Taking the "uncertainty out of bus travel" and the wish to improve the passenger experience across England is the reason given in the recently published Department for Transport (DfT) consultation into bus open data in the UK (the Consultation). DfT believes that 'open data' is key to removing the current uncertainty in journey planning and better journey planning it believes will attract more people to bus services.

Legislation which will follow the Consultation DfT has stated will be "(…) ambitious and forward thinking", creating an industry approach to data sharing that facilitates the conception of "end user applications and digital products and services". The Bus Services Act 2017, provides powers to the DfT to bring forward regulation "requiring the provision of open data by all operators of local bus services across England outside London."

The Consultation proposals adopt the following principles:

  • establishing clearer responsibility for data ownership and publishing
  • delivering greater efficiencies to the industry where possible
  • adopting digital by default methods where appropriate
  • driving outcomes that ensure the data is used to benefit passengers.

Poor passenger satisfaction in bus travel is one key driver to the changes now being proposed; a 2018 summary report by Transport Focus found that young people - the largest bus-using demographic - are reluctant to use the bus because of a lack of confidence and understanding in 'the system'.

Segregated ticketing systems between operators and a "commercial reticence" from some operators in publishing their data are identified as key barriers to the provision of better quality live data about service operation. The Consultation notes that "responsibility for providing data, even the established routes and timetables, is often far from clear and relies to a large part on organisational good will." This was discussed at some length in evidence sessions by the Transport Committee's current inquiry into 'Mobility as a Service' (MaaS) which is looking into overcoming the barriers to implementation of integrated, multi-mode MaaS apps in UK cities. For more information, read our article on Mobility as a service: what is it and where is it going?

The DfT sees its role as one of placing requirements on operators to open up data and to develop standards to facilitate data publishing. Its stated aim is for routes and timetables, fares and tickets, and real time information to be published as close to source as possible ('distributed model') with a clear set of obligations placed primarily on operators and local transport authorities. It wants to see the route to publishing data simplified while preserving data provenance and integrity. The open data should be able to be used by the technology sector to create end products and services that benefit passengers.

If bus operators were to permit open data access, it would allow end users to benefit from better information and digital services, the popularity of which has been demonstrated in London with apps such as CityMapper. However, operators will always be reluctant to release data that they see as commercially sensitive. This is in spite of the DfT offering the Bus Service Operators Grant as a financial incentive for operators to install location equipment on their buses. Similarly, punctuality data is not published by operators, as it could be commercially detrimental and might allow rival operators to see where there is market opportunity. This situation will change under the new proposals but the willingness of rail entities to cooperate is still an unknown.

To enable a distributed model, DfT will build a 'Bus Open Data portal' to make each of the individual operators' information sources discoverable; a central repository that will facilitate the sharing of data by bus operators. DfT proposes to start developing the portal during Summer 2018 with a test site ready for piloting during Spring 2019 and full roll out to a live service during Autumn/Winter 2019 to coincide with the proposed commencement date for the provision of routes and timetables data.

The data model proposed for buses will not therefore follow the rail industry's DARWIN system, which is fully centralised. To manage the intensive process of collating data from the large number of operators DfT believes a decentralised (but not fully decentralised) model is more realistic. This will place the impetus on the operator to monitor the integrity and quality of the data, in order to meet the above principles.

Enforcement proposals include development of a performance score for operators. The Consultation confirms that enforcement would remain with the traffic Commissioner that could in certain circumstances impose fines or remove an operator's licence.

The Consultation is open for responses until 16 September 2018.