LONDON — Citymapper said its “pop-up” bus route in London is an important step before selling its trip planning and optimisation software to cities around the world.
The startup announced on Monday that it will operate its own, free bus route in London for two days as a way to test that technology.
Citymapper’s buses contain a display that shows passengers information about where they are and where they’re headed to next. They also have USB ports so that passengers can charge their phone. “This bus is wired,” said Citymapper in its announcement.
Business Insider spoke to Citymapper’s president and head of business Omid Ashtari about the company’s announcement. He said it was “absolutely” a step needed before the company starts selling its software to cities around the world.
Citymapper mentioned in its Medium post announcing its “pop-up” bus route that it has built software called Simcity that examines existing routes and makes them more efficient. It can also create new routes. That’s the kind of software that the company is eventually looking to sell to cities and local authorities around the world.
But Citymapper is not in sales talks just yet. “We have been pretty much heads down and shrouded in secrecy on this for a while now, building it internally and consulting with a few people here and there,” Ashtari said. “We announced this because we want to be out there and actually have a dialogue with people. We’re very, very open to talk to people all over the world and we have a lot of contact [with] agencies and operators generally. But we haven’t really had conversations around how this could be used in partnership with other people, which is why we wanted to get [this] out of the door.”
Citymapper isn’t stopping at one bus route, either. “We plan to have a lot more experiments,” Ashtari said, “because we believe that building an app initially required us to try out the app and play around with the app and experience it within the real world and iterate on it. We believe the same is necessary to build a really smart bus.”
“We’re in the fortunate position where we have venture funding to do ambitious things and this felt like something everybody in the city is excited about. It’s thinking about the future of the city and trying to make it smarter because we do believe there is a little bit of an expectation gap between what we expect from consumer electronics and consumer technology, and what we expect from the public infrastructure in our cities. We’ve come to accept there is a gap there and we want to try to push things forward.”
The company settled on buses, Ashtari said, because it felt like they made the best use of the amount of road space available compared to, for example, cars. “Road space is a resource that is shared between all the citizens and it’s not treated with a lot of respect because we all just have a single-purpose, privately owned vehicle roaming around the street occupying so much space.”
“A bus is actually something that makes very efficient use of road space and that’s why we felt like that should be the right approach for a smart city.”
But it doesn’t sound as if Citymapper plans to make money from running bus routes around the world. Instead, it’s the software that runs on the bus and plans its route that’s the really interesting thing here. “There’s a whole team that is dedicated to doing things that may not seem so sexy overtly because they’re not consumer-facing,” Ashtari said. “But they’re trying to integrate different disparate pieces of hardware so that they speak to each other and to make sure that we have an integrated bus platform.”
We asked Ashtari whether Citymapper is attempting to secure a bus licence to operate a paid service in London. “We’re talking to them, and TfL has been very progressive in the way they’re welcoming innovation, they have been for a long time and those conversations are ongoing,” Ashtari said. “There’s a framework that needs to be reinvented and I think everybody is aware of that.”