Londoners and others, come join us, watch an app company fumble around with learning how to run a service with real vehicles and drivers! Reinventing the bus is crucial for the future of our congested cities and infrastructure. Lets figure out how to make cities more usable.
This was the promise of Citymapper in May last year, when they announced they would launch buses in London; taking advantage of the multitude of data they had gathered about commuters’ habits in the city of London. TfL, the London transportation regulator was supportive and the new routes have been allowed, according to the less-regulated-schemes that exist in the UK compared to other countries.
The reactions from potential travellers on Facebook and other social media were very supportive, as people were expecting that Citymapper would solve problems they experience with public transportation, such as crowded buses, punctuality, comfort, easy-to-use and cost.
Nonetheless, the British Press announced this February that Citymapper had dropped their plans to become a bus company and would instead aim to take on Uber as a private hire taxi operator in London.
Regarding the bus company project, Citymapper announced that they were happy about those 9 months of operations, but it was the regulatory environment that hindered Citymapper to develop and innovate as freely as they wanted. I am not aware of all business details around this but, as a customer experience specialist I would come back to the 3 simple key points of service marketing that can be taken as a business case: environment, physical support and people:
1. Do not underestimate the regulatory environment when dealing with public services. The initial idea of using the data was to be able to propose flexible routes for travellers according to needs (collectively, not individually). Clearly, most cities are still in the process of operating on regulated plans and therefore don’t offer this flexibility yet.
2. Innovation in the physical (infrastructure) support helping deliver the service: the bus itself, the app, the stops…
Except being green and immediately recognisable as a Citymapper service, the only slightly innovative feature of the bus itself seemed to be the USB plugs. Not that new in the UK, since in many towns the competitive environment has pushed the operators to invest in their buses and already offered WiFi and sockets. Furthermore, the night service later put in place by Citymapper offered a specific atmosphere with speakers and music etc. This was not that different from the IDTGV Id-zen and Id-zap in France.
Regarding busstops, they simply adopted the existing ones. Did they miss an opportunity for innovative stops that could have had heated seats or TV or a charger?
3. People: it was said from the beginning that robots would not be operating the buses and this can be reassuring for some travellers. The last worldwide convention of public transportation, monitored by UITP was in Montreal (June 2017). Here I shared a few ideas on customer experience for the transportation industry. They showcased innovation that made it clear there can be no doubt that automated transport is the future. Recruiting, training and managing drivers is not that easy, especially in the job UK market where it might be hard to find enough people to deliver the right brand promise, together with the maximum security, for their customers.
This week, Citymapper announced the launch of Smart Ride, probably as a result of lessons learned from their one year project since becoming a transportation operator.
“Carry 9+ people in London and you’re a bus and have to follow strict regulations on fixed routes, schedules, and service frequency,” the company said. “Carry 8 people or fewer, and you’re a private hire vehicle that can go wherever you want, however you want, how often you want.”
It added: “As a result, a private hire vehicle can respond to demand, a bus cannot. That makes it hard for a bus, even a smart green minibus, to be part of the ‘demand-responsive’ future.”
Smart Ride looks similar to Uber’s Express Pool offer. It is a good idea to try to enter the market with Uber still at risk of losing their London operation.
Citymapper has a licence for 500 drivers, who will be self-employed and will own their own vehicle. Is there a risk that they face the same corporate social responsibility problems (like quality of employment) as Uber? Through a network of self-employed people, could they struggle in delivering a consistent and caring customer experience when it is not all about the technology?
App companies are the ones leveraging huge investment to bring innovation into our daily lives. By coming back to my 3 key points above, they might succeed this time in taking into account better 1) regulatory environment, 2) bringing more innovation compared to the best-in-class Uber, and 3) investing in people to deliver an exceptional and sustainable service.
Best wishes to Citymapper Smart Ride. I hope to have a place for Smart Ride to my best-in-class benchmark in the near future.
Claire Bonniol is the founder of CXB HUB, combining strategic consulting with plug & play customer experience solutions. You can contact her directly on Claire.firstname.lastname@example.org