When's the busiest time at your local tube station? TfL are keen to let you know. You may have seen a poster in the ticket hall advising you of the busiest period of the day, the hope being that it might just nudge you to travel at a different time. Leave home a little earlier, or later, and you might have a less frenetic commute. And you changing your plans might mean everyone else has a less crushed journey too, so it cuts both ways.
This is the poster in the ticket hall at Bank station. The bar chart displays a wealth of data, in fifteen minute chunks, showing the pattern of congestion across the evening peak. The graph even has numbers up the vertical axis, so we know there are about 6000 passengers using the station at 4.30pm, and twice as many an hour later. The busy period, with the darker bars, is from about 5.15pm to 6.30pm. But in the headline above the graph TfL have chosen to highlight the really busy bit, which is from 5.30pm to 6.15pm. Stay away after work if you can, is the unspoken message, and try not to pass through if you don't have to. All fine and good.
But TfL are also trying to dispense this crowding information through their website. They've added it in several places in the hope you'll use it to plan better travel, and thereby help ease congestion across the network. The only problem is that they haven't necessarily added it usefully, conveniently, obviously, sensibly, comprehensively or indeed always correctly.
The busiest time at Oxford Circus is half an hour either side of 6pm, in the evening rush hour, when the throng attempting to get down to the platforms is at its greatest. Sometimes the volume of people is so great that the entrances have to be closed off, and then you might wish you'd planned ahead and tried to enter the network elsewhere. This is genuinely useful information.
This is not genuinely useful information.
Roding Valley is the quietest station on the London Underground. It lurks on the farthest reaches of the Hainault Loop. There are no ticket barriers. Trains run only every 20 minutes. On a typical weekday the station has only 517 passengers. There is no crowding issue at Roding Valley, none whatsoever.
But the TfL website still recommends you avoid Roding Valley for half an hour in the morning, because the TfL website is fuelled by a database. No human has stopped and thought "hang on, is this sensible?" Instead they've thought "it would be useful for our passengers to know the busiest time at every station, and then we'll add exactly the same advisory message whether it's needed or not."
So there are suggestions you could have a quicker journey from Croxley if you avoid 7.30am to 8.15am, and that your journey from Hatton Cross might somehow be more comfortable if you dodge 5.15pm to 6.00pm. There's a recommendation to avoid Upminster between 5.45pm and 6.15pm, but neighbouring Upminster Bridge between 7.45am and 8.15am. The busiest time at Arsenal is surely when there's a football match on, but these don't happen at regular times so the website says between 7.45am and 8.15am instead. Holborn is busiest between 5.30pm and 6.15pm, and that's very true if you're trying to get in, but there's no mention whatsoever of the morning crush (getting out) which has inspired the escalator standing trial. And if you're an end-of-the-line commuter at Cockfosters you're bound to get a seat whenever, but the advice is still that 7.45am to 8.15am may not be good, without the qualification that this is only relatively worse. This is valid data used badly, without thinking what the website will display.
But there are also nudges not to arrive at Victoria between 8am and 9am, at Clapham Common or Colliers Wood between 8am and 8.30am, and Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road or Knightsbridge between 5.45pm and 6.15pm, and these are considerably more useful. It's dead helpful for me to know that Bow Road is busiest between 8.15am and 8.45am, for example, so I can avoid starting my journey at these times. And it's fascinating to see that Bayswater is busiest between 9.30am and 10am, after the rush hour everywhere else has dwindled away, presumably because it's chucking out time in the local hotels. This is useful and interesting data, indeed a lot of it is, but in amongst all the other stuff that isn't.
Then there's a problem with the presentation of the data.
The busiest time at each station doesn't immediately appear on the station's webpage, it's been hidden away. And it's been hidden away behind a particularly thoughtless label. Head to the Oxford Circus page, for example, and you'll see this alert part-way down.
What might these purported 'access issues' be? A faulty escalator perhaps, or a broken lift? Well, if there is one, then yes. But generally there isn't, and on clicking-through the only information revealed is mention of the busiest time at the station.
Surely this isn't an "access issue", it's advice. This is badly labelled, pointlessly hidden, information. What's worse is that it disguises genuine access problems should one come up. Every single tube station* on the network now has "reported access issues", all the time, so if a lift does ever develop a fault or an escalator goes wrong, you'll never know to click through and find out. What's more, if you check the individualtubelines on the TfL website, every single tube station* appears with a yellow exclamation mark symbol next to it, insinuating there's a problem, when in reality there probably isn't.
* Actually it's not quite every tube station, they've missed five out. Three of these are at Heathrow, which is fair enough because these are special cases, and nobody really has a choice about when they arrive. Another is Kensington (Olympia), another special case, thus absolutely best ignored. But the fifth appears to be a genuine omission, or not uploaded from the database, and it's a fairly busy station too. I wonder how it got entirely overlooked?
Somebody thought it would be useful to add information about busy times at stations to the results you get when you use the Journey Planner. Somebody may not quite have thought it through. Take this lunchtime trip from Edgware to Mornington Crescent, for example.
When the results come up, a blue circle now announces that "This journey has additional information". Click through and you'll discover that this is "Crowding information", and click again to find out what that is.
We're told that the busiest time at Edgware station is 7.45am to 8.30am, and that the busiest time at Mornington Crescent is 5.30pm to 6pm, and advised it might be best to travel outside this time. But we are travelling outside this time! The website knows we're travelling at lunchtime, but still insists on making a fuss about something that's only an issue four hours earlier and five hours later. We're not making a trip at the busiest time, so we don't need to be warned not to! The same thing happens at weekends too. No station is busiest at weekends, according to TfL's crowding data, but if you plan a journey on a Saturday or Sunday the crowding information appears all the same.
Thinking back to that graph displayed at Bank at the the beginning of the post, TfL clearly have in-depth data by the quarter hour, indeed they have had for years. You can get some idea of its richness by digging through this 2010 visualisation, but there's no official public version for 2016, it seems, only a single headline figure for each station. Having simplified the data in this way it's then been served up in a variety of inflexible situations, dispersed across the website, without considering whether this is always appropriate.
TfL's summarised and spoonfed data may not be perfect, but it's a lot better than no crowding information at all. So let's hope this innovation helps us to make better decisions about our peak time journeys, because by travelling smarter we can make everyone's journeys that little bit easier.