Next stop, Helsinki?

London buses headed in the same direction as Helsinki’s high-tech transport system - The Guardian

The Guardian today had a feature, on the front of its technology supplement, on the recent introduction in London of announcements on buses, telling us where the next stop is and where the bus is going. The announcements have appeared on the buses near where I live, particularly the Transdev (London United) buses. This is all done with the aid of a GPS unit and a Windows-based computer unit in a £117million upgrade.

The bus tracking system being fitted in Helsinki is much more advanced than ours: each bus will be visible on a Google map, the system being open so that anyone can write programs to use the information, like a desktop widget of the sort which are found on recent versions of Windows and Mac OS X. The stops themselves will be fitted with “near field information” tags which can be photographed, if you have a Nokia mobile, allowing you to retrieve information (presumably, this means information as to when the next bus or tram will arrive). Helsinki’s in-bus units use Linux, which is free, unlike Windows - one wonders how much money they saved by doing that. And the buses and trams will be wireless network hotspots.

No such system is proposed for London: it seems all we will get are robotically spoken announcements. They did a feature on these announcements on the BBC London breakfast show today, and what they picked up on was the fact that some of the landmarks after which the stops are named no longer exist: notably, pubs which closed, or buildings which were demolished, several years ago. Some of these places are well-known: Croydon’s airport, which closed in 1959, was still used as a destination for bus routes 194 and 119 for years afterwards (I think the Colonnades development is used now). Near my home there is a junction called Shannon Corner, nowadays best known for the site of the UK’s first drive-thru Krispy Kreme, which is named after a company whose building was on that junction, but which closed years ago. The name has not always been on signs, but it was the popular name for it for decades.

However, other bus stop names are simply stupid - named after nearby, obscure side roads. I’ve got used to the progression of little-known side road names called out on the bus down Worple Road on the way into Wimbledon, but the first stop in Wimbledon town centre is called Francis Grove, which goes no indication that this is on the entrance to Wimbledon town centre. The stop on the easterly entrance to the New Malden Fountain roundabout, where there is not only a pub called the Fountain but also an actual fountain, is called Walton Avenue, a road I had never heard of until I heard the announcement. It should be called New Malden Fountain (East). The stop actually called “New Malden, the Fountain” should be called New Malden Fountain (South). But get this: the 265 bus, which goes from Putney through Roehampton, down the A3 to Shannon Corner, through New Malden and then back on the A3 to Tolworth, leaves New Malden by way of Malden Road. The last stop before it hits the A3 again is called “St James’s Church / Kingston By-pass”; the next stop is called Malden Road, and it’s not on Malden Road but on the slip-road to the by-pass. The junction is called Malden Junction, and the stops should be called Malden Junction North and West (with or without a reference to the church). They really do need to get some sane names for the stops now that they are being announced, rather than just being on the stops.

The other annoying thing about the announcements is the way they are delivered. On the 131, for example, it goes “131 … to … Tooting Broadway”, with the “to” sounding like a number 2, which is confusing, but it also sounds unnatural. Given that the Croydon Tramlink has had decent-sounding announcements (each one purpose-recorded for each stop) since it first opened, why could they not have done the same on the buses, or at least better than they’ve done? I appreciate that these announcements are useful to blind people, who no longer have to rely on a driver who might forget that they were there and wanted to get off at a stated stop, but for the money, I’m sure they could have done better.

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