Saturday, February 9, 2013

A new transit friendly way of describing time - for sale !!

Zip/Time, Zip/Time.Table/s and Zip/T.Card/s © are unique expressions, copyright of David A. Welch. NZ

Back about six or seven years ago I started making my own bus timetables for travelling from Papanui to the city - a route corridor then served by multiple routes. I could catch any of these different services to get to the city centre and they were so frequent a timetable was not needed; turn up a bus would come soon. But, when buses were less regular (and very poorly coordinated) in the evening or on weekends trying to figure out when the next useful service was due to depart my local stop involved opening and shutting five different timetables, each with long lists of small numbers, timetable details and maps right through to the other side of the city (the routes run suburb A via city centre then to Suburb F etc). The maps I rarely needed and I anyway knew the approximate journey time to the city and even in most cases to these outer hub points. Tracing fingers down long lists of numbers is always fraught with potential to get the wrong column  (or even wrong day of the week or wrong direction) - something probably ever bus user has done some time in their life! 

Alternately finding departure times involved ringing up the phone info service which, again, even if I didn't get put on hold, was clumsy.  This was especially so if I wanted to know the next two or three buses so I could work out all the options (leave now,  or a leave bit later so I don't arrive too early etc) or also find out when what were the options for getting home again later. For a regular bus user like myself either system was very clumsy! 

So I started making my own timetables. These home made timetables started as an A4 sheet of paper I folded into four and kept in my back pocket, made on The Publisher programme of Microsoft, reprinting as needed, usually with new refinements in reducing the info and making it easier to read.  What I wanted is what I think most regular passengers want - a succinct list of departure times from or to their home location and primary destinations such as city centre or local mall or place of employment. 

There will always be a need for full route listing or map-timetables etc for newcomers, but it is a terribly outdated stodgy form of marketing for supporting the key market - existing users - who want less info, not more and want that info in an instant easy to access format, all info on a cell screen in a click, or a card from the pocket, not mucking about with dial up or unfolding and calculating from long lists of hard to read numbers.

Over a couple of years of making these timetables, and fighting new ways to compress information,  they evolved their way down in size to being the size of a business card!  These could carry ALL departure time [only] info for a certain location or all for a certain period of time (off peak etc), or any area through which several routes passed. And on the back of the card the reverse trip. And these listed EVERY departure time 365 days a year (and return departure times from city centre ditto). 

Here, immediately below, is "in-bound", to City, side of one of the old Papanui corridor cards (this service has recently been unified into one single route, the B -Line) addressing off-peak services only. As I live on the St Albans side of Papanui Road, I  even had room to include a separate route, to the east of where I live.

After a few seconds "training' (turning the mind inside out) these cards are so easy to read not only what is the next bus due, scanning back and forward along the same "time of day line", but also to scan all services (and on the other side of the card, the departure times for the return journey) in a matter of seconds.  Compared to paper format timetables in fold out (or on the bus stop post) the card format can be easily moved closer to the face to get the right focal length if you are shortsighted or getting old, or if the light is poor. And of course, the cards don't crinkle and blow away in the wind nor, if cupped in the hand, get soggy in the rain.

NOTE Useful hint - all timetables look like a confusing barrage of numbers and locations if viewed in the abstract (so to speak) ; to better evaluate strange timetables the best way is to chose specific times or hypothetical journeys to travel - then test finding these.

Apart from shared corridors as above, the same pattern can be used for three or four routes running across an area say 5km wide. The assumption on running several routes on the one timetable, when they all traverse  adjacent areas is that if, for instance on a weekend, one bus service was not due for 30 or 60 minutes, catching another on an adjacent route and walking an extra 5-10 minutes might save a long wait and get me to where I was going much faster. The little business card timetable format allowed me to see at a glance ALL the options.Indeed marketing timetables in this way is likely to encourage more patronage from those living between routes - if the services are coordinated to run at at alternating intervals with each other - they walk further but if roughly equidistant between routes de facto get greater service frequency and options than those on a single route corridor.  A fictitious example of adjoining route cards (actually using services times from a section of three St Albans area routes then operative in Christchurch) is shown at the top of this posting, on the part-promo sheet - left hand side (Hosswood and Chricton card)

There are dozens of components that go into these cards to make them user-friendly and workable for regular users of any transport system, some elements obvious, some not; some shown, some not.  Design to guide the eye quickly to the right place with minimum "slippage" - reading the wrong day or wrong direction, wrong column etc - is one giant factor that took months of evolution and experiment. But obviously the most distinctive element is the numeric formula eg 7/11.36 that I call call Zip/Time©

As far as I can find out after many hours of searching (years ago) in 170 years of organised mass public transit nobody appears to have ever thought of creating a commonly recognised formula of expressing departure times for services that run at the same minutes past the hour every hour, even though these form a big proportion of public transport services the world over. It allows enormous compression of information (with many spin offs) and makes remembering departure times and remembering when the period these departure times begins and finish 500%  easier in almost every case. If even only half the departure times are patterned this is usually sufficient to allow compression and inclusion of all departure times across the year.

I suspect the failure to create this "language of public transport" is partly because the very big city systems that could afford to develop new concepts hardly need timetables (buses/trains/trams every five minutes) except for evenings and outer suburbs, so it has not been part of their mainstream focus.

However there also remains, I believe, a sort of Victorian era (rail based) "anal" fetish about advertising  bus departures to the exact minute, rather than accepting a time listed as within three minutes of actual scheduled time as the norm of bus travel. Precise times may be needed for operating companies and their driver and vehicle schedules (especially on rail of course) but for the consumer they often make timetables unnecessarily complex and cluttered, limiting compression into formats of a more handy size. 

This addiction to exact minutes completely undermines user friendly info - the silly sorts of timetables that don't foster one time, easy to remember, because services are shown to arrive at stop X at 2.10; 3.11; 4.13; 5.11; 6.10  etc. Fussy and self defeating, in return for a meaningless "looks good" perfection in  statistics. Catching buses is not about perfect arrival times but consistency and reliability -  3 minutes later doesn't mean shit to bus users - any more than it does to most motorists in journey time variation - as long as the service does arrive within that 3 minutes, and is reliable. In other words these same services are far better described as departing 8/6.10 where 8 is 8.10 am and 6 is 6.10 pm and the service departs at 10 minutes past the hour between those parameter [and inclusive] times. Somewhere on the same pamphlet and in transit publicity would be the wording All services depart within three minutes of time shown, never before that time which could quickly become an understood norm. Reduced to these simplified formulas. and using Zip/Time© formats within a few weeks of usage timetables would become embedded in most regular user's head - a huge advantage in holding patronage and  encouraging bus and train usage by others.
This variation Base number = up to 3 mins later, is used in Zip/Time systems, albeit on a relatively small portion of trips listed  in my experience.

Another problem with current scheduling practice is that on longer and cross town routes not all times can be shown and even when they are referred to, "drift" can occur, making it difficult to calculate bus time arrival further downstream.  Below is a Saturday section of the Christchurch Metrostar cross town service timetable with only early and later times shown and the middle of the day (the peak user period!) services only described by the slightly confusing statement "Then every 15 minutes between 7.13 am and 5.13 pm"

So tell me,  what time do you need to be at The Palms if you want to be in New Brighton for a performance starting at 2 pm? Have a look at the timetable below.

Yes, if you are reasonably intelligent you can work it with a bit of deduction -  but what a pain, especially if already in a hurry. And what point is there in a timetable that should be simplifying bus use, adding to confusion, or timetables needing additional calculations that a a portion of less mathematical people could not anyway deduce and where others who might transpose times wrongly? This "drift" appears in many longer route timetables I have checked out around the world and can sometimes render departure times incomprehensible, if some distance from the  single first base departure given time. 

Note that the next section in the Metro timetable below says "between 7 pm and 10 pm" but this describes the Halswell departure time - this statement also incorporates services departing multiple timing points after 10 pm etc but this has to be figured out, is not at all instantly clear for those boarding further eastwards.

In contrast, below, is my much battered home-made Zip/T.Card©  version of the Metrostar Mon-Friday services (a fold out card would be needed to have weekend services and other info but I just use two cards). It shows EVERY departure TIME, every time. All it needs to use Zip/Time systems©  is a once made 30-45 second shift in thinking. Find best "minutes" first; then hours checked. in other words reversing usual thinking,  look for the useful minutes past (or to) the hour you need FIRST and then double check there that the  bus service is in that right hourly framework. 

After first usage the unusual expression of time, inherent in  X/Y.zk will always remind users how it works. On cards layout is carefully structured to avoid any ambiguous times or can be in the less popular (in NZ) 24 hour format as on the Circular route rail card at top of promo page (start of blog)

From Palms to New Brighton by 2pm on a weekday?  - aha, 49 minutes past hour will do, move eye back westwards,  yes there will be a 1.30 pm bus from The Palms that will get me to New Brighton at 1.49 pm. 5 secs and done.

There is an obvious huge potential in this idea, not only in business cards (and fold-out business cards and post-card sizes - see image at top of this posting fictitious circular rail line) but especially if patented and  then developed for ipods, cellphones, and ticketing machines on buses, or automated ticketing machines at bus and train stations. There is also billions and billions of public transport passenger trips per year worldwide -  unlike most consumer products, except in the case of extremely poor countries, it is not a market that reduces in size the less affluent a country is. 

If Zip/Time is seen as only relevant in some situations, even only 2-5% of this market "buying" the concept, paying a royalty for use and support systems it is still a huge market. 

I have made a few forays into sharing this concept a few years back but the only way to explain it is to show it as above - and straight away give away a significant portion of one's intellectual capital, built up over several years wrestling with the many challenges involved. The catch 22 of a simple idea - hard to protect for a small player.

New Zealand is also, by itself is far too small a market. Getting a PCT Patent gives 18 months of freedom to trial the world market but it would need an international organisation with at least $50,000 and existing strong footing in the public transport industry, to even begin such a trial in that short time frame. Obviously cat-out-of-the bag, some of the intrinsic ideas above can be deduced and nicked and applied by anyone, but if there is any public transport agency, timetable or marketing agency that happens to read this and is astute enough to grasp its potential I welcome there contact 

As with many simple ideas there is a far deeper complexity inherent in this concept than meets the eye and some of it can only be fully grasped by those who actually use buses regularly. I have a "beginner's manual" with about 30 pages of intrinsic application rules and design do's and don'ts, with samples of about a dozen different ways of applying the concept to various marketing situations etc and a carefully thought through  marketing strategy, that would give any purchaser an immediate head-start on competitors, save hundreds of hours research, possibly eliminate key errors, and probably allow more or less immediate evaluation and early PCT application of multiple facets. I would be looking for a modest payment for transfer of all intellectual property and a standard 2% inventors royalty (on gross turnover), with some availability to advise if needed, details negotiable.

I put it out to the universe, finally, in this unusual fashion because it seems  a concept of great world-wide potential (and ecological benefit) but one which I do not have the resources to develop. I do not have the capital nor the sales skills nor corporate experience at appropriate levels worldwide, nor even the energy of a younger man, to sufficiently market or protect the the concept myself. 

If in the end the concept pops up in China** or Byelorussia or used by the XYZ Bus Company in Uruguay or somewhere (and probably applied poorly, lacking full understanding and good practice protocols in design) and I gain nothing, so be it. So be it. It has sat in my cupboard too many years already. In that case I will just have to settle for having a big grin over joining Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking as one of those few people in this world who have redefined how we describe time. Moi? In that company? Zippity-do! Ridiculous of course, jest joking, but worth a good laugh anyway, even if it is not laughing all the way to the bank.

**According to the World Bank, China has over 205,000 inter-city and long distance bus companies - Though this is probably a secondary market for the, Zip/Time© being relevant only for those bus companies with repetitive services through elongated built up areas. a 1% penetration of this market by this concept (offering licensed access to associated developed technologies and support system and universally recognised branding) equals 2,050 royalty paying companies as customers! - a small indication of the vast number of  world transit operators. 

1 comment:

  1. In a number of continental European countries similar systems of information compression have long existed to allow large volumes of timetable information to be presented in a small space say at a stop or in printed form such as booklets that include all timetables for a whole city. Unsurprisingly the Germans and Swiss are great at this. However interestingly it is hard to find examples on-line otherwise I would give some links to examples for you.