The popular navigation app Citymapper has scrapped its plans to run smart London buses in favour of a more flexible minibus service after acquiring a private hire operator licence from Transport for London (TfL).
The Financial Times reported this morning that Citymapper had abandoned its plans to run a bus service in the capital due to "regulatory roadblocks" - in that regulators aren't huge fans of bus routes changing on a regular basis due to demand.
So the company has been busy applying for a private hire operator licence from TfL. Why?
As Citymapper wrote in a pair of Medium posts about the project earlier this week: "Carry 9+ people in London and you're a bus and have to follow strict regulations on fixed routes, schedules, and service frequency. Carry eight people or fewer, and you're a private hire vehicle that can go wherever you want, however you want, how often you want.
"As a result, a private hire vehicle can respond to demand, a bus cannot. That makes it hard for a bus, even a smart green minibus, to be part of the 'demand-responsive' future."
The Guardian has reported that this new service will be called 'Smart Ride' and will operate on a fixed network but will respond to changes in demand dynamically.
Users will be able to book one of the eight seats and pay through the Citymapper app, like an Uber Pool on steroids. The launch is limited to an area which encompasses the City and areas just north of it.
The service is live in the app now and is free all of this week for registered users, but you still have to provide payment details.
Moving on from Project Grasshopper
The original bus scheme, nicknamed Project Grasshopper, was launched in May last year to transform the London bus experience (data, USB ports, pop music!) and run along underserved routes by using Citymapper's wealth of data.
Citymapper trialled the service as a night bus between Aldgate and Highbury and running through – where else – London's East End. The pictures Citymapper chose to publish show a distinctly yuppified version of a drunken Saturday-night Shoreditch night bus service.
The project only helped to reinforce the company's belief that buses and bus regulation are outdated and can be improved with better use of of technology and a more open mind from regulatory bodies.
In the Medium post the company said that it "learned a fair amount about buses over the year, developing our own smartbus, and launching a route in London," but that the whole project was frustrating and stopped short of expectations.
"In all markets, it takes weeks and months to change anything in bus land. We waited months to get approved to run our night bus," it wrote.
"It took us only one weekend before we learned enough from operations to want to change how we ran the route. We had to wait weeks before our change was accepted. It's hard to innovate and iterate on such timelines."
The result of this frustration is Smart Ride, a more dynamic model which resembles similar existing services in emerging markets, like Shuttl which has proved popular in New Delhi.