Can digital planning help bus back better?

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
[/wlm_nonmember] believes that accurate simulation, prediction and scheduling will help improve the efficiency of electric buses such as those recently introduced in Cardiff. CARDIFF BUS











Jonathan Welch speaks to London-based, a technology company which has developed software to enable operators and transport authorities to design and test new services in a ‘digital city’ before operating them in the real world.

2022 will be a crucial year for the bus industry as we find out what post pandemic travel patterns mean for bus ridership and we learn more about what new state funding arrangements and challenging commercial conditions will mean for service changes. Operators and local authorities are having to re-evaluate not just the frequency and routes of the services they run, but whether they run on a scheduled or demand responsive basis, the design of the infrastructure they run on, and the way the network as a whole operates to support Mobility as a Service (MaaS) offers. Whether it be as a result of enhanced bus partnerships, the introduction of direct franchising or the development of Bus Service Improvement Plans, up and down the country there is a flurry of planning activity that will determine the future of the country’s bus networks for years to come and where understanding the collective impact of individual investments is crucial.

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for just £10 a month with our annual print and digital offer, Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

This is where technology company comes in. Headed by founder and CEO Pete Ferguson, the company has been developing detailed virtual models of entire city transport networks that mirror the dynamics of the real world. Bus operators and transport authorities can use them as digital laboratories to test the impact of service changes on ridership, travel times, punctuality and operation costs before making changes for real, down on the ground.

Prospective’s virtual cities contain detailed information on transport infrastructure, travel patterns and preferences that can be used to predict the impact of changes to the network. PROSPECTIVE.IO

Simulating Cities

Pete explained: “We believe that analysing the transport network as a whole is the key to making better service investment decisions and running them well; from making the most of every vehicle hour on existing routes to ensuring that new mobility schemes are properly integrated into the wider transport network. When making decisions about the bus network, or the rail network, or trams or demand responsive transport services, walking and cycling, our technology is designed to help operators and authorities understand how their service will perform when they make a change, how changes elsewhere on the network will affect their service, and how changes to their service will affect the wider network. It’s critical to consider the interaction of each service with the wider transport network and that’s why the concept of city simulation is so important.

“By analysing the transport network as a single interconnected system, we can tackle questions that transport authorities and operators have to grapple with but struggle to answer. Questions like:

How will the introduction of a new demand responsive transport service affect bus ridership on existing routes?

How will an increase in service frequency on route 1 affect ridership on routes 2, 3 and 4?

How would the introduction of a bus lane on this road section affect travel mode choice?

How will improving on-time performance on a specific route affect passenger journey times across a city?

“Being able to answer questions like these is central to making effective decisions about how to implement Bus Service Improvement Plans, improve infrastructure and introduce DRT services. Whether you’re a bus operator, a micro mobility provider or a delivery company, you’re all using the same transport network and so this mindset of analysing the whole network should drive planning and operational decisions for individual fleets, not just transport planning departments.”







The company’s simulation environment enables bus operators and transport authorities to predict the ridership, operations costs and punctuality of scheduled and demand responsive transport services. PROSPECTIVE.IO

Strategic planning to everyday operations

The idea of simulating whole transport networks to support decision making is not new, explained Pete. “The practical application of computer models in transport planning has been around since the 1960s but the difference today is that we have the real-time sensor data, computing power and data science to be able to simulate transport networks at the level of detailed fleet operations, making the technology useful for everyday operational decision making. Cloud-hosted software means that we can also put powerful software like this directly in the hands of local staff who have crucial local knowledge about what can realistically be implemented. Simulation can now be used to aid tactical decision making like adjusting bus stop patterns, timetables or reorganising the way the fleet is deployed from a depot.

“In the early days of the company we used our technology to help Government departments tackle some really big questions. For instance we supported the National Infrastructure Commission, a branch of the Treasury, to assess the current state of the whole country’s public transport infrastructure and analyse how it affects accessibility within and between every city in the county. We also helped city authorities like the Greater London Authority to understand how changes in housing supply would affect travel demand on the London tube and bus network. This kind of application of the software supports major policy and investment decisions that have far reaching consequences and it’s still an important use case of our software, but most changes to the transport network are relatively small scale and local and so as a business, we need to make our technology just as useful in those circumstances. Modest interventions, small scale adjustments to services and infrastructure by operators and authorities, are happening all the time and so improving these decisions can have a big cumulative impact on the quality of public transport in a region.”



“In the bus industry, we’ve been helping operators to make better informed route planning and scheduling decisions,” Pete continued. “We’ve helped operators like FirstGroup and Stagecoach to use new vehicle GPS and ticketing data streams to understand the current performance of their services and to predict the impact of new and adjusted services on ridership, punctuality and operating costs. We quickly realised that to make our technology useful for the day to day activities of a typical operator, we had to bridge the gap between the world of network planning where users of the software want to test many new ideas for changing the network as a whole or introducing new services and the detailed, rigorous and precise world of scheduling and operations planning where staff are trying to build efficient timetables and fleet plans for a specific route. The result of bridging this gap is our first self service software product, FlowOS

“FlowOS generates bus schedules, timetables and individual vehicle itineraries automatically for any route plan an operator or authority might design. This enables local teams to try out ideas for new and adjusted services, predict the impact the new service will have on passenger experience, punctuality and ridership and crucially, generate all the information needed to register the service in a fraction of the time it currently takes. A local commercial director of a bus fleet can come into the depot in the morning with an idea for a new route and by the end of the day have created all the detailed schedule information needed to register the service with a good understanding of the impact it’s likely to have on the ground. This increase in the speed of planning and scheduling has huge advantages for operators and authorities. It means that staff can spend less time manually creating timetables and more time thinking about service improvements and coordinating with local authorities to improve bus infrastructure. It also means that a larger number of options can be tested prior to finalising plans for registration with the Traffic Commissioner and this increases the chance of getting to an optimal service design.”

Planning for the future

“We know that to encourage increases in patronage, bus services need to get the basics right. Services need to be direct and frequent with journey times competitive relative to the private car. They need to be reliably punctual throughout the day, week and year and they need to be comfortable and safe. Delivering these basic requirements will require real partnership between operators and authorities, investing together in infrastructure and service delivery but it will also require services to be carefully coordinated with the rest of the transport network including new shared and micro mobility services. The need to look at system wide effects of individual interventions is growing and is only going to become more important as local authorities seek to drive changes in travel behaviour and as new bus, minibus, car and bike fleets enter the transport network. Powerful network planning and scheduling software like FlowOS can help operators and authorities to deliver on their transport agendas by highlighting where problems exist on the network, quantifying the benefits of investment and helping to speed up the process of scheme evaluation and design.”

FlowOS enables managers and scheduling staff to design new services and automate the generation of the timetables and fleet plans needed to operate them. PROSPECTIVE.IO