The founders of transport app specialist, Citymapper, never expected to run buses. However, having built an app using open data to allow people to move around London, the company started to gain lots of insights, including where gaps in demand might be. It has now launched its first bus service and its first taxi-share route. This looks like just the start for the company’s move into transport operations, not only in London but elsewhere around the UK and the globe (it now operates in 40 cities). How did this unexpected branching out come about?
London roots and routes
For the venture capital-backed Citymapper, London was an obvious starting place because it had the most open data of any major capital city, through the government’s Transport for London (TfL). “TfL is just about the benchmark on how to do this stuff,” says Andrew MacDougall, Citymapper’s head of communications. The quality of the data is good and it has open APIs for accessing this. As a result, this city was the start-up’s initial focus with its app.
The app includes data from other sources including Google, Apple and OpenStreetMaps, Foursquare and Yelp, Uber and GETT, Car2Go and Autolib. Third-parties, including customers, can use Citymapper’s tool to add and fix data.
The app is free to download and use; it also has no adverts. The current business model sees income via referral partnerships, with the app providing booking for the likes of Uber and London black taxi app, GETT.
With the app live, Citymapper started to gain a lot of additional data via its users. It built tools to analyse this and, in so doing, it started to learn about how people were moving around the city. It studied the existing public transit routes and felt there was demand for new routes.
Based on this, Citymapper commenced in May of this year with a trial circular service, CMX1, using its own buses in the centre of London, taking in South Bank, Waterloo Road, Blackfriars and Somerset House.
In keeping with the slick branding of its app, these are green coloured buses. Some are leased and it has also bought Mercedes sprinter vehicles. There’s a smart display and USB charging for smartphones. And as you’d expect from a company built on an app, there’s real-time operational control, driver management software and scheduling systems, plus integration with the app.
The buses are green in colour and meet London’s strict emissions requirements but they are not yet electric/hybrid or hydrogen. This is largely due to the lack of infrastructure that’s currently available to a small operator.
New London services
The CMX1 pilot has now ended but Citymapper built the entire software stack for this, says MacDougall, and used it to basically learn how to run a bus service. “We tried the small circular route first, to see if people were interested, to understand things like how to space services in a congested city, and to see how buses should talk to each other and understand their space on the network.”
In early September it launched a night bus service, with a licence from TfL. CM2 runs on weekends from 9pm to 5am in East London between Aldgate East station and Highbury & Islington station, via Shoreditch and Dalston.
Customers pay on board using a Contactless debit or credit card, or Apple Pay and Android Pay with a smartphone. Citymapper shares open data on the bus route, so that other apps and websites can use it, in the same way it expects public authorities to do so.
With the taxi-share service, dubbed Project Black Bus, Citymapper looked once more at the data and felt a route between Highbury and Waterloo was underserved. By current public transport, it requires two tubes or three or two buses and one tube. Citymapper is working with GETT, which already has taxi-share routes, on this new route.
Cabs can be shared by multiple passengers for a fixed price of £3 and they can get on and off anywhere on the route. It operates during busy commute hours (7–10am and 5–8pm) and was launched on 25th September.
When New York City’s MTA followed TfL’s lead and opened its data, Citymapper launched its app here and won MTA’s open data competition in 2013, a couple of months later. As data has become available elsewhere, so Citymapper has expanded into cities across Europe, US, Latin America and Asia.
Other UK cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, are open to talking to Citymapper, says MacDougall. “It is not a cut and paste job but we are encouraged by the openness of the conversations.” Citymapper is speaking at the Urban Tech Summit in November in Birmingham, which is being put on by the West Midlands Combined Authority. Each city has its unique mix of transport services and issues and these must be studied carefully when thinking about ways to improve transit users’ experiences, he says. For instance, it might be deemed that an issue in Birmingham is the amount of cars moving between the West Midlands conurbations while in Manchester a political issue in the mayoral elections was the perceived poor quality of bus services.
The amount of data, size and history of London means this is still a main focus. Citymapper would like to launch more services, confirms MacDougall. These could be along the existing lines or new models. “We are not hitched to any one mode or method of delivery.” For one thing, he believes that ultimately there could be a shift to demand-driven services, rather than purely fixed routes.
He points out that Citymapper has started its services in a city with “one of the premier public transport networks in the world, so if we can find gaps here, we are pretty confident we can find gaps elsewhere”.
It’s all about the data
Citymapper concluded that existing transit options don’t always serve people best, nor do they evolve quickly enough to accommodate changes in the city. Some opportunities might suddenly arise if, for instance, a major thoroughfare is pedestrianised. Meanwhile, many of the existing bus routes are historical ones and might no longer reflect the different flows of the city.
And with the tools it has built, Citymapper can also predict change. In London, it has used its tools to model the still under construction CrossRail and has hooked it up with its transit graph and routing infrastructure to see how this major development might change transport patterns. In the interests of openness, it has made this data openly available.
Users are particularly important where there is a lack of data. An example cited by Citymapper is the Peseros network of privately run microbuses in Mexico City. They carry more passengers than any other form of transport in the city but there’s no comprehensive route network. Here, user data has allowed the company to work out many of those routes.
Citymapper’s main focus for its first four years was to ensure its app was as reliable and usable as possible, says MacDougall. The business model is still evolving as it seeks to scale up. The bus and taxi-share initiatives are an interesting diversification.
“Our whole goal is to make the city more usable,” says MacDougall. “We want to fill out a city transport picture to decrease congestion and improve quality of life in our cities.” The argument is basically that the more public or shared transport is transparent and user-friendly, the more is will be used and the better a city will flow.