Citymapper has announced its plans (via The Guardian), with something it's calling Smart Ride. The best way to think of it is like a larger version of the UberPool carpooling service, or a smaller version of Citymapper's minibuses. Essentially it'll involve a fleet of people carriers that can hold up to eight passengers, driven by licensed private hire drivers. Citymapper likens it to buses, taxis, and metro lines, in that it will operate on a network of routes with pre-determined stops, but with the convenience of being able to book a seat and guarantee you'll be able to get a lift.
The eight person limit is down to bus regulations, which are far stricter than those imposed on private hire vehicles. As TfL sees it, anything with more than nine people is a bus and has to behave like one. By not being a bus it offers better convenience and flexibility for passengers, as well as the ability to navigate smaller streets.
Transport for London got back to me with a statement confirming it had granted Citymapper a private hire operating licence after "after meeting all the necessary requirements.”
While Citymapper's exact plans have yet to be announced, it does mean the company is at least considering the prospect of operating its own private hire service.
Original story follows:
Last year transit information app Citymapper decided to see what would happen if it launched its own bus service, trialling a hi-tech London bus operating a single route. That idea is dead, according to the Financial Times, apparently because the company was sick and tired of all the regulatory hurdles involved with running a bus service. Instead it's decided to operate its own taxi service, and London just granted it a operating licence.
Citymapper has released two lengthy blog posts about the bus trial from last year, with the first talking about all the good things that happened thanks to it running its own service. Things like how minibuses are probably better for the environment and navigating London's congested streets, that buses can be fun relaxed environments, that smart buses don't need to cost the earth, that an app is all the marketing you really need, and more.
The second post takes a more negative view of things, describing the challenges associated with actually running a bus service - particularly with relation to (supposedly outdated) regulations. Citymapper even claims that current bus regulations are still using the same nearly-200-year-old framework originally outlined for horses and carriages in 1831. Which is completely absurd if true. Apparently if you carry more than eight people those strict regulations kick in, but if it's eight or fewer you're technically a private hire taxi and can basically do what you like. It also claims the public sector has a problem with technology in general, especially where cost is concerned.
There is a third blog post on the way to end things on a more positive note, and if the pattern is to be followed that will arrive later today revealing the future for Citymapper's London aspirations. Apparently there is an announcement in there, which FT claims will be a private hire operation based on a now-deleted post on the TfL website. Citymapper itself has denied it, though, via the medium of Twitter:
Fyi we’re still running buses, we’re not a taxi operator, and we have way more imagination than this :) https://t.co/7MMVTFIqrj
— Citymapper (@Citymapper) February 20, 2018
Searching for Citymapper on TfL's Private Hire Operator licence Search Page also comes up with nothing. I got in touch with TfL to see whether it was true or not, and will update when I hear back.
Still just because Citymapper claims it won't be running taxis doesn't mean the bus idea is dead. It might be that it's going to try something new to try and bridge the gap between the two services. After all the blog posts do mention that even a minibus will struggle to be part of the "demand responsive future", whereas private hire vehicles have a lot more versatility to respond to user demand. The company still sees an opportunity for some service that can “go wherever you want, however you want, how often you want.” It even said it " threw away our old tech. We started again, and rebuilt everything" ready for a "real product launch" in the city.
If I were to speculate, my guess would be that whatever Citymapper has planned would expand upon its "bus route" powered by Gett, which let people hop in and out of Taxis along a pre-set route. Hopefully it won't be long before we find out for sure. [Financial Times via The Verge]