Case Study:

Perfect Planning for Public Transport Information

SYPTE Case Study: Perfect Planning for Public Transport Information

Event management represents a significant challenge for any public transport provider – especially for staff with responsibility for passenger information. But that challenge is magnified when the event in question is the Tour de France – the world’s third biggest sporting event with a global TV audience of around 3 billion.

With a remit to communicate travel information – and some 2.5 million visitors expected – South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) played a crucial role when the tour came to town on 6th July.

Tim Rivett, SYPTE Head of Information & Technology, was involved from the start: “Tour De France is huge event, but in some ways it’s business as usual,” he explains. “Road closures and spectator travel are regular requirements: we have four or five events per year: half marathons, concerts, the Olympic torch, football homecoming parades – although not so many of those lately!”

But while events are normal, the difference here was the level of disruption and the expectations that come with such an illustrious spectacle: “It was a totally different scale – and unlike regular events, a lot of the spectators weren’t locals,” explains Tim. “A lot of time was spent working out how to communicate with these visitors – and then providing the information to help them.”

Tim reveals that planning began some 18 months before: “We identified three key challenges: firstly, understanding what and when, which was difficult because the route times were shifting until quite late on due to debates as to which roads would be closed and re-opened at what time. Secondly, we had to manage what the operators were planning to do, and thirdly we had to cope with the increased numbers of people asking for information.”

Tim understandably takes what he refers to as a “sceptical or pessimistic” approach to event planning: “People might expect that we are going to have twice as many people as normal, but you have to consider what will happen if something unexpected happens.”

“We know the worst times for us are when something disrupts people’s plans,” he continues. “Snow is our nightmare: on one occasion when it snowed our website was receiving 17 times the regular number of visitors – at 6.30 in the morning.”

How do you handle something like that? “We plan, but when something unexpected occurs there is a period where you are trying to adapt and can’t immediately advise people – and that’s when your communications systems are getting hit,” Tim explains.

SYPTE’s data shows that visitors will return an average of five times if they can’t obtain the information they need first time round – so an inability to provide information creates further traffic, which accentuates the issue.

Clearly capacity was an area that required attention for the Tour de France: not only to accommodate the increased activity, but to enable SYPTE to cope with the increased demand should something unexpected occur. Tim says: “Ordinarily we run the infrastructure reasonably close to capacity to avoid unnecessary cost, but of course we increased that considerably.”

Advance communication regarding the event and travel changes was critical to managing the flow of information. Messages (along the lines of, ‘Tour de France is coming: 'Plan ahead, set off early’) were communicated via email to subscribers; as phone ‘leader messages’; and via real-time displays and interchange displays.

In all instances the public were encouraged to visit the website early to make advance travel plans: “We changed the online journey planner a month before to take into account road closures and additional services,” Tim explains.

For journey planning the crucial period was the run up to the event: normal website activity is 24,000 visits per day; on 29th June that figure was 50,000 and it peaked at 86,000 on 4th July: two days before the event.

“People were planning ahead as we had asked,” says Tim. “Ideally we might like them to do it a bit earlier, but there were lots of families in attendance – they would want to know the weather before deciding what to do.”

From a capacity point of view, Trapeze had been consulted on the project all along; the system had been extended and testing accordingly. Careful planning ensured that when the demands increased the website could accommodate them.

By the time of the event itself the requirement for journey planning was reducing: now the people visiting the website were looking for information on disruptions. At that point Twitter came into its own, due to its speed and immediacy.

Travel South Yorkshire have been very active on twitter (see @TravelSYorks) for the past two years, building a good rapport with the public.

Call centre staff use the account to communicate travel updates – and in busy periods they direct focus towards electronic forms as they have proven the most effective means of communication. On the day of the tour there was a good reaction from the public on Twitter, with positive interactions and lots of information retweets.

In the end the Tour de France coming to South Yorkshire proved a huge success – and the transport system coped without any major issues, says Tim: “There was a great atmosphere; we got good weather; and the whole event went smoothly. Where problems occurred people were very understanding. The information had been well communicated in advance and the public had responded.”

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"The Tour De France is huge event, but in some ways it’s business as usual"

Tim Rivett
Head of Information & Technology
South Yorkshire PTE

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