A bus that comes when you want it

Observations on transport

I gave up my mobile phone a year ago, but now I'm hooked again. Jeremy Clarkson, in a recent BBC programme, warned that the government can trace my location to within three feet. After all, it was a mobile phone call that brought the death of Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen president, in April 1996. Once Dudayev had connected, Russian troops launched a missile attack.

For most of us, however, texting on our mobiles brings easy access to pizzas, masseurs, theatre tickets, flowers, taxis, even dates (arboreal or romantic). Other advantages include never being late (via a brief postponement text a few minutes before you're due) and setting your home rotisserie turning from your office desk.

Now Surrey County Council has found a new use for mobiles. It has received a £700,000 Department for Transport grant to provide residents in some parts of the county with facilities for booking a bus by text (or phone) anything down to 30 minutes in advance. The money will pay for a new fleet of buses, each with a maximum capacity of 15, and for a new control centre that uses satellite navigation to track the buses. This centre will assess whether a customer can be picked up when and where requested. The driver of the bus will be notified of the request via an on-board computer terminal.

The name of this new venture is "Buses4U" - texters like this grammar- and syntax-free style. Helyn Clack, the council's executive member for transport, says: "I have a teenage son, so I understand how it works. They can't be bothered to make a telephone call and wait in a queue. Texting is easy."

The council does not yet have a contractor for the enterprise but insists it will be running by the summer. Every user will have to be registered in advance so that the company can protect itself against phoneys and pranksters.

If the venture succeeds, it will be because it is aimed at individuals and thus revolutionises the nature of bus services, making them a convenient means of transport for rural people as well as for those in urban areas. It is an example of how to combine new technology with social need.