diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 27, 2014

So, the TfL website has updated. A beta website had been running in parallel for the last nine months, giving the Online Team a chance to fine tune all aspects of the final design before it went live. So when the big button was pressed and the new site replaced the old, were people pleased with the result? Well yes. And no.

Let's talk [Maps]. Sorry, you didn't think I'd finished, did you?

It's interesting that the first map you see on the new [Maps] page isn't the world famous tube map. Indeed the first map you'll see isn't even a TfL creation, but an interactive map based on the increasingly ubiquitous Google Maps representation of the capital. I'm intrigued by TfL's embrace of Google Maps, and the parallel phasing out of their bespoke streetmap dataset for public-facing purposes. One reason they've given is that Google Maps will be familiar to the target audience, and that's certainly true, and presumably it's cheaper than running your own cartographic operation too. At least they've bought a license for the ad-free version, so you won't be zooming in to find markers for White Tiger Accounting Services and Big Jean's Massage.



You will need to zoom in quite a lot though. There's nothing interactive on the initial level, nor if you zoom in once, nor if you zoom in twice. On zoom 3 a lot of small bubbles pop up marking the positions of stations, and on zoom 4 those stations suddenly gain names. The name labels are quite large and may obscure the bit of London you want to look at (and occasionally after too many zooms they become so obstructive that you have to refresh the page and start again). Zoom 4 is also the level at which bus stops and cycle hire docking stations become visible, pictured as red and blue dots respectively. The blue dots are clickable, revealing up-to-the-minute data for numbers of bikes in a usefully pictorial manner. Perversely the red dots don't become active until zoom 7, at which point the circles enlarge to show the bus stop's letter, and then you can click to discover which buses stop here. The next three buses due will appear... that's underneath the map, which may be off the bottom of your screen... and one more click should bring up all departures over the next half hour. It may have taken you a while to get here, but the end result is very useful.

But there is a better, more interactive map than this, which you can discover if you click on [Nearby]. As I mentioned yesterday this brings up a map centred on your current location, plus a list of all the neighbouring bus stops and stations. When you click on a bus stop this time something rather special happens. The route of every bus from that bus stop appears as a red line on the map, instantly creating a network diagram showing everywhere you can go on one bus. You won't see the full picture immediately - for that you have to zoom out, probably several times. But there it is, your very own spider map centred on the stop of your choice, indeed on any bus stop in London.



TfL's Online Team had hoped we'd be so impressed by these digital spider maps that we wouldn't need the originals any more. You know the ones, the spider maps that appear on bus shelters, pdfs of which had been available for many years on an increasingly well-hidden subpage of the TfL website. When the site updated all the spider maps disappeared, because they weren't deemed necessary for public access in the future. The public disagreed. That's partly because they hadn't noticed the new digital spider maps - they're not exactly obvious - but also because they're not as good. Every bus route on the digital bus map is marked in red, so it's not possible to untangle the lines to tell which numbered route goes where. You have to zoom out to see the full picture, whereas on the static map you can see everything in one go. You then have to zoom back in again to discover where the bus stops are and more importantly what they're called, because Google Maps is supremely rubbish at place names.

In his latest post on the TfL Digital Blog, Head of Online Phil Young addresses this issue of downloadable bus maps.
It’s clear from your feedback that some of you love the ‘spider’ maps and area maps, which are pdfs. We’ve created some really nice interactive maps that show you transport links near your given location (try them in ‘Nearby’), and display live information such as bus routes and stops, and cycle hire docking stations. However it’s clear that for some this can’t replace the original maps, so we’ll be adding these to the new site shortly as well.
That's excellent news. But I sense that Phil is slightly bemused that anyone might still want non-interactive maps when something 'better' is available. You might also wonder how all the audience research TfL conducted over several months failed to pick up the public's affection for spider maps. But instead you should realise that the people who use spider maps form a tiny minority of those who use the site. Only clued-up individuals plan their own journeys these days, that is at any level above tracing a route on the tube map. You and I might be the sort of people who want to see in advance where all the buses from Clapham Junction go, but most people don't care, or can wait until they get there to look at a map.

Indeed one thing you'll struggle to find on the launch version of TfL's updated website is any kind of map that shows more than one bus route at the same time. The old spider maps did that, but they were removed. The four quadrant bus maps still exist on folded paper, but are no longer accessible as pdfs. Instead the [Bus maps] page only allows you to search for a single route or single location, not to get an overview of how buses serve a particular part of town. The single route maps are very good, showing clearly where single bus routes go and with a clickable list of bus stops underneath. But independent multi-journey planning is now discouraged in favour of being spoonfed the choice of routes that the Journey Planner dishes up.

Enough of buses, what of the world famous tube map I mentioned earlier? It's there on the Maps page, but it's the third option down in the menu below the more inclusive [Tube and Rail] option. Both maps appear embedded in the page, and if you want to move around you have to swipe or scroll. That's assuming you can. Sometimes when I land on the page these maps are scrollable, and at other times I can only see the top left hand corner, and I can see no rhyme or reason why. You need to be able to zoom in to read the names of the stations, but then you can't see the whole of the map any more, because that's how embedded maps work. On my mobile I can't find a 'close' button on the tube map, which is annoying, and I can't load the Tube and Rail map at all because it appears to be blank. But it is nice to still have the option to view the tube map as a pdf or gif - indeed if you have any sense you'll save one or other to your handheld device so that you can access the map even when there's no signal.

Several other maps for several other modes of transport are also available, again now as embedded maps surrounded by white space. There's a DLR diagram like they have aboard the trains. There's a Tramlink diagram like they have aboard the trams. There's an Overground diagram laid out better than they have aboard the trains. And there's a National Rail map which turns out to be exactly the same map as the Tube and Rail map four options further up the list, except this time with a download option. The Cycle Hire map is essentially the same as the main interactive map but with all the stations and bus stops turned off. And the interactive River map is particularly obtuse in that boats apparently sail from their nearest railway station, not from the actual pier, until you finally zoom in close enough.



As well as [Maps] you'd expect the TfL website to have a section devoted to [Timetables]. Not so. We've moved on it seems from old-fashioned lists of times at several key stops along the route, and now the focus is solely on departure times from where you are. On most routes TfL run a turn-up-and-go service, so they'd argue why would you need a timetable anyway? Live departure boards tell you all you need to know assuming you're travelling now, and Journey Planner can crunch the numbers for any future trip. I'm sure the beta version of the website had individual timetable pages for every stop on every bus route, which was rather useful, but I've looked and looked and I can't find that feature on the final version of the site.

But it seems there is going to be a section devoted to timetables. The four London Overground timetables have transferred across to the new site here, at a URL which suggests that www.tfl.gov.uk/travel-information/timetables will one day be a reality. Just not yet, and it's not yet clear how many other 'proper' timetables will follow. Meanwhile there is one astonishing addition on the new website and that's the appearance of every one of London Underground's Working Timetables. These are the massive documents that schedule train paths to the nearest half minute, the bread and butter on which the entire network runs. And they're all now downloadable by the public, presumably because TfL were getting very tired of the public repeatedly launching Freedom of Information requests to ask for them. Nerds of London, read and enjoy.

Indeed if you dig down under the surface, there is a phenomenal amount of information on the TfL website, reflecting considerable openness in the runnings of the organisation. Forget the heavily promoted menu at the top op the page and try clicking around at the bottom to see what you can find. How to become a tube busker, a list of disused underground stations, the contract Emirates signed for sponsorship of the cablecar, a list of stations gaining step-free access over the next seven years. But you won't yet be able to access TfL's press release archive, which for some reason still languishes on the old website because nobody's managed to transfer it all yet.

TfL's new website has been launched before it's even 90% ready, that much is clear. But that's Agile software development for you - making changes as you go along in response to feedback. So do keep feeding back your opinions on what does and what absolutely doesn't work. And I suspect that, however much you hate the redesign today, come 2020 or whenever you'll be pleading with TfL not to replace it with something new.


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