touché completes Feasibility Study of smartphone/beacon ticketing in Bristol – Technical/Operational

By Trevor Crotch-Harvey

16th January 2018

In 2017, touché was awarded a grant by the Department for Transport (DfT) to carry out a “Future Ticketing” Project – a Feasibility Study of the use of smartphones in combination with Bluetooth Smart beacons and the touché locate back office.  The grant was awarded under a scheme that enables DfT to fund early-stage research projects in support of innovative ideas or concepts that facilitate a better transport system.  The project name was “Mobile Beacon Ticketing – Feasibility Study”.  The project took place in Bristol, and collaborators were the University of the West of England (UWE), First West of England and Bristol City Council.  It was due to go live, from a standing start, 9 weeks after the awarding of the grant.


What were we trying to show?  Well, a problem that Bristol has in spades is congestion.  And some reports suggest that buses in Bristol spend as much

EYJBM5 Passengers queuing at bus stop to board local double decker bus, Bristol, UK

as 29% of their time at bus stops, while queues of passengers board, presenting cash to the driver and waiting for change.  Buses can spend minutes at a single bus stop (“dwell time”), adding to the already significant congestion.


So any scheme or technology which takes the purchase of a ticket off the bus can potentially help to reduce this problem.  First already has a good m-Ticketing app which regular travellers can use for weekly and monthly passes, but this doesn’t necessarily address customers using cash, who travel irregularly.  So the quest is to find a way of recording point to point singles without the passenger having to interact with the driver – these are the most challenging journeys to capture automatically.


The project took one Bristol bus route run by First – the 72 route, which runs from UWE, through the residential areas of Lockleaze, Horfield, along the busy Gloucester Road, through the University of Bristol area, to the city centre, terminating at Temple Meads station.  We chose this service because of the mix of passengers and journeys along the long and varied route.  (Incidentally, some of the buses were new electric/diesel vehicles, also supported by a DfT grant.)


A major objective of the project was to understand the logistical requirements.  We needed to equip 70 bus stops, seven buses, in a live, city environment (very different from a controlled laboratory), outdoors, subject to the trials of British weather.  We were grateful to Bristol City Council (which owns the bus stops, except for those at UWE) and First for their co-operation, without which it would have been impossible to conduct the project.


Touché developed a new app for the project, called Riposte.  For the purpose of the project it ran on Android only, although in the future an iPhone version can be developed.  Volunteers downloaded the app, registered, and it was this which tracked them as they boarded, rode the service, and alighted.


Another important part of the project was to collect data on bus journeys, using touché locate.  Using Riposte, we were able to collect data on each leg of these journeys, playing them back to users so they could check their accounts.  For the bus operator and bus stop owner, data was available for the first time; cross referenced by individual. Even if the data was anonymised, individual travel patterns could be analysed and the number of passengers at each bus stop could be discovered.  (More about this in a future blog post.)


As well as a test of the technology, we ran a Behavioural Study, managed by UWE and funded by ITSO.  (Details in another blog post.)  The point of this was that, even if technology works, we wanted to know if people would behave in unpredictable ways which might affect future deployment.  UWE recruited 15 volunteers, who were users of Android smartphones; they were a mix of students, day travellers and other categories, with age ranges from twenties to fifties.


So, how did it work?  We invented a fictional user, Jane, who works at the university, and travels irregularly by bus to three different sites.  Her

Screenshot of completed journey
Screenshot of completed journey

pattern of travel means she isn’t suitable for a daily or weekly pass, and she is a typical cash customer.  To take part, Jane downloaded the Riposte app to her Android phone, then registered with her name and email.  When she used the app for the first time, she walked to her local bus stop, which was equipped with a Bluetooth Smart beacon.  The phone recognised the beacon, and connected to touché locate, which knew which bus stop that particular beacon was installed at.  The app then asked Jane if she was travelling, and she pressed a button on the app to confirm.  Now she waited for the bus to arrive; when it did, the bus beacon talked to the app and confirmed to Jane which service she was riding.  When Jane reached her destination, she left the bus, which continued on its journey, and she walked away from the bus stop.  When the app detected the bus and bus stop were out of range, the journey engine algorithm in the app deduced the journey was complete and asked Jane to confirm.  Then Riposte sent a completed transaction record to touché locate, for billing and data purposes.


That was the plan – how did it go in practice?  Remember, this was not in a laboratory – it was an outdoor city environment: chaotic, noisy, weather dependent, with variable access to the Internet.  Implementation was carried out in a limited timeframe, with less testing than we would have wished.  Nevertheless, it worked – we were able to detect journeys and build a record of transactions.  But not every time, and the test gave us valuable insight into the operational details which can improve reliability – we’re working on those now.


Check out future blogs for more about the Behavioural Project, commercial opportunities, and implications for policy development.


touché offers a range of interactive mobile solutions, including: