Imagining A Smarter Future For London’s Travel Network

Mark Darbyshire

Creating the smart cities of the future is high on the agenda for national governments, local councils, and innovative tech companies alike.

Take London as an example. In the summer of 2018, Mayor Sadiq Khan launched Smarter London Together, a plan to make London “the smartest city in the world.” Smarter travel is set to be a huge part of this – and when you consider how much data Transport for London (TfL), mytaxi, Uber, and others hold about both their own networks and the movements of almost 2 billion annual passengers, it’s clear there are some exciting opportunities to be had.

Some strides towards smarter travel have already been made. The TfL route planner, for example, allows users to optimize their journey with features like accessibility requirements or walking preferences in mind. Others, such as CityPlanner or Transit, do something similar, often via TfL’s APIs. But this could be pushed a lot further, and in ways that benefit not just travelers, but businesses, the environment, and transport providers’ profitability, too.

Complicating matters further, a recent King’s College study showed Oxford Street to be the most polluted street in Europe, and a DEFRA report demonstrated that much of the pollution in central London is due to buses. And as for last-leg transportation (for those in a hurry or with luggage, or for the elderly and children), it isn’t always delivered by TfL; it’s often filled by Uber, taxis, and so on.

So, with all this in mind, what does a smarter future for London’s transport really look like – and what tools are needed to make this vision a reality?

Greater choice and better flow for travelers

The tools users currently have to navigate London’s transport system are functional enough, but far from optimal. End users seem to be concerned with the obvious: price, accessibility, speed. But they are also interested in things like avoiding busy areas or traffic, not contributing to pollution, enjoying the weather, and aligning travel with their fitness goals.

A holistic transport provider could crunch data on a cloud platform and develop truly intelligent route-mapping applications – and give users choice. The application could extend the purview of that journey to include the micro-journeys that can arise: a taxi back from the supermarket or a bus to take you directly to a large office. A new view of the journey starts to arise: a multi-modal one, where the passenger or traveler isn’t tied up with complexities about finding the nearest taxi stand or ensuring they have mobile signal to command an Uber.

There are multiple ways to answer: “What’s the best route for my journey?” Shortest in time, for sure. Most reliable or least traffic could be more useful for important journeys like hospital trips. An insurer might want to incentivize you to consider the least risky route, while your conscience might prefer the one that causes the least pollution. In all cases, it’d be nice to know what these answers are if we want to make informed decisions about our own travel.

This level of personalization and journey aggregation wouldn’t only create a better experience of moving through London, it would also improve traveler flow, facilitating smarter journeys with recommended stops along the way. This would benefit everyone from the tourist who wants the most scenic route back to their hotel to the office worker who needs to swing by a flower shop on their way home.

Creating a greener, smarter city

In 2018, London hit its legal air pollution limit just one month into the new year. This figure speaks for itself, but as anybody who’s ever witnessed a horde of near-empty buses creep their way down Oxford Street will know, the city’s transport system is far from optimized. Having a robust platform in place to better analyze the flow of travel could play an invaluable part in minimizing unnecessary transport pollution and helping planners figure out exactly where and when the majority of people need to travel.

Although the mayor has already introduced measures like charges for dirty vehicles entering the city, a smart-city platform could contribute further – both by optimizing public transport schedules to reduce needless journeys and by directing travelers to green transport alternatives, like Santander Cycles.

An opportunity for profit

Consider the number of people traveling in and out of London each day – by plane, train, or tube. Providing seamless, end-to-end journeys on trips that start outside London isn’t easy, and given that travelers don’t have a great deal of choice, there’s relatively little impetus for providers to invest in a platform that can assist with this. But as the city’s population and numbers of visitors grow, access to this platform’s insights could be a hugely valuable resource for various private businesses and individuals. Which means a smart travel platform could actually generate profit for an organization like TfL.

Airlines are a prime example of this. Passengers arriving into Heathrow may have planned to get the tube into the city. But a business professional who needs to make calls and get ready for a meeting during their journey into London may be left scrambling to find another route. Through integration with a smart platform, the airlines could offer push notifications through their apps with the opportunity to book a taxi or access shared minibus services – impressing their customers, improving their service, and smoothing the onward journey in one fell swoop. For the passenger, it’d be great to be able to miss out the taxi queue at T5 and jump straight into their pre-booked black cab or Uber car. No standing around in the cold. No hour spent underground without mobile signal. No issues trying to find a cashpoint.

Equally, there’s sometimes little support for Londoners’ use of their own city. One of the more frenetic taxi stands in the city is at the Sainsbury’s in Angel, with people pilling into cabs, their arms bulging with purchases, as there is little or no other alternative for the many elderly in Islington who want to do their own shopping and take it home. It seems a pity that this kind of journey can’t be paid for by Oyster cards.

Access to the platform could even be bought by supermarkets, food chains, and restaurants around key transport hubs, allowing them to predict footfall and adjust their strategies accordingly. This kind of deal would be a significant commercial opportunity for ticketing providers such as TfL, so it’s certainly worth exploring. There’s also the possibility for providing subsidized local transport to job seekers and the homeless.

Equally, such a strategy might help London re-evaluate the potential of river craft (especially for Canary Wharf / City journeys), incentivize cycle usage; and enable better timings and placings of services within and around stations.

Building London’s smart future

London’s smart-city future is a compelling prospect, and more intelligent travel should play a significant role in this. Because whether you’re a tourist, a commuter or an infrequent visitor to London, everybody ultimately wants the same thing: the most seamless end-to-end journey. Increasingly, as journeys are streamlined, it will be necessary for this platform to become more dynamic and responsive to real-time situations. “Take me home without a traffic jam” might become an interesting option on Waze or Google Maps.

But to deliver this, transport-providing organizations need to do more to invest in travel and transportation technologies that can help them build the relevant applications, whether that’s intelligent route mapping or a platform to provide data access for partner businesses. Without this innovation, London’s plans to become the world’s smartest city may well falter before they truly begin.

For more on smart-city technology, see How Future Cities Can Engage Citizens.


Dr. Mark Darbyshire

About Dr. Mark Darbyshire

Dr. Mark Darbyshire works in SAP UK’s Database and Data Management team. Mark helps customers understand the benefits that SAP’s intelligent enterprise can bring to organizations as they undergo their digital transformations. Mark was previously SAP’s UKI Chief Technology Adviser, and has held CTO positions at TIBCO Software and Software AG. He has a Ph.D., M.Sc. and B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Bristol.