Wednesday 30 March 2011

Subsistology for Beginners

It's the study of bus stops.

fbb has just coined the word from the latin "subsisto", I stop, halt or rest.   "Subsistence" is a state in which you are stuck, stopped, halted or permanently rested.  [Here endeth the English Language lesson.]  Well, it's no worse than ferro-equinology for an interest in railways; that's latin again, from "ferrus", iron: "equus", horse.   So for all you budding subsistologists, fbb offers a quick tour of the basics.
Once upon a time most bus stop signs looked like this one from the Southdown area.   Maybe an upmarket operator would add the company name ...
... but the result was pretty basic and straightforward.    We all seemed to manage quite well, except perhaps in busier areas when something extra was required.  London Transport's world renowned logo became the standard for the buses throughout the Metropolis from 1933 onwards.
To the basic sign could be added little stove enamelled plates with numbers of bus routes serving that particular stop; all in slots made out of bits of brass and screws.  Impressively tactile and well-nigh indestructible:-
Once upon a time it was decided (by whom, we know not; possibly the Worboys Committee which in 1963 developed the UK version of so-called "continental" road signs) that a standard bus stop would be designed so that we could all recognise one wherever we might be in the UK.  Just in case we could not read, the words "Bus Stop" were to be embellished by a picture of a single deck bus.
And thus the modern, standard, rather boring bus stop was born:  except in London where the existing design was so iconic that the world would end if the logo were removed and/or if the ravens escaped from the Tower.   Whatever happened to that helpful (!) standardisation?

Well, someone invented marketing, branding, silly names and logos. So they had to be added to the signs to help the poor perplexed passenger spot the stop.   Or perhaps to boost the over-inflated egos (and over-inflated bank balances!) of the marketing men
So here, instead of a nice tidy plate labelled "280", we are looking for "line two-eighty", presumably driven by some mediaeval knight in shining armour. 

Meanwhile, in London, it gets more and more complicated as stops accumulate a wide range of so-called essential information.   This, below, is a classic!   Try taking all that in as you rush breathless to jump on your chosen vehicle - perhaps not - as you watch said vehicle zoom past because you had missed the "bus stop not in use" whilst peering pathetically at the parsimonious print size.
Then competition brings, not only a multiplicity of bus operators, but a collection of "flags" of dubious quality as each company strives to promote its service.
Where does it all end?  Is it helpful, or does confusion overtake commercialism?   What about "make it simple, stupid"?   Maybe we could learn from Paris:  what could be simpler than this?
One fond memory bubbles up in fbb's agile brain.  (?)   The East Midland bus company, based in Chesterfield and now part of the great Stagecoach empire, was a "dab hand" at economy in its subsistology section.  The company simply painted the words "BUS STOP" on a convenient surface, maybe a fence, a wall, a lamp post, or even the kerbstone!
A computer-cobbled re-creation from fbb is the best that can be offered - but that is how it was in the rural environs of Chesterfield.  Now here's a thought ...

... did they ever paint one on a cow?   Surely not!   Maybe if East Midland had operated in the celebrated yachting town on the Isle of Wight ... ?
There so is much more to the humble bus stop than initially meets the eye.   Subsistologists unite! to promote usefulness and quality as fbb and other committed (?) enthusiasts go most genuinely "up the pole" and "round the bend" to pursue their interest!

Next blog : due on Friday

Monday 28 March 2011

Confidence or Confusion [2]?

A look at Travel South Yorkshire's New Interactive Map.
Also see part one (read again).
Also see Miscellaneous Map Mutterings Part 3 (read again)

To summarise:  TSY has just introduced a technically superb interactive map service.  It is very, very clever; but, like all modern technology, only as good as the data that has been stuffed into it.  And here the cracks begin to show.  Trivial things like ...
... are just a minor irritant.  Airports?   How many are there?  [Answer: there is ONE!] And it did find lots of places but refused to divulge any information as they are "not in South Yorkshire" ...
... so why bother to include them?   Probably because they are already in some database or other.   But the fun starts when having a investigative click on some buttons near to Dobbin Hill, fbb's initially looked-for location.
There is no "real time" information for either of these and arguably, as a once or twice a day run, the 84 needs to offer its few riders some confidence.   Meanwhile the 701, a school service, links as usual to a timetable ...
... for service 53!   There is nothing in common between the two routes except dodgy data management.

Further database limitations appear when you do a "map search" for the service 83 which you have spotted labouring up the steeply sloping Ringinglow Road;  the list of services ...
... includes the 83 in Doncaster and bits of the Sheffield 83 that go nowhere near Bents Green.   Again, this reflects the unthinking way in which the database is interrogated.  Or, maybe, the map is simply trying to do too many things at once.   This is where confidence evaporates into confusion.  Thus, the highlight (the lowlight) is the offer of an 83A. This really stumped the otherwise knowledgeable (why do people call him "big head") fbb.
This 83A runs between Worksop and Everton, both of which are in Nottinghamshire and should have nothing to do with South Yorkshire.  But you are WRONG fbb (surely not - it simply cannot be). It does serve South Yorkshire:  at one solitary stop in Gainsborough Road Bawtry.
Google Street View even provides a picture of that throbbing centre of South Yorkshire life:-
And what about a timetable for the 83A in case a slightly inebriated South Yorks traveller wants to use the bus to stagger homeward from an evening carousing at The Ship?   Tough luck, the mouse click takes you to ...
... services 218 and 240, passing, ironically, pretty close to Bents Green and nowhere near Bawtry.   Just for the sake of completeness, fbb has found the timetable for the 83A in Nottinghamshire's data. One journey a day in each direction Monday to Saturday and serving one stop in South Yorkshire.
Thanks TSY for that useful information - we could have never managed without it!   With our Blackberries on fire with all this really useful "stuff", how can we possibly go wrong?

Part One's questions are worth repeating here.  Is this information for information's sake?   Is this an example of "we have the technology, so let's provide it"?   How many people use it?   And, more importantly, of those who use it, how many find it useful?

It is worth repeating both of fbb's oft stated "mantras":-
Never let the technology tail wag the information dog.
You can either be comprehensive OR comprehensible, but not both. 

Perhaps fbb could go to Magnolias (Batley West, Kirklees District) and buy some ... erm ... magnolias?   Not possible, because TSY refuse to provide any information for that stop.

Oh, and THAT stop on Ringinglow Road, near Dobbin Hill.
It is still there; but a note on the timetable "carousel" attached to the pole does repeat the on-line information.   "There is no timetable information for this stop."   Of course, there IS timetable information for the stop; simply that nothing stops there except (nominally at least) MASS school service 715 ...
... and it has taken fbb nearly an hour to dig that diamond of bus data from the convoluted computerised coal measures.  So why not tell the truth and say "ONLY school bus 715 stops here".  And here's a map to prove it:-
A contributor suggests that it WILL be served by the summer weekend (only) infrequent service 284.   So there might not be that long to wait after all.  Maybe only a matter of weeks before a "normal" bus comes!  In 2010, route 284 started up on 28th March (just before Easter), but, needless to say, no mention (yet?) on TSY's site for 2011!

Next blog : due Wednesday March 30th 

Friday 25 March 2011

The Wear-side Worm of Washington

A cautionary tale!

Lord John Lambton didn't go to Church on that particular Sunday - he went fishing instead.   A mysterious man met him on the riverbank and warned him of the catastrophic consequences of his sinful sojourn by the silvery stream.   He caught no fish, which presumably served him right; all that hung on his hook was a small black slimy worm - which, disappointedly, he threw down a well.

He then went off to the Crusades as a penance for his piscatorial parenthesis.  In his absence the worm grew to an enormous size, terrorised the denizens of the Durham countryside and gobbled cattle and sheep for daily snacks.   The worm was so huge that it could curl round a hill three times. 
[Worm Hill, Fatfield, Co. Durham] It was at the foot of the hill where Lord John has dispatched the infant worm down the well.
On return from the Crusades he considered it his duty to destroy the obnoxious slithering beast which, meanwhile, had only been pacified by eating the Lord John's father out of house and home and into bankruptcy. After taking advice from a witch (which witch is unclear) the errant Lord was able to chop the worm into chunks - but, in doing so, brought upon himself and his family a tragic and long-lasting curse.
It is from the strangely inventive mind of Mr Peter Huntley... transport consultant and now GM of Go Northeast, that a huge range of route branding has emanated.  This is but a small selection.
Service 71 from Chester-le-Street to Sunderland is the "Lambton Worm" complete with a more friendly picture of the said non-arthropod invertebrate.
In 1867, a song commemorating the legend was composed.  It is in a Durham dialect and thus almost incomprehensible.  Our reader is invited to un-mangle the final stanza.
Peter Huntley's choice of name for the service 71 gives some cause for concern, however, because ...
... it doesn't go via Lambton!   The modern Lambton is a suburb of Washington new town - whereas the "Worm" (aka service 71) does pass close to the older New Lambton, near Houghton-le-Spring. Lambton Castle is further north and nearer to the new, but not "New", Lambton. Heeeeelp!

More on the location of Lambtons later in a future blog.   Certainly the 71 does travel through land once owned by the Lords Lambton, and once prowled upon by the eponymous and mythical worm.

fbb is uncertain about the long-term commercial value of "silly names" for bus services. BUT, if you must have a silly name, make it REALLY silly.  Indubitably that's "The Lambton Worm"!   Not at all sure where the flames come from as Mr Worm lived in the river Wear ... steam, possibly; bad breath, certainly; fire, unlikely.
A year or so ago, fbb was treated to a handsome meal at a pub in Sunderland; you've guessed it - 'twas "The Lambton Worm".   Worm Pizza was NOT on the menu - shame.   Macaroni cheese, anyone?

Next blog : due Monday March 28th

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Bulldoze the Blighted Bus Station

Farewell to a much despised edifice?

From the proverbial year dot, Northampton Corporation buses always departed from stops clustered around All Saints Church, bang in the centre of the town ; this picture from the late 1940s.
United counties operated from a magnificent under-cover station in Derngate, a few hundred yards away.   A 1930's art-deco styled building, it had a restaurant ...
... patronised by the county "blue rinse brigade", an enquiry and tour booking office and a snack bar.
Two things of great import happened at the Snack Bar.  In 1958 it was where fbb ate his very first bag of cheese and onion crisps, then manufactured by a semi-local firm from Leicester, called Walkers!  It was also at the adjacent Departure Bay 1 in June 1972 that fbb, heroically on bended knee, proposed to the future Mrs fbb.  This was to the amusement of passengers waiting for the 402 to Irthlingborough and to the great embarrassment of his fiancée; who probably should have "got out while the going was good."

fbb confesses to being really glad she didn't, though.
Then, momentously in 1976, everything, NCT, UC and some independents moved to the Borough's newly completed Greyfriars bus station to the north of the town centre and linked by subway to the brand new Grosvenor Shopping Centre.   The new facility also had a café, enquiry offices for both main operators and pleasant seating for waiting passengers.
But all this luxury (?) and convenience is doomed, doomed and even doomed!   

The owners and developers of the shopping centre have proposed a doubling of the floor space, achieved by demolishing the bus station.  The structure was always gloomy and once won an award as the building that people would most like to blow up.   It is owned by Northampton Borough; the offices above it are empty and, ever desirous of making a substantial pot of filthy lucre, the council likes the idea.  The plans give a rough idea of what is proposed.
For those not familiar with the historic home of the shoe industry (fbb's grandmother was a "clicker"), the lighter blue in the middle of this diagram is the original Grosvenor shopping centre, the darker blue and purple at the top form the extension and the yellow box shows where the despised Public Transport Mausoleum is.

What will happen to the bus station?  The developers don't care and are providing no alternative location; whilst the Council is, surprise, surprise, somewhat silent on the matter.
The cramped site doubles as the Stagecoach depot, so they have been given notice to quit and offered a fat wedge for cancellation of their lease.

Our Northampton correspondent (who is thanked for sending fbb the stuff) reports that the 12 year old "executive" from the developers (on duty at the public exhibition of the plans) seemed to have no idea of how busy the bus station could be and was suggesting a glorified layby situated on the wrong side of the town centre inner bypass road.   Meanwhile, in a council report we read:-
So, according to the carefully considerate and consultant controlled council, approximately 20 busy bus stands are going to be located in a street (The Drapery) that used, in the good old days, to host just 6.
Illustrated: Northampton in "the good old days" showing the three town centre bus stands.  This is Abington Street but stands were similar in the Drapery.   Today's Drapery is shown below with stops served by buses to and from Greyfriars; not standing there as they would in a bus station.
Space for 10 bays on each side of the road? Pedestrian friendly?  Not a chance.

Of course, the government and all our noble local authorities have a well developed "green" agenda, stressing the importance  of public transport, modal shift, integrated timetables, travel to work policies etc. etc. (blah blah blah.)   All of this will happen, as soon as funding can be found; and provided that it does not offend the vocal private motorist lobby and thus lose votes.   And making money from a shopping centre is so much better that having a bus station. Cynical, moi?   Surely not!

So not much hope for a proper bus station then?   Try a snowflake in you know where!

Next blog : due Friday March 25th

P.S.  fbb has "borrowed" the two pics of Derngate from the excellent "Memories of United Counties" published by Silver Link at £17.99.  Go out and buy it!   It's not the usual book about buses (although there are plenty to see), it's about the ordinary people who kept things on the move.

Monday 21 March 2011

Confidence or Confusion [1]?

A look at Travel South Yorkshire's New Interactive Map
Part Two is planned for Monday 28th March 
It is very impressive, technologically: very impressive indeed.   The big question, however, is how does it respond to use?  fbb immediately dons his innocent user mode and searches for Dobbin Hill;  this is where one of his Sheffield pals lives and where fbb occasionally stays on his Sheffield visits.
It's not clear why the simple "Dobbin Hill" has to be described in such a complicated manner - "Dobbin Hill Sheffield" defines the road precisely.   A click here brings up a map of the area ...
... and, if you have a good sense of direction (note; "if"), you can scroll to get to the nearest stops, in this case at the top of Dobbin Hill and the bottom of the map.   Click on the obvious "to city" stop and the complications begin to be apparent. 
There is "no service information"  because nothing serves the stop - yet the stop was still in place when the magic street view car passed by.
An unwary visitor, having spied lots of buses going up the hill, would wait in vain for ANY to come back down.  [Memo: check later this week.]  Also, please note, there is no such place as Dobbin Hill Cemetery.  It should say "Dobbin Hill (top) opposite Ecclesall Church graveyard"; maybe more sensitively "oppposite Ecclesall Church Hall".

So, to avoid obfuscation, fbb has to behave a bit less "innocently", because the unwary traveller needs to know that he is on one of TSY's not-very-well-explained loops.  All buses to and from city use the stop on the opposite side of the road; BUT any sensible local yokel will walk 100 yards to the bottom of Ringinglow Road ...
...where everything to stops without the tedium of  a tour of Bents Green.  [see an earlier blog (read again)].  It is USEFUL information like this that only a "person" can give.  Also, TSY, spell Gisborne Road correctly, please (no "u").

But, innocent abroad, you are unaware of the local yokel's advice.  So, once you have "guessed" what is going on, you can click on the tiny little "dot" (not good for those with less than perfect vision) representing the stop opposite the obvious one and get a list of buses that call there.
EXCEPT THAT THE 88A DOESN'T and never has done! Clicking on the red squiggle (that's the logo for a PDF file; everybody knows that.) next to the number 83 - takes you, eventually, to the standard PDF for the 83 timetable leaflet, complete with its previously-blogged inherent failings.  In an inexplicable bit of unnecessary computer complexity ...
... you have do do some more clicking to get to the actual timetable pages.  Why not go direct?   Of course, computer people and their web designers LOVE to make things complicated.

Also from this point you can call up a list of "real time" departures.  To what extent this is a useful facility on a route that runs every 5 minutes is, at best, debatable.  Maybe if bad weather or traffic disrupts.   fbb is hoping to test how "real" the real time is later this week.
Again, you have to be quite a skilled bus traveller to understand what "real time in mins, timetable in 24hr clock" actually means in practice.    And fbb is not telling.

So that's it.   It does what it says on the tin.  It IS an interactive bus map which simply (? complicatedly) delivers information from an existing and flawed database.   The questions remain:-   Is this information for information's sake?   Is this an example of "we have the technology, so let's provide it"?   How many people use it?   And, more importantly, of those who use it, how many find it useful?  What do you think (try it yourself)?

Regular readers will know that fbb pines for good old fashioned data provision.   He was, for many years in Sheffield, the owner and user of one of the most reliable and easy-to-use sources of multi-modal public transport information, available cheaply and pocket-sized.  It also had the benefit of not needing batteries or recharging.  It was, of course, a timetable book.   With its companion route map and the services of "the man who knows" at the end of a local phone line, it provided everything  needed far more reliably than modern over-engineered technology.

Or is fbb just being Luddite?   After all, he is only 4 years short of his Biblical sell-by date.

And you STILL cannot view or download an official map of the Sheffield bus network. But, there he goes again, you can use fbb's own version (here).

PART TWO (coming soon) delves more deeply into  the map and its facilities.

Next blog : due Tuesday March 22nd
fbb is off to Sheffield and tomorrows blog is offered a day early -  instead of Wednesday 23rd