The Role of Data and Information Sharing in COVID-19 Recovery

Like almost all industries globally, the UK bus sector has been hugely impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. But while reacting to the present disruption is understandably the primary focus for many, those of us with planning roles or backgrounds must also strive to raise our sights to the horizon.

Because though it may be difficult to see right now, there will be a recovery – and our buses must be ready. The difficulty, of course, is visualising and planning for what that recovery may look like because there is no precedent for what we are experiencing.

Global Perspectives

In recent weeks I have been working with Trapeze colleagues from around the world – especially those in Asia – to share information and understand how best to support customers as they adapt to this challenge.

While many regions have naturally seen ridership levels plummet, it is notable that some operators in North America have actually needed to run more services to support the required levels of social isolation, with just four or five people on a bus at a time. This, of course, adds yet another layer of complexity to the present scheduling challenge.

In North America, we are also seeing some operators who initially began by tactically reducing services, instead of resorting to completely redesigning networks to meet the radically changed demand.

For Guidance Look East

But of course, the region that is most valuable to review is Asia, which experienced COVID-19 first. In China, with the virus now under control, bus and train services are starting to resume. My team is therefore very focused on analysing the behavioural data and travel patterns emerging from countries in Asia – as well as the measures being put in place as business ramps back up.

To illustrate, we are hearing that the recovery strategy comprises two stages: stabilising business and forward-thinking. For this first stage – stabilising business – operators are essentially rebuilding their route networks. In doing so, they are approaching the task as a new business might, and initially focusing on predictable demand. Most obviously this means journeys to and from hospitals and the homes of key workers. In this way, operators are providing essential mobility for key workers, while also starting to generate much-needed revenue.

The forward-thinking stage of the recovery plans relates to the implementation of ‘clean routes’. This means that buses are taken out of service several times a day to be thoroughly cleaned – with prominent signs placed on the vehicle to indicate when it was last disinfected.

With passenger confidence such a fragile commodity at the moment, these changes are seen as vital to providing the reassurance required for ridership numbers to increase.

Data Analysis and Information Sharing

As we seek to respond to COVID-19, data is one of the most powerful tools available to us. COVID-19 is not easy to predict, with significant regional variations in infection rates, and unknowns relating to

population behaviour and government policy. But the one thing we do know is that if we want to prepare to return to normal – or more likely a ‘new normal’ – we need information.

Today it is possible to visit a website and visualise the current impact of the virus by region. More usefully, by looking at UK infection data and overlaying it with that emerging from Asia (over a longer period), it is actually possible to map out what our recovery timeline might look like.

Furthermore, by feeding external data – from Google analytics, government websites and real-time information systems – into our own Novus SchedulePlus scheduling solution, we can then help our bus operator customers with network design as we move into recovery mode.

The Value of Information

By sharing information we are now able to start predicting future demand – which is, of course, critical to the recovery process, because at the point where people are ready to start travelling, buses must be ready to serve them.

It is comforting to think that among all this madness, difficulty and complexity, public transport remains utterly vital. And it is how our bus drivers, schedulers and managers join the nation’s nurses, doctors and supermarket staff in giving back to their communities.

Looking Forwards Together

As the UK looks to recover from COVID-19 it is vital we look overseas to learn from others who have already experienced our present concerns. As well as data analysis, we will need to consider practical solutions we are hearing about from elsewhere, including middle door boarding, taping over stop bells, cordoning off seats, and ensuring drivers have time to regularly clean down buses.

In many ways, the world has never felt more frightening than it does today. But at the same time, as technology brings people together to share experiences and learn from one another, it has also never felt smaller – and that is at least something for which we can be thankful.

It is important to remember that these difficult times will come to an end and that things will return to normal. We are here to support you now – and for the entire journey.

Gavin John (CMILT MTPS) has been working in the bus industry for almost 20 years. Having previously worked as a scheduler himself, Gavin is today employed globally asTrapeze’s Scheduling Solutions Manager, where he uses his knowledge of the bus and rail industry and Trapeze’s technology to help customers to achieve maximum benefit from their technology investment. Gavin is leading the Novus SchedulePlus development project.