Buses from the future

When living in Sydney I did make use of the buses between North Sydney and the CBD quite often and found the service good, although this route is effectively the least onerous test of Sydney’s bus network that one can possibly conceive of. Despite this positive experience, by comparison, I have to conclude that London’s bus network puts Sydney’s bus network to shame. The ubiquitous double-decker red buses that roam the streets of London come surprisingly frequently, with the often complicated maze of available routes and stops quite well explained on signage throughout London and on the excellent Transport For London quango website. Displays at many major bus stops throughout the city provide a countdown of how long it will be until the next bus for each relevant route, and the displays are often pretty well on the money.

Probably the quality I admire most about London’s approach to public transport is that the city is seemingly not satisfied with just “good”. Whatever the quality of the service is at the current time, there seems to be a lot of political will and public pressure to continue to make the system even better, and then, after that, even better. Arguably at least some of this can be contributed to the drive of somewhat controversial lefty mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone.

The latest manifestation of this is the gradual unveiling of an advanced communication system for London’s buses. Sean Dodson explains further in The Guardian, in a report that gives you a teasing taste of the cornucopia of potential avenues for improvement that could be explored for a service so basic, political will and funding allowing. Finland’s awesome public transport system is justifiably provided as a reference to strive towards:

Passengers on routes such as the 148, between Camberwell and Shepherd’s Bush, may have noticed that each time the bus approaches a stop, a recorded voice tells them which one it is, similar to the announcements made on the tube.

Every bus and tram in Helsinki and the surrounding cities of Vaanta and Espoo are being fitted with Linux servers and GPS units. Every bus and tram in the conurbation will not only become a wireless hotspot serving broadband internet throughout the vehicle – for free – but every bus and tram is visible on a Google map (the beta version is at tinyurl.com/2gftso) that uses the same real-time passenger information as the controllers in their command centre.

I actually have had the pleasure of catching the buses that Dodson alludes to in London, and the stop announcements have often proved useful for reminding me whereabouts in London I am at various strange times of the day and night. The fact that the announcements are quite frequent may well prove annoying to travellers who catch the same bus everyday, but I suppose as an alternative they could instead be flashed up on the information displays that seem to be present on most of London’s buses. Either way, the ability to know the location of the bus at any given time is a godsend for tourists or those unfamiliar with the city, or even locals who are in a part of town they are not too familiar with. Not to mention folks too intoxicated to pay too much attention to the world outside after a night out.

As for Finland, sounds like science fiction compared to what we are used to, eh? I will actually be visiting Helsinki in May, if all things go according to plan, so I will be able to report back further then on whether the Fins really are the world leaders with regards to public transport.