Citymapper trials pop-up bus service in an experiment that puts data first, PR second

Citymapper’s surprise pop-up bus route hit the streets of London this week, but unlike its fellow branded bus tours, the project was designed as a live experiment for the app’s developers and not merely as marketing stunt

The CMX1 circular route ran between Blackfriars and Waterloo, picking up and dropping off consumers for free. The green bus, which was supported by Transport for London, offered a number of extra features to customers, including wifi and USB charging ports.

The transport app, which operates in 40 cities globally, only announced news of the bus a day before it launched. Despite the subsequent hype of London’s media, it was not offering interviews or press previews to promote the campaign – probably because it didn’t start off life in the marketing team. Instead the initiative previously known internally as Project Grasshopper was designed as a genuine experiment to test the software stack Citymapper has developed to run and operate a bus network.

The bus itself is smaller and brighter than the iconic Routemaster and features a real-time moving map display so that users can see exactly where they are on their journey. Drivers operate the service via a tablet that tracks how far ahead and behind its fellow drivers are on the route. Throughout the journey the software suggests continuing at a steady pace or easing on the break in order to regulate the route’s service and avoid bus crunching.

Data as to how the buses were navigating London’s traffic at a ‘smart’ pace is sent back to Citymapper’s developers over the course of the two days, meaning the software is developed and improved in real time.

The original plan, The Drum understands, was for the brand to run a non-descript bus throughout London testing its new product. The idea to turn it green and promo it as an easy piece of marketing only came later.

The Citymapper Smartbus is a first clue as to where the tech brand sees its future. In a statement, the company said that after creating journeys using open data, fixing erroneous travel data and building tools to analyse this data, it realised that public transport routes “don’t always serve people best, nor evolve quickly enough to accommodate changes in the city”.

It added that buses haven’t evolved enough; according to Citymapper “they still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology”. It added: “If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones we can have responsive buses that react to realtime needs.”

Citymapper’s full vision of the smart bus network of the future is still under wraps, although it’s unlikely that the tech brand will be the ones to put out a fleet of physical buses themselves. Like the likes of Uber and Lyft, its success will lie solely in its software and data, although the rather transparent, public nature of this week’s experimentation is likely to have set Citymapper apart from its private transport-touting cousins.

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

All by Katie