“when is my bus due?” a brilliant use of public data and probably the best use of mobile ever

 In mobile

Some months ago, I was speaking to Paul Clarke (@paul_clarke) about his role on the Mayor’s Digital Advisory Board and what they were doing with public transport data.

Specifically I asked “when will I be able to see how long it is until my bus turns up via my mobile?”.

What I was after was a mobile version of those bus countdown screens that are located at some major stops in London.

He teased me at the time by saying “watch this space”.

Little did I know, a few weeks later, the beta version of the TFL countdown site was launched.

I extensively tested the beta service and saw it move into a live service a few weeks ago with some extensive publicity.

The service is nothing short of brilliant, and it is super simple to use.

Each and every bus stop now has a fairly prominent sticker on the bus stop pole (example below) which asks you to send a code to the SMS bus service (87287).

Instantly, the SMS version of the service sends back the next few buses due at that stop.

There is of course a mobile version, and it even allows you the option to show stops near you by geo-locating your phone (with your permission of course).

In testing the service, I can only assume that it does take a live feed from the TFL bus positioning system that feeds the exact GPS position of each bus into a central server.  I say this because the service has been super accurate. If it says the bus is “due” then I can normally see it approaching.  When I have seen a bus stuck in traffic or roadworks, the arrival time updates in real time.

Not only is this a somewhat simple use of technology (exposing a huge live database of bus locations and routes to an SMS or mobile site interface), it has saved me time and frustration on nearly a daily basis.

When racing to get Miss 5, @madeleinegrill off to school via bus (we are a 3 minute walk from the nearest direct bus to school), I can pull up my own bookmarked list of frequently used stations and see if we should race to the stop or take it easy.

I use the service so often I have even set up my own bus arrivals portal with my most frequent stops in a list, with a link to the search page for stops I don’t visit regularly.

You don’t need to do this, as the mobile site’s search engine lets you search via one of the following: street, postcode, route number or bus stop code and even shows you every bus stop on the route – so in just a few clicks you can get the live and real-time bus arrivals information you need.

I use the service so that when packing up in my local Starbucks (right outside a bus stop), I can now look up how far the bus is away and quickly down my coffee, or drink it at a more leisurely pace depending on how far away my bus is.

While there have been many posters around London about the new service, I don’t believe many travellers have yet latched onto the service and how easy it is to use.

I even used the SMS lookup to demonstrate in a workshop to a client about mobile and social how a simple SMS <> database service could be used.

Everyone in the group could immediately see how easy and simple it was to us, although none had heard of it, or knew what the stickers at the bus stops were all about.

If you catch a bus in London on a regular or even infrequent basis, then the Transport for London Bus Countdown service is a must!

You can get to the mobile version by bookmarking http://lc.tl/bc

More Governments around the world should look at launching their own version of this service – perfect if they already have a live feed of their bus fleet’s location.

This service gets my mobile service of the year award for 2011!

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Futurist Keynote Speaker and former IBM Global Managing Partner, Andrew is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption and emerging technologies. He is a multiple TEDx & International Keynote Speaker. Watch his speaking showreel here, enquire about availability & fees here or listen to his latest Podcast - "The Practical Futurist Podcast" on your favourite app.

Showing 12 comments
  • Alan Burkitt-Gray

    I’ve used it lots of times already, Andrew. I’m surprised that this service is not better known — and that the similar National Rail service is also relatively unknown (send “PMR to CTK” to 84950 to see the next departures from Peckham Rye to City Thameslink). I often use that to check that an infrequent connecting service at Peckham Rye hasn’t been cancelled or delayed before deciding which train from home to catch.

  • Paul Squires

    Andrew – some of the English county councils have been doing this at bus stops for much longer than TFL. I certainly recall first using the service around 3 years ago outside of London – but nonetheless it’s a brilliantly simple service.

  • Adrian Short

    I’ve written a Unix command line utility for TfL’s Countdown which lets you set up a list of your favourite stops and then query them all at once from the comfort of your Terminal:


  • London Calling “when is my bus due?” brilliant use of public data&outstanding use of mobile: http://t.co/aIWPR9tb via @AddThis #in Love it!

  • Sacha (@sachab)

    “when is my bus due?” a brilliant use of public data and probably the best use of mobile ever http://t.co/IbvZNKcL

  • @csiebeluy Te paso una idea para vender a la IMM/Cutcsa. Creo que las nuevas paradas tendrán info de los buses. http://t.co/C6FyC657

  • V nice!! RT @AndrewGrill: “When is my bus due?” A brilliant use of public data and probably the best use of mobile ever http://t.co/XRHPzivY

  • RT @AndrewGrill: @tomcorbettlfc Tom, thanks for the RT. I use the http://t.co/2G7E6nY4 service multiple times daily – it is such a timesaver #london

  • MT @AndrewGrill: Can’t praise service enough: When’s my bus due? (London only) http://t.co/6xUwb2RH <London: next few mins. Rural: Tuesday?

  • RT @AndrewGrill: Can’t praise this service enough: When is my bus due? (London only) http://t.co/3aN87PAP /cc @ishra @almostagile

  • @daveSpringgay one for you too: RT @AndrewGrill: Can’t praise this service enough: When is my bus due? (London only) http://t.co/3aN87PAP

  • Sinnick

    Adrian Short’s command line utility for screenscraping the countdown data is marvellous. You’ll need ruby and ruby-gems packages installed first, then it’s as simple as following his instructions. I mention this because the error message I got before I realised I needed the dev package was not explanatory enough and it took a while for me to work it out. That’s because I’m not an experienced programmer 🙂

    Quoting this to catch people searching for the error message text:
    ERROR: Error installing countdown:
    ERROR: Failed to build gem native extension.

    /usr/bin/ruby1.9.1 extconf.rb
    /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/rubygems/custom_require.rb:36:in `require’: cannot load such file — mkmf (LoadError)
    from /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/rubygems/custom_require.rb:36:in `require’
    from extconf.rb:1:in `’

    Here’s the install procedure for an Ubuntu machine which has none of the dependencies installed yet:

    sudo apt-get install ruby ruby-dev

    then follow adrian’s instructions…

    sudo gem install countdown
    and create the config file as per wot he sez.

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