I remember the bad old days of Transport Direct, the UK government’s public transport journey planner. It was awful, though probably necessary at the time. And thankfully, it’s now dead.
Once data on public transport timetables was open, private companies stepped up and wrote much better tools. CityMapper is fantastic, Windows Maps is great, Here maps is awesome, and Google Maps is brilliant.
But I want to talk about one thing that they all still can’t do. It’s something that holds back public transport use in our cities, and in turn makes us poorer, stops us building our cities at high density, and thus requires us to expand into the greenbelt to build homes.
No journey planner tool for the UK’s cities away from London can tell you how much a journey will cost. Let me give you a couple of examples.
The first is about as simple as it gets, a trip to the airport. As you can see, Google Maps uses open timetable data from Traveline to give me fantastic options.
I need to go to the city centre on the 35 bus or the 50 bus, and then take either a train from New Street, or the X1 bus from the coach station.
This is where it gets hard. You can pay for public transport in the West Midlands with cash (on most buses, exact change only) and there are various apps to pay for journeys with specific companies too. But if we consider them we’ll be here all day.
I’m just going to talk about the options that I have with a Swift Card – the new stored-value PAYG travel card for the West Midlands.
First I need to get to the city-centre,
Now I need to get to the airport,
So here’s a harder example. So hard that I’m not even going to try and explain it all. To get to The Black Eagle Pub in Soho, right at the heart of Birmingham’s historic industrial might, I need to get two buses, possibly with different bus companies, or I need to take a bus and a tram, or I need to take a bus and a train. If I buy four singles it’s prohibitively expensive, over £10. And yet every time I’ve bought a combination ticket someone on the tram has explained to me how I could have saved money by buying a different ticket, or someone on a bus refused my ticket for not being valid. I’d list every possible option, but you won’t read the number of words it would take, and even then I don’t trust that my example would be complete.
I’ve deliberately simplified the examples I’ve given here. When competition appears, there are special offers galore on buses in Birmingham. The £1.50 short-hop fare gets extended to long journeys, special-value £2.40 return fares pop up. Drivers can't keep up with the complexity and often don't know that cross-company tickets exist, so they sell you tickets for their company even when you ask for one, and they refuse to accept multi-company tickets issued from another company. And in Leeds I’ve seen even more complexity. Offers like “show a student card for a discount” and “buy your tickets in our app for a special price”. I don't think that we will ever be able to formalise this fares system.
I don’t like this pricing, but I’m quite allergic to complexity anyway. And in some things I have to admit that complex pricing and competition works. The airplane industry is one such example. It just works, and we shouldn’t regulate it too much.
But let’s judge this complexity in public transport in UK cities by its results. It’s caused passenger numbers to halve in 30 years, while they’ve doubled in the same 30 years in London; the only city with regulated public transport and simple standardised fares. It's crippling our cities, making them the least productive in Northern Europe.
We need to fix this, and I don't think that open fares data will help in the same way as open timetable helped with journey planning. The system is far too complex. We'll get close, but I doubt that we have the technical ability to accurately reflect all pricing as it is. I don't think we'll be able to offer sensible fares suggestions for all users based on it. And everyone I’ve spoken to agrees, open fares data is not going to be possible for every journey.
I speak to a lot of people about transport, and it’s very interesting.
Almost everyone agrees what the end point of integrating smart ticketing, open timetables, and open fares data should be. They want people to feel free to travel as they wish, safe in the knowledge that at the end of the day or the week they are charged the best fare that they could have found if they bought the right ticket when they started. That means that most travellers will end up being charged a fare set by the local transport authority, as in London.
Everyone wants people to be able to use public transport as flexibly as they use their cars. And we all believe that once people use public transport flexibly they will use it more, leaving us to build denser cities, become richer through agglomeration effects, and expand our cities upwards instead of outwards.
And since this is the end point that everyone except a few people in Whitehall and representatives of the bus industry want, why are we pissing about with open fares data? If we make public transport in the UK’s cities as simple to use as it is in London then the only open fares data that really matters will be so simple that it doesn’t need the big technical investment that we’re considering right now.
Just look at TfL’s fares page. It’s one page.