance of reliability in tracking coverage. The basic problem is the assumptions about how easy such a system is to implement are entirely wrong, the required coverage isn't widespread enough & the underlying technology is no where near reliable enough or foolproof enough to be relied on to provide a system that requires 100% reliability to be of any use. If you are relying on such a system (such as if you are blind) it only has to fail or not be available once for you to no longer trust it and once that trust is gone it will be very difficult to get it back and make any investment as part of a growth strategy wasted very quickly.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.