Com.muting

London's transport - Observations on technology

The frustration of London commuting is prompting wired travellers to get mad, get creative, and get even. We're frequently told that public transport is better in Europe, but one foreigner in London thought the difference too much to bear. The author of the weblog TubeHell left mainland Europe to come and live here ten years ago. "If I had known about the public transport," he says, "I would have stayed away." And so he keeps a website to tell the world about the "delays, problems and misery" of his daily journey to work.

More prosaically, the writer of Tube Gossip amuses himself during delays by jotting down a weekly top ten of random snippets overheard on the Underground. Annie Mole, webmaster of Going Underground, runs two sites encouraging Tube users to share pictures and unusual stories about their fellow passengers. People-watchers can also log on to isawyoutoday.com in the hope of refinding the person whose eyes they met across the platform or escalator.

The internet is even helping commuters get their money back. The London Underground customer charter promises a full refund if you wait more than 15 minutes, but many people never get round to printing out and filling in the form. Tube Refund allows you to send a text message with details of the delay. By the time you get home, the site will have e-mailed you a completed compensation form to pop in the post.

London's transport authorities are beginning to fight back using an expensive array of sophisticated technology to make travelling in the capital less of a pain. When the author of TubeHell arrived a decade ago, the only way he could have found out which lines were delayed would have been by phoning London Underground. Now he can plan his journey on the internet, by consulting Teletext or the BBC website, or by receiving text message and e-mail alerts about delays.

Transport for London is committed to making 100 per cent of its services available online by 2005. You can't travel to work by e-mail, but the people who run the buses and Tube have identified around 220 processes that they can put on to the net. And it is estimated that eight out of ten are already available. The big idea is that better-informed commuters will avoid delays, and complain less.

Behind all this lies a technological infrastructure about as complicated as the transport network itself. Countdown, the system of electronic displays that tell you how late the bus is going to be, is perhaps the best known. Transport controllers also use a system called Scoot to adjust 1,200 different sets of traffic lights and road controls to help get traffic moving. And Comet employs a complicated series of road sensors and cameras to indicate where roads are getting clogged.

London's transport also boasts two of the UK's most impressive examples of technology used to modernise government. The first is the congestion charge. What made the scheme possible was the technology allowing users to pay the charge online or by text and the cameras that read licence plates.

The Oyster card is a second major success story. The scheme, which came online last year, involved upgrading 16,000 Tube gates and 2,300 ticket machines in more than 250 Tube and railway stations. It worked, seems popular with Londoners and gets the system moving more quickly.

London's travellers rely on a surprising amount of technology to get where they are going, and use it to complain when things go wrong. But no amount of transport gadgets will end delays and cancellations for good. Instead, what is needed is distraction. London Underground's moves to trial mobile phone use on the system might just provide the answer. Tube bosses must hope that chatting commuters will complain less. It could be new technology's most surprising contribution to better travel in the capital.