If you’re in central London this afternoon, keep an eye out for a little green bus running in a loop over Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. It’s Citymapper’s CMX1 “pop-up bus” – three of them are running for a couple of days over a short circular route so the company, which makes one of the best-known transport apps for smartphones, can see how the data it uses and collects interacts with the dirty business of running a bus service. There’s not much money in free apps, so Citymapper is musing on the idea of running buses itself to generate some revenue.
In any case, it’s bloody good publicity. I had a little ride yesterday, and found most of my fellow passengers were Transport for London staff, curious to see what was going on. Citymapper uses TfL data, and TfL is interested to see how it works. Waiting for the bus was a little frustrating – the countdown timings for CMX1 weren’t as accurate as TfL’s for its normal buses – but otherwise, it was just a normal bus ride, beset by dreadful traffic as the afternoon rush hour kicked in. (If you want to ride route CMX1 on its second and final day, hurry – the service is free to use, and runs about every 10 minutes until 7pm.)
Some of the things Citymapper wants to explore with this experiment include “demand responsive” buses (think a bigger version of Dial-A-Ride) and services that can take different routes depending on traffic conditions, which will mean routes without many stops. So don’t expect Citymapper’s buses to be replacing the 53 yet.
But in this part of London, services like this could be useful – we’re seeing lots of new housing, with new residents increasingly expecting to use transport hubs such as North Greenwich, Lewisham (which will explode if the Bakerloo Line comes), Woolwich and Abbey Wood (Crossrail’s just 19 months away). With TfL under serious financial pressure, it’s going to struggle to satisfy this demand. Imagine a Citymapper-style bus that can run when needed from, say, the back streets of East Greenwich (think the new homes around Enderby Wharf) up to North Greenwich station. Or from Shooters Hill and Woolwich Common. It could take different routes to avoid traffic jams, and possibly do the job quicker and maybe more efficiently than the existing services.
But how would this fit in with the existing bus network without chipping away at its simplicity and accessibility? To do all this would mean a change in the regulation surrounding buses to allow them to have more flexible routes. (Even commuter coaches have to specify the routes and alternative routes they wish to use.) Could it pay its way, and would it fit in with the London fares system? We already have riverboats that operate outside the TfL fares system for those who can afford to use them – but having a second range of buses on different fares is unlikely to go down well with regulators.
Lots of questions – and that’s why Citymapper is running the trial. And that’s why TfL staff piled on board yesterday. Citymapper’s next step looks like being a night bus – the Impact Group, the bus company which is working with the app firm, has put an application in to run a service from 9pm to 5am between Highbury & Islington, Dalston, Shoreditch and Aldgate East on Friday and Saturday nights, with options to take different routes if the traffic’s bad or passengers express a preference. (Insert joke about wipe-clean seats here.) You could see something like this working to supplement the Night Tube at locations such as Canada Water or North Greenwich.
It may well be that Citymapper’s playing with buses comes to nothing (at least in London) except a big publicity boost. But it strikes me as something a little more relevant to our immediate needs than the driverless vehicle trials on the Greenwich Peninsula, which are being conducted while traditional networks are struggling. If it ever fancies toying with the commuter market or night passengers, it could find a willing market in south east London.
9 July update: Here is the latest on this story.
Transport for London could axe bus route 180 between Lewisham and Charlton, according to a document released by Greenwich Council earlier this month.
The service – which currently runs between Lewisham and Belvedere via Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Plumstead and Abbey Wood, could be diverted to run to and from North Greenwich station instead.
The proposal – first reported by From The Murky Depths – is contained in a transport report (see page 26) produced as part of the council’s plans to redevelop the Charlton riverside.
TfL is also looking at reducing the frequency of route 472, which runs between North Greenwich and Thamesmead.
The report, produced by consultants Urban Movement, says the proposals were mooted in a meeting with TfL last month.
It says: “At a meeting with Aidan Daly of TfL Buses on 19.01.17 he suggested that the frequency of Route 472 is proposed to reduce to 7.5 buses per hour in the peaks from its current frequencies of 12 and 10.
“This route would also be extended to Abbey Wood (due to the arrival of Crossrail). Route 180 is proposed to be diverted at Peartree Way to North Greenwich at its existing frequency of 6 buses per hour, no longer serving the section between Woolwich Road and Lewisham. Route 380 would retain the link between Charlton and Lewisham.
“Overall, it is proposed that bus frequency along the Woolwich Road is set to reduce by approximately 4 buses per hour, while the main flow of buses into North Greenwich reduces by 1 bus per hour overall as a result of the 180 being diverted.”
Most users of bus services in the area will find the idea of cutting the 180 to be palpably barmy – particularly with big population increases right along its route. It would reduce services between Greenwich and Woolwich and break a connection between Lewisham and east Greenwich which has existed since the days of trams. Passengers would presumably be expected to take a 177 and change in central Greenwich for a 199, a service which is often heavily delayed by traffic in Rotherhithe and Deptford.
The reference to the 380 being a replacement for the 180 is an odd one, since the 380 runs through Blackheath rather than Greenwich, and follows a different and more circuitous route through Charlton. But then there is also an odd reference in the report to the bus terminal at Charlton station being redundant when it is used daily by short runs on the 472, early-terminating 486s and rail replacement buses.
The bus network around Woolwich and Abbey Wood will face big changes to coincide with the planned start of Crossrail services in December 2018. But this comes as TfL finds its income squeezed on two fronts: the Conservative government in Westminster withdrawing its grant funding from 2018, and Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to freeze all single TfL fares until 2020. So service expansions may end up being balanced by cuts elsewhere.
Observers have long feared that big cuts to bus services will be on the way; it may be that Charlton, Greenwich and Lewisham will find this out the hard way. TfL is already planning on big changes to 23 routes through the West End, partly as a response to increased congestion.
One Lewisham route has already been subjected to a stealth cut; in November the area’s only direct link to the West End, the 436 to Paddington, was diverted at Vauxhall to terminate at Battersea Park instead.
If this proposal worries you, then you may want to write to your local representatives – particularly those on the London Assembly – to ask them what they are doing about this.
It’s always good to see an issue raised on this website taken up by politicians – so here’s a warm 853 welcome for a petition calling for a boost to the 108 bus service between North Greenwich and Lewisham, which suffers from chronic overcrowding during rush hours.
The petition comes from Greenwich Conservatives – in particular, their energetic candidate for Blackheath Westcombe ward, Thomas Turrell. Blackheath Westcombe’s the borough’s most marginal ward, represented by two Tories and one Labour repesentative, so what goes on here is worth watching.
The Tories’ petition wants a rush-hour only bus, numbered 108A, to supplement the packed-out 108 south of the river, giving passengers a service that is less affected by Blackwall Tunnel delays. Ignoring the fact that Transport for London no longer runs rush-hour only buses (nor ones with letters as suffixes – although with next year’s train woes in mind, a revival of the original 108A to London Bridge could be useful), at least the issue of the 108’s woes is being taken seriously.
Except… the Tories are addressing their petition to Greenwich Council. Not TfL, which runs the buses, but Greenwich Council. “We call on Royal Greenwich Borough Council [sic] to use the means at its disposal to work with Transport for London to introduce a new 108a bus route…”
So, effectively, Greenwich Tories are asking the Labour-run council to ask Tory-run TfL to fix our buses. Could they not, well, go straight to Boris Johnson instead? Perhaps not, with TfL bracing itself for deep cuts to bus services under its current administration. Awkward.
Anyone that’s ever been to a Greenwich Council meeting will know how it’ll treat the petition, anyway. Transport cabinet member Denise Hyland will act like the Tories have suggested selling a close family member, before Chris Roberts declares once again that the council should run bus services because
Berkeley Homes the council knows better than anyone else on the entire planet. Nobody will go home happy, not least those going home by bus.
Which is a shame, because the state of the 108 is worth addressing, and it’s a pity that local politicians have ignored the issue for so long. Unlike the 132, overcrowding on which has been raised three times in 14 months at City Hall.
But then the 132’s fate proves a point. Run a bus to North Greenwich from just about anywhere, and it’ll fill up.
So maybe the Greenwich Tories’ 108 petition will light a flame. Perhaps some bright spark will team up with politicians across the boundary, and suggest an entirely new route to somewhere new like Brockley or Bromley, or maybe just the Kidbrooke Village development, to help ease the 108 through Blackheath. Maybe they’ll even set up a petition, and maybe they’ll get somewhere.
But hopefully, they’ll remember to address it to the right people first.