diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A new TfL website is on the way. It's been kept under wraps for a while, but was recently shown to select media partners and invited bloggers. Now the rest of us can take a peek. Fancy having a play?

The new website is available in beta at beta.tfl.gov.uk. Or at least some of it is. TfL are releasing their latest creation bit by bit, starting with the function they think you're going to use most. It's the Journey Planner, which now becomes Plan A Journey, given pole position top left. Beneath that is My Status, previously Live Travel News, which is another signal of things to come. TfL are offering a website you can partially personalise, one that remembers your journeys and can be taught which lines you use. Much more importantly, they're taking a huge leap into the future and designing a website that's mobile first. Essentially you'll have a TfL app in your pocket, near enough, helping you to move around the capital more efficiently.

Most of the new site is currently off-limits, so often you'll find yourself on the "the feature you’ve selected is not available yet, please come back soon" page. Even line status isn't quite ready, although it appears the home page will only show you which lines are disrupted, not which have a good service. Which leaves journey planning as the main function to explore. I thought I'd have a go at getting from A to B, twice, to test the site out. Here's what I found.

Journey 1: Tottenham Court Road to East Finchley, today, 12 noon.

As soon as you start typing in the first box, a list of possible starting points comes up. By the time you've typed "tot" the list of options is down to four, and Tottenham Court Road is easily selected. This has three tiny icons next to it - a bus, a tube roundel and a mysterious yellow square which (it took me ages to discover) means coach. Typing the E of East Finchley brings up another long list, in which (highly suspiciously) the top two options are the two cablecar terminals. I wonder if that's an accident, or if someone deliberately nudged the sponsor higher in the ranking. The words Emirates and Barclays certainly seem to be appearing more than they deserve on the beta homepage.

There are then two options, as there are now, either to depart "now" or at a time of your choice (to the nearest quarter hour). Another button offers accessibility and travel options, again familiar to current users, so you can for example turn off all rail travel or request a journey with various degrees of step-free access. Meanwhile, if you've noticed, there are tabs at the top of the search box for those who'd rather cycle or walk than take public transport. Ready to go? Plan your journey.

A little whirring picture appears while your journey is being loaded, most likely a cartoon bus rushing past a rolling urban landscape. And there are your details - choices summarised at the top, and results listed below. This particular journey takes 20 minutes via the Northern line, and four timed options are presented. It's here that one of the biggest changes on the new site becomes evident. Previously the four options would have appeared in a small block, covering about twenty square centimetres of your screen. Now you may have trouble reading them all in one go, as the presentation expands to includes a shedload of empty space. Some of that is filled if you click on "View details", but this is a simple journey so there aren't many.

What's happened is that TfL have optimised their presentation for mobile users, who require minimal text, and need it in portrait format. If you're viewing the site on a laptop or desktop, anything with a landscape screen, most of the extra width is left unfilled. Sat at home that's a bit annoying because you have to scroll down a lot more than you've come to expect. Stood on a pavement with your smartphone in hand, however, it'll be ideal. And the "View on a map" option looks particularly impressive if you're cycling or walking, because you can enlarge the map to full screen and follow the desired route on your phone as you go.

Journey 2: Harefield to Harrow Weald, Saturday 13th July, 9am.

There isn't a station at Harefield, which causes the underlying software some problems. Start typing the name and a list of possible stations appears... until you reach "Hare" at which point there are no such stations and you're left to type freely. Ditto Harrow Weald, which is a mile north of Harrow and Wealdstone station, but it's only the latter option which appears. One solution may be the new "Use my location" option, which'll allow a journey to be planned from wherever you are now, although I haven't yet been able to get the geo-positioning to work.

Pressing Plan Your Journey causes some awkwardness - "We found more than one location matching 'Harefield'". Up comes a list of potential Harefields you might have meant, but the list turns out to be geographically sub-optimal. It kicks off with Harefield Road in Bexley, which is 30 miles away. Next comes Harefield Road in Harringey, then Croydon, then two Lewishams, then Uxbridge. It's only at number 9 that the correct Harefield is picked, and even then you can only determine this by peering at a minuscule number on an adjacent map. The current journey planner makes a bit of a hash of finding Harefield too, but at least it has Harefield Hospital at number 5 on the list, whereas the new beta site hides it away on page two. Harrow Weald fares a little better, but be warned, if you're not travelling station to station then expect added hassle.

Finally, up come four planned journeys. They're complicated this time, involving several modes of transport, so the width of the screen is a little better used. Click on "View details" to see the various stages of a route more clearly... and again, the mobile bias of the new layout is apparent. On a smartphone, scrolling down, the presentation seems familiar. On a laptop, however, small type and lots of white space aren't a very practical way to follow the journey. This is delivery with a vertical bias, so if you insist on being horizontal, anticipate not quite so good an experience.

Again the maps are lovely, and you can choose to see a list of intermediate stops if you so wish. On the down side, one of the options suggests using the R21 bus, but fails to mention this isn't a TfL service so will cost you more to use. If you're awake you'll spot that this particular journey is quicker to cycle than to take public transport (you could trim off about quarter of an hour). And one last good thing. If you come back to your search later and try to click something, you won't get a time out error message. That's because your entire search has been coded into the web address of the page you're on. The developers have used a horrifically clunky URL to achieve this, but all you need to reproduce your search is there.
http://beta.tfl.gov.uk/plan-a-journey/results?IsAsync=true &JpType=publictransport &From=harefield+%28london%29%2C+harefield+hospital &FromGeolocation= &To=harrow%2C+harrow+weald &TimeIs=departing &Date=20130713 &Time=0900 &Via= &NationalSearch=false &JourneyPreference=leasttime &Mode=tube &Mode=public-bus &Mode=national-rail &Mode=dlr &Mode=public-river-service &Mode=tram &Mode=coach &Mode=cable-car &Mode=overground &AccessibilityPreference=norequirements &WalkingSpeed=average &MaxWalkingMinutes=40 &CyclePreference=AllTheWay &SavePreferences=false &FromId=1015345 &ToId=-0.339591%2C51.60534
There's a lot more of TfL's website yet to be revealed, and not everything in the beta will survive into the final version. But expect a change, a big change, in the way TfL interacts virtually with its customers. The new priority is information on the go, with everything else still available but nudged to the periphery. If you're a smartphone or tablet user then beta.tfl.gov.uk will probably appear familiar and convenient. For those of us still deskbound, steel yourself for something that's trying to be more app than website.

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