diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Please hold on, the bus is about to move.

Except, more often than not, the bus is already moving. Rarely has TfL shot itself in the foot quite so early in the year.

They started out with good intentions, to try to reduce the number of injuries on buses. But somebody created a harebrained message, and somebody programmed it to play at a harebrained time, and more importantly somebody gave the go ahead for this harebrained combination to be played out on every London bus at every bus stop. What were they thinking?

The message is part of a much wider scheme to reduce the number of injuries on public transport in London. In the last year for which figures are available, 4880 passengers were injured on London buses, 62% of them through slips, trips and falls. That's the "3000 people injured each year" TfL have been quoting in the media. But digging deeper, only 36% of these injuries are due to "change of speed", which instead works out at 1095 passengers a year. TfL's new safety message, already repeated millions of times across the capital, is aimed at cutting around three injuries a day.

Safety messages are used all across the TfL network without attracting widespread ridicule. Go anywhere near an escalator these days and you'll likely see a poster urging you to hold the handrail, hear an announcement urging you to hold the handrail, and maybe spot several 'Hold the handrail' stickers on your way up. This coordinated campaign is aimed at preventing escalator tumbles - again running at about three a day - but you won't have seen complaints because nobody's on an escalator for long. On a bus, however, the repeats soon become relentless and social media is aflame.

All sorts of announcements could have been used for this latest bus trial. The first problem is that somebody chose to make the message really specific. Please hold on wouldn't have been so bad. Please hold on while the bus is moving would have been an improvement. Hold very tight please would have had a certain retro flavour. You can reduce your risk of injury by holding onto the bus as it departs would have been stupidly long, but it wouldn't have been incorrect. Instead we got Please hold on, the bus is about to move, a very specific message which only sounds authoritative if played just before a bus is about to move. And that's where the next problem comes in.

You would expect the announcement Please hold on, the bus is about to move to be triggered by a bus being about to move. Perhaps, for example, it'd be linked to the doors closing. Alas not so, the team who did the programming linked it to the doors opening instead, which is why it keeps playing out at the wrong time.

When a bus stops at a bus stop, the driver presses a button which makes the doors open, and this action sets up a chain of announcements. After approximately 10 seconds, the number of the route and the destination are announced. This is specifically to aid visually impaired passengers, and acts as confirmation that the bus they're boarding is the right one. The new message, the one about the bus moving, has been programmed to kick in a set time after that.

Here's a graphic to show approximately what's going on.

The route destination announcement is played 10 seconds after the doors start to open. The Please hold on... announcement is played 5 seconds after that finishes, i.e. about 18 seconds after the doors open, which is apparently the average time a bus stands at a bus stop before pulling off. This would be great in an imaginary world where every bus is average, but the project team have chosen to ignore that real life isn't actually like that, which is why the message usually plays out at the wrong time.

If a bus is busy, with lots of passengers alighting and/or boarding, it often lingers at a bus stop for more than 20 seconds. One awkward passenger, one contactless issue or one deployment of the wheelchair ramp, and the announcement is gong to play out much too early. Buses caught in heavy traffic are particularly prone to spend well over 20 seconds at a bus stop before they finally pull off, long after the announcement has been made. And whilst Please hold on, the bus is about to move is still technically correct in such cases, every second's delay diminishes the authority of the intended message.

More often, it seems, a bus departs its bus stop before the 18 seconds is up. This is usually the case when passenger numbers are low and/or traffic is light, with "one person nipping off and nobody getting on" a particular edge scenario. And every time a bus lingers less than 18 seconds at a bus stop, it will already be moving before the Please hold on, the bus is about to move message kicks in. This is why passengers are laughing, this is why social media's peeved, because it's plainly ludicrous to announce that a bus is about to depart when it already has.

I took a long ride on the number 205 bus at the weekend, a journey with some busy bits and some quieter stretches. At each of the 23 stops I checked whether the message played before the bus left or vice versa, and by how much. What I experienced was a wholly inconsistent mess.
» Perfect » 30s early » 1s late » 2s early » 4s late » Perfect » Perfect » 11s late » 3s late » Perfect » 5s late » 11s early » 4s early » 7s late » 5s late » 6s late » 7s late » 18s early » Perfect » 7s early » 7s late » 8s late » 3s late
Five times out of 23 the message played at exactly the right time. 26% of the time it played too early, and the bus wasn't "about to move". But the majority of the time, in this case 52%, the message only played once the bus was already moving. Most of the "perfect"s came early in the journey when the bus was busy. Most of the "too late"s came later in the journey when the bus was emptier. The longest delay was when the message played out 11 seconds after the bus had set off and we were already some way down the road. The most premature announcement, a full 30 seconds before it was needed, was caused by traffic ahead of us queueing at lights.

You may think this hit rate isn't bad. You may claim that if it works sometimes then that's good enough. You may query whether all the brouhaha surrounding this announcement is deserved. But when an incorrect announcement is being made relentlessly, stop after stop, on every bus you take, all it does is make TfL a laughing stock.

The most incompetent example I've encountered was on a driver changeover at Bow Church. The bus will wait here while the driver changes over was followed immediately by 25 to Ilford and then by Please hold on, the bus is about to move, except it obviously didn't. Instead we sat there for a full four minutes while the drivers faffed and chatted and changed over, before the doors finally closed and eventually the bus pulled off... without any message at all. Nobody, it seems, thought through the consequences of this trial before implementation.

TfL yesterday described the timing problems as a "technical glitch", conveniently ignoring the fact that someone programmed the iBus system to do this, and somebody more important signed it off. They also confirmed it's a four week trial, as if that's supposed to make us feel better for the next three and a half. A TfL spokesperson on the news said they now intend to link the announcement to the closing of the doors instead, which will be "very perfectly timed for a solution", although this'll only reduce the number of issues rather than solve the problem completely.

What's really needed is a system which actually knows when the bus is about to depart, rather than guesses, and isn't stymied by traffic. What's really needed is a less specific announcement, one which doesn't promise something it can't know to be true. Or, in the absence of these, perhaps TfL could just turn the bloody thing off and leaves us in peace. If they really want us to hold on to prevent injuries perhaps they could put some posters up, just inside the bus, for us to read on entry. Or how about generating massive amounts of social media attention through the inept implementation of a health and safety policy? Job done.

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