Building Public Transport Information Around the Needs of Passengers

Building Public Transport Information Around the Needs of Passengers


T Cohen, M Dillon, Steer Davies Gleave, UK



h4. Introduction

What matters most in delivering public transport information? How can organisations get the best value out of a limited budget for information? And how is that value defined? Steer Davies Gleave has recently undertaken two pieces of research which help to answer these questions:

* The Merseyside Information Demonstration Project (for Merseytravel);
* Tyne and Wear Information Research (for Nexus).

The results are wide-ranging and offer many potentially useful lessons to those attempting to achieve results in this area.

h4. Background

Highway authorities in England and Wales are required under the Transport Act 2000 to produce a bus information strategy. Little emphasis is currently placed, however, on either establishing objectives or ascertaining the performance of current transport information delivery. At the same time, each authority has its own set of systems for the processing and delivery of information which benefit, to a greater or lesser extent, from the co-operation of commercial operators.

We suggest that much of today?s public transport information is based on design and delivery that reflect the operator?s perception of the network. The presentation of maps, printed timetables, bus stop flags and web-based information is often based on ingrained practices that have, to some extent, been accepted by the public. But can passengers in general understand these articles? More importantly, do they address the questions that passengers need answered? Our work has indicated that public transport information could be far more effective in every respect, if it were reconceived with the requirements of the passenger as the starting point.

h4. Merseyside Information Demonstration Project

We started by defining the ?question-based approach?, a simple set of functional questions which anyone contemplating a journey may need answered (such as ?what mode of transport should I use to get from A to B??, ?where do I get off this bus??, ?how do I get from the bus stop to my friend?s house??). These were divided into four sets: pre-journey, at-stop, on-vehicle and at-interchange. This led to the creation of a long list, containing all conceivable information products, static and dynamic, generic and personalised. Each was then appraised against a set of criteria including: effectiveness at answering questions, accessibility, cost and feasibility. Ultimately, a set of preferred options arose, being products which appeared to offer the best value for cost (a combination of money, time, effort and risk). As a parallel part of the research, a unique approach was taken to the production of a simplified visual representation of the full transport network in Merseyside, based on an innovative approach to the naming of points and regions. The market testing of this map provided very interesting insights into the needs and expectations of actual and potential public transport users.

h4. Tyne and Wear Passenger Information Research

We used members of the public as ?mystery shoppers?, asking them to plan and then execute public transport journeys in seven categories that reflected different combinations of familiarity with public transport in general, and familiarity with the public transport journey in question. In addition, we allocated to each traveller a ?first port of call?, being the information form (printed, website, telephone-based etc) which they were asked to use in planning their journey. Mystery shoppers completed a detailed questionnaire on every aspect of the experience which we followed up with telephone interviews, and a focus group directed at printed bus information. These provided a very useful mixture of both quantitative and qualitative data.

h4. Findings

Our research suggests that an approach to transport information that focuses the products on the specific needs of the individual passenger can provide substantial advantages over traditional, ?passive? provision of printed, oral and virtual media.

The question-based approach is a very helpful pragmatic tool. Whilst using it, however, it is essential to remember that individual passengers have a very wide range of needs ? a regular user of the network, a car-dependent local and a tourist visiting the area each has a different perspective.

Our research indicates that current public transport information provision is analogous to a foreign language: to understand it, one must be familiar with the various vocabulary, syntax and nuance and allow for the distinctions in presentation across providers (dialects). Passengers who are not confident in interpreting the language will tend to seek out an interpreter: a human voice on a travel line, an assistant at an interchange, a knowledgeable bus driver or a fellow traveller. Even with the assistance of an interpreter, though, way-finding within the system and recognition of locations are still essential to completing the journey successfully.

Indeed, it is the building blocks of information provision ? names of places, modes, routes and boarding points that so often confuse the potential user. These are the links between the information system and the world it is meant to be describing. Today, people are faced with inconsistencies between graphical presentation, symbols and words used on maps, printed timetables, spoken information and, ultimately, what is actually written on the front of the bus. Thus, even the best information structure is being let down by its links with the travelling environment.

Our dominant finding, then, relates to the value of creating these links effectively ? producing something intelligible and as free as possible from ambiguity. Then, in order for passengers to gain maximum utility from the provision of transport information, there must be a consistent and navigable information hierarchy that is accessible at the top level, with key indicators to the next, more disaggregate level. And making the availability of this information better known is one of the most obvious ?quick wins? available to most providers.

h4. Implications

What if strategies of this nature are adopted across an entire network? If journey planning and execution become efficient and less stressful, this will reduce the generalised cost to the user. For the economist, this implies an increase in demand.

For the operator, this implies increased farebox revenue. For the highway authority, this implies progress towards meeting patronage and modal shift targets. But this is a simplistic model. Surely we can expect ?multiplier effects? from improved information: a legible public transport network becomes a feasible travel option for many who do not currently consider it. The modal constants that currently disadvantage public transport could therefore alter in its favour.

The very interesting cognitive aspects also deserve consideration: however good or bad current provision, we are all used to it to some degree. There would need to be some adjustment ? people may find that, with the changing priorities of the information provider, some of the (imperfect) products with which they were familiar, were replaced by different products. We suggest that this would be a good thing. How many people can plan a route successfully using a map? Yet how many thousands of maps are disseminated every day in the UK to public transport users? A rethink is surely in order.


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