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When’s the next bus? Real-time information on bus departures through optical tags

Published Mar 01, 2010

A new report by the Centre for Sustainable Communications documents a trial on an IT-based travel planning service. Skånetrafiken, a regional public transport provider, equipped timetable sheets at bus stops with so-called optical tags. Through these tags a test group of passengers could obtain real-time information on bus departures to their mobile phones. A research team from the Centre for Sustainable Communications took a close look at how this service was used, if it affected travel patterns and if it lead to increased use of public transport. The Report (När kommer bussen? Realtidsinformation i mobilen via optiska taggar) is available in Swedish. Find a summary in English below.

Henriksson, G. et al (2010) När kommer bussen? Realtidsinformation i mobilen via optiska taggar. Report from the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications, Stockholm.


Ericsson ConsumerLab, Skånetrafiken and the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications carried out a joint project during August-September 2009. ConsumerLab was interested in using optical tags, which in this case meant scanning tags at bus stops with the help of mobile phone cameras. Skånetrafiken participated with the aim of increasing passenger use of their internet service to obtain real-time information on bus times. Their ambition was to increase access to Skånetrafiken’s real-time information through using the tags. KTH’s entry into the project was to investigate an IT-based travel planning service from a travel pattern and environmental perspective.

The project involved Skånetrafiken equipping 13 bus stops in Lund, Malmö and Höllviken with a timetable notice with an optical tag, which in turn was linked to a website about the bus stop containing real-time information on approximately the next eight bus departures in both directions. This real-time information was taken directly from the Skånetrafiken operating system, which provides bus stop display boards and other applications with bus departure information. In conjunction with this, KTH and ConsumerLab devised a user study aimed at documenting whether changes in the local availability of information affected:

- use of the technology

- travel patterns

- the level of satisfaction with the test system and with other sources of information available for planning daily trips by public transport

The 16 participants in the study were given introductory training during which they learned how to operate the technology. This introductory training included a review of the participants’ mobile phones to ensure these were suitable for the intended purpose and had the necessary software correctly installed.

Use of the technology was satisfactory, indicating that the actual internet service was fully functional. In most cases the participants got the right information about when the bus was coming. In a few cases, however, the bus did not arrive as forecasted, which mainly seems to be due to the fact that all buses do not yet have the necessary equipment/are not part of the operating system. Difficulties also occurred during tagging at night by the light of a street lamp, in direct sunlight or when parts of the tag were in shade. However, the participants learned how to deal with these problems.

Around half the participants believed that they gained direct benefit from the service. The remaining participants could see the advantages with the service, but felt it did not benefit them in relation to their actual travel habits or in relation to the technical handling required. The participants who discovered that they could save bookmarks for particular bus stops and thus access real-time information without further tagging were somewhat more positive about the service than those who had not discovered this option.

For some of the participants, in particular those with the scope to choose alternative travel routes, the real-time information affected their travel patterns. It gave them greater flexibility and the possibility of choosing the most efficient travel route. Some were of the opinion that exact knowledge of when the bus would arrive gave them a positive feeling of being ‘in control’ and allowed them to avoid unnecessary stress when the bus was late. The participants also considered the service provided to their mobile phone to be more efficient than receiving the same information in the display boards at main bus stops. Our conclusion was that information on bus departures is rated more highly the earlier it is available. When only available at the bus stop, in some sense it is already ‘too late’.

For further improvement of the service, we believe that it would be beneficial to review the information channels that could be used for this purpose, with the aim of increasing uptake. At the present time we do not consider optical tags to be the best way of getting prospective passengers to link up to the Skånetrafiken website for real-time information, mainly because optical tags are not currently used on a broad front in mobile applications, but also because of the technical obstacles hampering use of the service. Other potential solutions should therefore be considered, e.g. via text message or abbreviated internet addresses. Another related option would be to use bus stops more actively to inform passengers about how they can use real-time applications and possibly deploy training officers at bus stops for this purpose.

New phones offer better opportunities for internet use and the use of internet services on the mobile phone. Many mobile phones now have GPS and, together with an improved service, this could probably provide efficient ways of providing relevant information to mobile phones in the future.

Having the most attractive public transport possible is essential if people are to choose it over the car. This study showed that a service offering real-time information on public transport departure times can facilitate the use of public transport and thus increase its attractiveness. If this means that fewer take the car it is good from an environmental point of view. In general, it can be said that use of the internet and information services increases the range of choices, which is attractive for consumers, but few studies are able to demonstrate a link with a general increase in loyalty to the sender’s products. It is therefore probable that even if the introduction of real-time services is likely to increase the attractiveness of public transport, the effect will be that other modes of transport will also be more easily accessible.

We consider it likely that real-time information about public transport will increase – even if it is not the system tested here that eventually comes into operation – and thus the choices prospective passengers can make before and during their trip will also increase. Changes in the choices available will create new travel patterns and thus affect urban traffic in its entirety – not just public transport. Measures and support are needed to influence the attractiveness, costs and sacrifices involved in different modes of transport in a way that reflects their environmental consequences. Such environmental measures, together with real-time information, can be a way of making urban traffic more sustainable.