India, smart enough to understand that zero was worth inventing, has apparently also figured out that any ‘random’ factor is completely toxic to bus travel, and has introduced a new ‘Uber for buses’ scheme whereby users can book seats on buses which they had often failed to board at all in the chaos of the Mumbai rush hour. With Cityflo, Android-based app users can book a seat on a bus that was formerly a la carte, basically turning bus networks into four-wheeled train networks. A monthly pass is coming for the service, as is an iOS version of the booking app.

It’s a desperate move for a desperate problem, and I do wonder if London Transport will be sending a delegation to Mumbai to investigate. It’s worth a go, since the Cityflo solution – along with equivalent other Indian services/apps for various cities – at least admits that there are some mathematical and infrastructural problems that Big Data cannot solve.

Chaos theory and London buses

The Londoners who most instinctively understand the promise of Big Data, and the problems that the private and public sector are hoping that it can solve, are those cursed to commute to work on buses.

We, the ‘shuffling dead’, had a working comprehension of the complex physics and metaphysics of bus provision even before the 2008 crash straitened Transport for London’s purse-strings and set it on a curious scientific quest to cut the number of buses it runs, whilst still fulfilling its remit to stop Londoners from bringing yet more cars into the choked streets of the capital – an ambit supported by governments of all colours for many years.

bus-stopEven the novice London bus commuter is introduced to rudimentary logistical economics as soon as they join the rain-soaked queue. They watch, perplexed, as one long-delayed and impossibly-packed bus is followed almost immediately by the Marie Celeste of the bus fleet. It’s a problem actually cited in chaos theory, and one for which more than a few scientific solutions have been suggested. Apparently to no avail, to date.

Chaos will not be duped, as we bus-dwellers know too well. We have gritted our teeth in freezing February winds and declined the much-delayed ‘sardine bus’ in the hope that the roomier Marie Celeste will follow within a minute or two – only to find that no ‘passenger-free’ vehicle manifests at all, or else that it has been hiding close to the rear of the ‘sardine bus’ and has decided to skip the stop completely, just as the driver of ‘sardine bus’ declines any further passengers, due to the potential for fractured ribs.

The lab-rat race

By around 2008, a third possibility had come into play for passengers on the Marie Celeste: that although the abandoned bus was boardable, its lack of passengers almost inevitably led to a remote decision to terminate the route early and disgorge disgruntled commuters back into the cold, to be sucked back (eventually) into a newly-consolidated ‘sardine bus’. At this point we knew for sure that we had become lab rats. Public remonstration led to a diminution of the practice; it still happens, but it isn’t endemic any longer.

TFL’s next attempt to govern the quantum quandaries of bus regulation kicked in shortly after the new year of 2013, when to the bewilderment of the post-festive commuting hordes, we found that our buses were suddenly. Very. Slow.

And so for almost three years now London bus-riders have twitched at random bus stops as the engine dies and a little-anticipated crackling tannoy informs us that we are being held at the stop ‘to regulate the service’. At this point the length of the prescribed delay is habitually doubled in the announcement, apparently to give the impression, when the bus resumes its journey ‘early’, that some concession has been made to the ill-sentiment of those on board. Meanwhile the powerless passengers fume, mutter, twitch, get off – and tut as if tuts were bitter tweets reaching a wide audience.

blakeyIt continues. Drivers sit frozen, the engine idled to quiescence, their eyes affixed to the left-hand screen that will tell them when they can move again. Thereafter the bus describes an arthritic lurch through London streets at the inner margins of traffic laws, attempting to surrender to any available red light, letting all waiting traffic pass first, in the hope of not furrowing the brows of the new legion of clipboard-clutching bus inspectors at key-point stops.

None of this has made any apparent difference. For all that Watson or Hadoop might be turned on the Oyster Card usage datasets, London buses still come in twos and threes after intervals long enough to start a small family.

A few reservations on buses

Arguably the fundamental set-up is flawed. Buses are randomly available to anyone who needs them, and apparently it must be so; cutting the number of buses or returning to mass-ejections means TFL solving its logistical problems by extending the commuter’s working day by at least an hour, with the result that twitterstorms and acid comments columns quickly reverse that resolve (again); maintaining the schedules will mean that 70% of London buses will run mostly empty, most of the time, in a context where extremely relevant Big Data about the problem is available – though unavailing.

oysterAs a consumer, I would prefer the latter, but since I understand that the hunt to eliminate ‘waste’ effort and expenditure is going to be unrelenting, no matter what the current state of the economy, I would prefer that TFL abandon its attempts to outfox chaos and consider extending its already effective Oyster framework to bring in a facility where you know that a particular scheduled bus will be boardable, since your place on it will have been anticipated. As it stands, it’s not like one can just hop on a bus without any preparation in London – and many major cities – since fares are cashless and need to be purchased in some form in advance.

Pre-booked buses would have to run a ‘fat’ service for the first 12 months, before gathering enough data to begin making optimisations that truly accommodate and anticipate, instead of the random scientific dial-twiddling which is currently inflicted on its bus-using populace in the vain hope that chaos will yield to logic.