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Digitally Driven

Bus-driver banter could become a thing of the past thanks to new technology installed to make sure there is always an equal distance between buses, experts reveal.

Location-Based Systems (LBS) are now used widely by transport companies to provide real-time information to passengers about when the next train or bus is due and deliver a more regular service.

Designed to end the phenomenon of ‘bus bunching’ – where you wait for ages for a bus and then several turn up at once – iBus was fitted to all 8,000 London buses in 2009.

Keeping London’s 6.4million daily bus passengers informed about where their bus is and what the next stop will be, the system has been hailed a huge success, helping to deliver a more reliable and consistent service across the capital.

But now a small-scale, qualitative study by researchers at Newcastle University suggests the new digital systems are in some cases creating a barrier between drivers and passengers.

Less time for passengers

Investigating the iBus technology, the team say the system means drivers have less time to interact with their passengers – such as chatting to them as they get on and off and waiting while people get seated – because of the pressures of keeping a fixed distance between themselves and the buses in front and behind.

In the study, drivers interviewed admitted to sometimes “forgoing their usual considerate nature” if the bus behind them was getting too close.  One driver summed it up by saying: “It takes a lot of the one-on-one away from you.”

The drivers also told the research team that passengers got frustrated with them for driving too slowly.  One driver said: “There’s nothing worse than when you’re trying to lose time.  You can guarantee that the lights will be green and every driver will be absolutely charming.  They’ll flash to let you out and you’re thinking ‘No, please go.  I’m trying to lose time’.”

Presenting their findings today at the prestigious CHI conference in Toronto, Canada, the team say the technology has fundamentally altered the relationship between drivers and customers and the research suggests that in the future, drivers need to be more involved in the design and implementation of these role-transforming technologies.

“Many of these guys have been driving a bus for upward of 30 years and take real pride in their job and the skills it requires,” explains research lead Dr Gary Pritchard, part of the Digital Interaction Group based in Newcastle University’s Culture Lab.

“So while most of them genuinely want to provide the best service and recognise the benefits of the system, particularly for passengers, some of them also feel threatened by the constant scrutiny and saddened by the lack of social interaction it brings.

“The technology has fundamentally changed the job for bus drivers.  In conjunction with the oyster card system it has removed interpersonal interaction with the customer and in some cases they feel it has compromised their ability to make safe decisions in relation to speed.  Ultimately, it means they can’t always put customer care and comfort first."

Ensuring an equal distance between buses

iBus is designed to avoid bus bunching by helping drivers to co-ordinate with one another and make services more efficient by ensuring there is always an even distance between buses.
The iBus terminal fitted on all London buses contains a GPS-based system that informs drivers how far away they are from the bus in front and behind.

“Before 2009, London’s buses ran to a timetable,” explains Dr Pritchard.  “Timetables were designed to schedule buses evenly but instead they would tend to bunch together creating an unreliable service and long waiting times – hence the old adage ‘you wait for ages for a bus and then several come along at once’.”

With the new system, the driver is expected to keep an equal distance between the two within a two-minute time frame and all buses are monitored externally by controllers.  The controllers can ask the driver to modify their driving via on-screen prompts or radio control.  This creates a level of stress and most of the drivers questioned in the research felt these instructions deskilled them, taking away their ability to deploy their experience and situational knowledge to drive the bus route.

“The drivers we spoke to saw some real positives in the system,” says Dr Pritchard.  “When used in conjunction with CCTV it can support the work of the police and one of the interviewees in the study described bus drivers as “the eyes and ears of London”.

“But what the findings  suggest is that any future systems should grant drivers more autonomy and awareness, supporting them in applying their experience and knowledge of routes while at the same time enhancing the passenger experience.”

Dr John Vines, a researcher in Newcastle University’s Culture Lab and one of the authors on the paper, adds: “Technology has the potential to play a central role in the development and improvement of people’s lives in many different ways. The challenge is understanding everyone’s different needs and expectations and tailoring that technology so that it has a positive impact on society.”

The research was funded by the Technology Strategy Board through the SALT project and through the RCUK Digital Economy Program.

Why bus bunching occurs:

Even if a bus is slightly late it will pick up extra passengers who would have caught the bus behind had it been on time. The time it takes to get these additional commuters on board, delays the bus even further and has a knock-on effect at every stop. At the same time, the bus behind is picking up fewer passengers so it starts to speed up and run ahead of schedule. Eventually, this bus will catch up with the one in front.

Source Information: “Digitally Driven: How Location Based Services impact on the work practices of London Bus Drivers” Gary Pritchard, John Vines, Pam Briggs, Lisa Thomas and Patrick Olivier.  CHI 2014.  April 26-May 01.


published on: 1 May 2014