I have long believed that technology is most effective when it helps us to do the things we have always done, better and more efficiently. This is obviously the case for readers, with newspapers, magazines and books now being easily accessible on screens. Reading has become less expensive, more accessible and much less environmentally costly, with so much less paper involved. But who would have thought a decade ago that boring old public transport would also be transformed by IT?
The frustrations of public transport
I have always used public transport a lot, even at times when I have had a car. In big cities like London it is a godsend, where we can travel easily by bus or tube within the city itself, nationally from numerous rail and bus stations, and abroad through a choice of five airports. But until recently public transport was often far from convenient, with buses failing to stick to times, tube lines closing unpredictably for maintenance and timetables being generally difficult to access. The problems were magnified when travelling abroad, with language difficulties thrown into the mix.
Buses, trains and timetables in real time
Within a few short years, however, all of this has changed. Apps like “Bus Times” (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/london-bus-live-countdown/id475360935?mt=8) enable us to check the time of our bus before leaving home or the office, thus avoiding long waits at bus stops and maximising our time on the sofa or at work. We can locate the nearest tube and bus stops when in unfamiliar parts of town, and tailor our journeys using websites like the one operated by Transport for London to include (or not) various types of public transport (www.tfl.gov.uk). An app called Citymapper (www.citymapper.com/london) makes it possible for residents of cities including London, New York and Rome to compare different types of public transport (including walking) between selected destinations.
IT is unlocking public transport when abroad
I have found technology most transformative when using public transport abroad. I spend part of every month in the French Basque Country. Despite the existence of local bus and train services, for years I found it impossible to keep up with changes in timetables. I would pick up a copy of a timetable or actually write down the times during a visit, but it would be superseded by the time of my next visit and my knowledge made useless. I found myself hiring cars at vast expense as a result. For some years now, however, I have been able to study and print off up to date timetables online before each trip, keeping up with the inevitable changes in times and routes. What used to be an impenetrable foreign transit system is now always available, saving major sums as well as the hassles of car hire.
Long term implications
Public transport still has its disadvantages to be sure. Buses still have trouble keeping to their timetables. Rail maintenance schedules continue to be unpredictable. Last services often leave before midnight. But at least we can now find out about these things in advance!
Many of us are benefiting from these changes and the quality of public transport has clearly improved in London and other cities that I visit over the past few years. At least some of this improvement must be the result of the increased accessibility of public transport thanks to developments in IT. Long may it continue, so that public transport can steadily take over more and more day to day travel from cars.