As a relative newcomer to London, one cultural quirk of my new city that I’ve fully embraced is the Tube Excuse. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean: “sorry I’m late – absolute nightmare on the Piccadilly Line!” or “sorry I missed your call – I was underground!”. It’s a tried and true cover story that’s difficult to argue with, and also shows our need for a short break from the constant wearying connectedness of big city life.
But what you may not have realised is that for a four-week period last year, we were being watched even when we thought we were off the grid underground. Any person who connected to Tube station WiFi during this period in November and December 2016 was part of a pilot study by TfL. Data about our location and movement within stations was collected (anonymously, don’t worry), aggregated and put to good use – and just recently, TfL has released more information about the pilot and what came out of it.
The objective of the study was to get a handle on passenger movement within stations so that TfL can design stations efficiently, give us better journey information, plan more effective timetables, and better manage disruption. And of course, if TfL knows where people tend to walk and stand most often, it can charge a premium for advertising space along those most well-worn of paths, now with the data to back it up.
I’ll be the first to admit to having been sucked in by the enormous billboards that preside over my late-night waits on the platform, with nothing else to entertain me but a ripped copy of Metro I found on a bench (how else would I have come across lastminute.com for the first time?). If TfL plays its cards right, it could now understand a lot more about how I digest in-station advertising, and monetise this intelligence accordingly.
What’s the big deal?
For a while now, TfL has been collecting journey information when we touch in and out at stations, so it’s been able to gather information about our greater journeys across London. However, it hasn’t until now been able to see the more granular level of detail like the routes we take within stations, and how we tend to change lines.
In many cases, we can expect that the data will only support what you might sensibly assume anyway – station and traffic flow design is hardly anything new. On the other hand, it would be a real benefit to TfL to be able to substantiate these assumptions with actual data. It might also be the case that some of the results are not what you’d expect at all. Over the course of the four-week study, data was collected from 5.6 million devices on 42 million journeys – a substantial data set that showed some surprising results about how we use the Tube.
For example, when at Euston Station moving from the Northern Line northbound platform to the Victoria line southbound platform, only 68% of travellers used the “shortest” route within the station. In another example, travellers used no less than 18 different routes to get from Waterloo to Kings Cross. Two of those routes proved notably more popular than the rest, but even so, 40% of travellers – a significant minority – used one of the 16 less popular routes. Why?
We already know that the raw number of steps we’ll need to take isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to the morning commute, and other factors are important to us. If we know that one end of the platform is likely to be more crowded, maybe we take the “long” way around to get to a more comfortable area. Maybe we take the stairs instead of the lift because we know the crush of people in that tiny space at 8.30am is going to be unbearable. Maybe we’ve worked out that the quickest way to get where we’re going is to rebelliously head down one of those corridors marked “no entry”. Maybe more people than we realise are relying on mobility-friendly journeys. For better or worse, all these things we’ve intuitively made a part of our morning commute could be seen and quantified by TfL as well.
Standing room only
It’s not yet clear how (or even if) TfL plans to convert its findings into differentiated pricing structures for in-station advertising – but with all the supporting data and intelligence at its fingertips, the possibilities are endless, both for TfL and for in-station advertisers themselves. TfL has given us a taste of some of its more surprising findings, and it has only sparked my imagination for what other assumptions we’re making, and what other conclusions could be yet to come.
When it comes to the digital signs alongside the escalators at Bank, what proportion of people are standing on the right and getting the full effect, versus those who charge ahead on the left and miss the whole thing? Is there any advantage to having your full-length poster immediately ahead of the platform entrance, or do most people just turn to the side to move down the platform?
Aside from simply paying more for higher profile space, you might also consider changing the nature or content of your advertising based on its location within the station and how long travellers usually spend there. Are you advertising in a space that tends to be used only for transit, in which case simple, punchy messaging may have more impact? Or can you afford the luxury of more detail, knowing that your audience is likely to linger and take it all in? I can’t be the only one guilty of disrupting traffic flow trying to peer at the fine-print dates for the Royal Albert Hall’s Christmas Festival (like I said, London newcomer and also Christmas junkie) on the poster that sits so unhelpfully at the corner of that busy junction at Earl’s Court.
Where to next?
TfL has chalked the pilot study up as a roaring success, and is now in talks with stakeholders to look into rolling out the technology on an ongoing basis network-wide. This means we can look forward to, among other things, better station design and traffic management in future, and just maybe some subtle (to us) differences in the advertising we see around stations. In the meantime, I’m off to take my chances at Earl’s Court – maybe tonight’s the night I’ll finally be able to scan that poster fast enough for the rush hour masses.