diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 08, 2010

Have you picked up your new River Bus Map yet? It's like a tube map, but it's for river buses. Or 'boats', as they're more usually known. Passenger boats which nip along the Thames from one pier to another. There's a new map in a new River Bus Guide, which is sort-of tube-map-sized but folds up more. Have you picked up yours yet?

River bus map (extract)The new map's very simple. It looks like a single line on a tube map, with circles representing the piers, but look closer and there are four different coloured services depicted here. Two are brief cross-river shuttles, one west of Canary Wharf, the other the Woolwich Ferry. But the other two are much longer sinuous services, one starting from Putney and the other from Woolwich with a brief overlap in Central London. Piers north of the river have their name printed above the line, while piers south of the river are printed below. It's all very simple, and clear, and effective.

Well, possibly too simple. Some services are omitted, such as the O2 Express and the Tate to Tate boat, because they'd only complicate things. One of the services runs weekday peak hours only, while the others run regularly seven days a week. And the western end of the main Thames Clipper service is actually a loop (Blackfriars → Embankment → Waterloo → Blackfriars), not the line shown here, so map-using passengers could get confused. But if the river's ever going to attract more passengers, I concede, over-simple is probably the way to go.
Apologies, I'm now going to rant about a document you don't own, and which doesn't exist online. Feel free to jump to the last paragraph, you'll not be missing much.
The rest of the fold-out River Bus Guide is pretty much devoted to timetables. Or at least timetables of a sort. The commuter service from Putney to Blackfriars gets a full timetable because it runs less than ten times in each direction each day. The Woolwich Ferry and Hilton Docklands shuttle get brief and entirely adequate summaries. But the most important River Bus route, between Woolwich and Embankment, gets an unnecessarily complicated 'summary' which takes up loads of space whilst providing very little useful information. There's no timetable as such, just one big box for each pier, in each direction, containing times of first and last services. Great if you're an early bird or nightcrawler, and bugger all use otherwise. Turn up at North Greenwich pier at 7am, for example, and you know your next boat is in three minutes time. Turn up at 9am, however, and you're on your own. In fact you'll have just missed a boat, and there's a 28 minute wait for the next one. The boxey presentation also conceals how long the boat takes to travel along the Thames. It's sort of possible to work this out by looking at the times of the first boat of the day, but hard to follow and I'm sure most people won't realise it can be done. North Greenwich to the London Eye takes as long as 51 minutes, for example, not that you'd guess. Fast it ain't. And particularly poor given that you could have whizzed from North Greenwich to Waterloo in only 15 minutes on the Jubilee line (and it would have cost you considerably less). Irregular, slow and expensive, but comfortable and scenic, that's the River Bus option.

Whoever designed this Woolwich → Embankment 'timetable' presumably thought they were doing the public a favour. Atomised information in simple chunks, surely that must be good? But no. Acres of space is wasted repeating table headings and summarised service irregularities. One single late night O2 journey is awarded lots of room, even in the opposite direction to that which any concertgoer would take. This is a dumbed-down document with gaping holes, provided because somebody at TfL thinks the public are too stupid to read a proper timetable. And yes, I know a proper timetable exists elsewhere, but there would have been plenty of space to print it here if only somebody had had the nerve.
It's OK, you can come back now.
I bemoan the gradual disappearance of 'proper' timetables in favour of info-lite summaries and personalised downloads. We're not all innumerate, and providing lowest common denominator information merely restricts personal choice. In the case of the River Bus Guide somebody's clearly attempted to aim midway between a simple tube-style foldout map and a complicated scheduling encyclopaedia, and I'd argue they missed. But if it succeeds in enticing more passengers onto our underused Thames, that's surely a very good thing.


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