Oxfordshire rolls out personalised messaging to prevent bus crowding

24th June 2020 Sarah Wray

Oxfordshire County Council is using technology from UK start-up Zipabout to help manage demand on its bus network as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions continue to be eased in the UK.

Zipabout’s Passenger Connect service will deliver personalised journey updates for bus passengers on how disruption and crowding may affect their travel, as well as providing alternative options.

Passenger Connect also identifies key workers and essential journeys to help transport operators and local authorities plan timetables.

This is the first time Zipabout’s Passenger Connect service has been used on UK buses. It has been piloted by several train operators and the UK’s National Rail Enquiries service over the last 18 months and plans are being developed to extend the service to incorporate tram and metro networks across other regions in the UK, Zipabout said.

Passenger intent

In April, bus companies in England received a £400 million government support package to keep services running as ridership plummeted during the lockdown. As the UK government continues to lift restrictions, Zipabout believes improving the provision of passenger information across bus networks could be key to helping the industry recover.

The project has been funded by a grant of almost £50,000 from Innovate UK, the national research and innovation agency, and will be delivered in collaboration with Oxontime, a bus information service run by independent bus operators and Oxfordshire County Council.

A spokesperson for Zipabout told Cities Today more about how the service works: “Live disruption information comes from the bus operators which is used for the existing Oxontime web service. We bring this information into our platform and turn it into personalised messages for delivery to passengers. We also collect passenger ‘intent’ to travel (origin/destination/time of travel) and this is attached to an anonymous identifier unique to the passenger –  this helps operators build a clearer picture of their network  for example if a bus journey is likely to be crowded or not.”

Passenger Connect allows bus passengers to opt-in to identify themselves as key workers and/or their reason for travel. This information is aggregated and anonymised in compliance with GDPR legislation and provided as analytics to the bus operators so they can, for example, plan timetables around essential journeys.

“Benchmark” project

Passengers will be able to access the service through the existing Oxontime website, or via Facebook Messenger directly in the coming weeks. The Zipabout spokesperson said Passenger Connect learns about travellers’ preferences and only sends journey updates that will affect them.

Cllr Yvonne Constance, Cabinet Member for Environment at Oxfordshire County Council commented: “This is a fantastic opportunity to lead the way in the next level of personalised messaging to bus users. The service has been successfully applied on trains and this next step will open up the benefits to many more users and hopefully be a key tool to enabling people to use buses safely through the next phases in the Covid-19 response.”

She said she hoped the project could provide a “benchmark” for the rest of the UK.

The service is currently in testing and should be available to passengers across Oxfordshire from early July.

Alex Froom, Zipabout’s co-founder, said: “As people emerge from lockdown and begin returning to work, transport operators and local authorities will need to provide accurate, timely travel information across all services to ensure the safety of passengers. We have been delivering personalised communication to rail passengers for years and now we’re delighted to begin adding bus, tram and metro support to our multi-modal service.”

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