Double decker buses are starting to get intelligent. They know how many people are upstairs, and which seats they are sitting on. And soon they will start telling you.

Nope, not an Orwellian vision of tracking your movements, but a very practical tool that is just about to go into trial on some of London’s buses.

A new display screen has been installed on a bus, next to the driver where people board the bus, and on the staircase — and it shows in fairly clear graphics, exactly what the availability of seating upstairs is like.

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Apart from the obvious instant realisation that there are indeed seats to sit on, it saves that ever so English embarrassment of going upstairs, popping your head up like a meerkat at the top of the stairs for a look around, only to come back down again. No one notices you did that, but you know that secretly everyone on the bus is laughing at you.

It also confirms if there are two seats next to each other, so that a couple can sit on the same bench rather than being separated, or hoping that someone will take pity on their discomfort.

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So, how does the bus know if a seat is being sat in? Well, not the way you probably think!

The technology being tested doesn’t have sensors in the seats — but takes advantage of the existing CCTV cameras on the upper deck, and they can then use that to know if a seat is occupied, or not. You might recall a recent report about a similar idea being trialled to know how many people are waiting to cross a street at traffic lights.

Body counting like this is fairly standard off-the-shelf technology now, often used in shops and the like to track customer flows. Here, a more practical application for the customer themselves — to know if there are spare seats upstairs.

It’s also quite anonymous, as body trackers prefer quite low resolution images to make data processing easy. Even if the system stored the data, there’s practically no use that could be made of it outside the bus itself that couldn’t already be gleaned from the CCTV recordings.

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The one on display was in random-display mode, as upstairs certainly didn’t match what the display said it should have been like, as upstairs was empty when I visited, but showed invisible bums on seats. Maybe it was a bus full of ghosts.

Expect to see live applications on the Number 12 bus route in a week or two.

The other bit of new technology is around the corner on the same bus, and has been seen on some buses already — a live travel map.

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The map plots the route the bus is taking, shows up the live position and the time to the next bus stops.

Apart from being an additional bit of bus route information, putting up an area map can overcome the perennial question that bus drivers face of which bus stop is nearest to the venue the person wants.

It is actually surprisingly difficult for the brain to easily jump around between driving a bus, knowing the route, and also accurately knowing whether a familiar landmark is on the same route.

I often pause for a moment when giving directions, simply to get it right in my head before I say anything. Bus drivers are often asked the same things, and also expected to remember that someone 20 minutes ago asked for a reminder when arriving at the hospital.

The live map is only in one location on the bus, but should alleviate some of that issue.

More usefully for regular bus users, the map is also tied into the TfL travel alerts, so if approaching a tube stop by bus, it can warn of problems on the tube before people get off the bus.

Buses are getting intelligent.

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12 Comments

  1. Josh

    The improved progress information is what I’ve been wanting for ages. I’ve often undershot the best destination stop for not knowing if any better stops were next.

  2. Paul Vincent

    Do the cameras know who is a passenger… and who is a bag? And will it work accurately as a line of passengers queue to disembark from the top deck? If it’s reliable, then this could be a helpful tool – although the seat plan looks like an unnecessary complication – the count should be sufficient for most people.

    • Maxy Stone

      I disagree with you about the seat plan. Firstly, as Ian has already said, it allows groups of people to know whether or not there is room upstairs for them all to sit together and secondly, it makes it obvious where the free seats are. Not everyone has perfect vision and a device that allows them to see clearly where the free seats are sounds great to me.

  3. DW

    Paul – no way! If you know the front seats are free you can rush up to get those, they give the best views.

  4. ssr

    As a regular user of the bus. This map thing will be ok if it is like the one in planes. Or else people will be coming over to look at the map and make the buses difficult to be in.

  5. Greg Tingey

    The “Map App” is brilliant – in starge areas, you can easily get off either too soon or too late – this avoids that problem
    Meanwhile, we actually want an intelligent bus that doesn’t roast you in summer …..

    • I like the fact that the map is using OpenStreetMap. I helped make that map! OpenStreetMap is a worldwide not-for-profit collaboration which was actually born here in London.

      I like to think TfL have decided to give their support to the project, but they recently did a deal with google maps for most of the web map displays. On board a bus though, they’ll want to load maps onto the system for use without an internet connection. OpenStreetMap is great for that. It also looks like they’ve come up with their own nice custom cartography using the OSM data. Very cool!

  6. Alex

    In Ottawa, Canada, the Scottish built Alexander Dennis buses just have the screen show the actual feed from the cameras on the top deck, one at the front and one at the back of the upper level. No software required!

  7. Chris

    When it comes to buses, nothing beats sitting on the top left hand seat of a double decker.

    I’m 57, but get a childlike sense of glee when I manage to bag that prime seat!

    I do have a life, honest!

  8. Dave

    Helps confirm my belief that bus passengers are an increasingly anxious lot.
    Ringing the bell for a stop where the bus will certainly call, even for a terminal stop – yes I’m aware that ‘all’ stops are now treated as Request stops, but excessive use of the bell must annoy the hell out of the drivers.
    Ringing the bell when it has already been rung at least once – worst on the X26, where I never ring the bell, because it’s entirely unnecessary.
    Apparently able-bodied people refusing to go upstairs – which this technology will probably not change.
    Asking the driver a question when the bus is between stops – maybe the route display will reduce that, but I doubt it.

  9. Dom Finn

    With sensors built into the seats it wouldn’t be too far a step for the seat to give you a little “jolt” when your stop is coming up.

    It would save many a calamity when returning home from a drunken night out.

  10. Retractable Cinema Seats

    Great idea! Finally something to save that awful moment of discovering there are no seats left upstairs!

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