Chris Johns On How PassageWay’s Real Time Info Screens Boost Ridership On London’s Buses

January 17, 2024 by Dave Haynes

The UK startup PassageWay operates with the interesting mission of using technology that nudges people to make well-informed and more sustainable decisions about how they get from A to B.

That’s done by thinking through and developing the presentation layer for Real-Time Passenger Information content that’s then run on digital signs, most notably for the bus systems around the city of London.

PassageWay’s business model is – in simple terms – taking the rich, real-time data available for routes and stops and making it presentable and digestible for transport authorities, like Transport For London, which pays the start-up to do so.

The logical notion is that the more that good, real-time information is made available to people, the more the transport services will be used. While London Underground stations are well-equipped with information and the services are pretty predictable, there’s not as much available to the millions who use less-predictable surface transport services like the iconic double-decker red buses.

I had a good chat about all this recently with PassageWay co-founder Chris Johns.

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Chris, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what PassageWay is all about? 

Chris Johns: Thanks so much for inviting us to your podcast today. PassageWay is all about generating demand for public transport by leveraging real-time information. We do this by putting it onto digital signs that are displayed on host-supplied screens and typically these screens only require a modern browser to display the digital sign. 

You made a point of saying the host supplied. There’s been a history through the years of companies who’ve done things like put in the infrastructure, the screens, and so on and then run content on them with the idea that content would be Interrupted so to speak by advertising. You’re not going down that path. 

Chris Johns: No, we’re not. Typically those sorts of plays are similar to JC Decaux or Clear Channel who have long had this relationship with transport authorities whereby they will fund the deployment of bus shelters in return for an ad revenue share. We supply transport for London with digital signs that are displayed at bus shelters but also within their other infrastructure like bus stations. But really we’re more citywide about putting digital signs into places such as schools, hospitals, workplaces, offices, and such in order to generate demand from the sort of non-traditional locations and encouraging the people within those locations to consider public transport.

So this doesn’t sound like a traditional business, you said, this is about generating demand to use public transport services and so on versus, more traditionally, this is about making money somehow or other. 

Chris Johns: Yeah. I think that’s the difference, a lot of those traditional plays actually put the real-time information secondary to their primary objective which is to earn revenue from the display of ads.

And to my mind, that means a poor customer experience and the poor customer experience means reduced demand. If you think about traditional bus shelters, they are actually incredibly complex for many people trying to navigate the public transport information.

If you’re coming to London, for example, trying to find out which is the right bus? Is it going to go to your preferred stop? How long is it going to take? Is there any disruption information? If you don’t have it, it will make you want to go and choose a different mode of transport.

So, you probably take a taxi or you may end up using your own car, for example. Actually what we’re trying to do is to show people that public transport is really easy to use. It’s really accessible. It can get you from A to B pretty fast. And if you’re aware of the onward travel information from the stop you’re trying to get to, then actually, you can make the whole journey much easier and less stressful, for many people.

So this almost seems like a community initiative but there is a business model behind this, right? 

Chris Johns: Yeah, there is. The business model is pretty straightforward, to be honest. We are paid by the transport authority or their contract partners and our job is to provide these digital signs and the digital signs generate demand. So in a different way of thinking, you might consider the real time information as being the best form of advertising for public transport.

Certainly better than a static advert, in my opinion, anyway. 

Your company’s efforts are to aggregate the data, make sure it’s handled accurately and always up to date, and so on. Why would transport for London not do that themselves? 

Chris Johns: Yeah, they do. Transport for London is the world’s largest integrated transport network and they have the global leading data strategy.

And they’re famed the world over for their open API strategy. That means we can access their data and we pretty much have unfettered use of that data. And so do many other developers as well and we can Be sure that the data we’ve got is true and accurate. What we do is that we take that information and we plot it around a particular location and we bring it together with a legible London-style wayfinding map, where we plot the access points onto it and then we bring it all together into a sort of nice looking digital sign that’s easy to understand and act upon. 

So we’re not generating data or we’re not modifying data, all we’re doing is bringing data together into an easy-to-understand format. 

So you’re doing the presentation layer that in theory, transport for London could do themselves but you’re good at it.

it’s not what they want to focus on. So they’re happy to work with you to do that part of it. 

Chris Johns: That’s right. Yeah. We are a supplier to TFL and they use lots of other different tech suppliers whether it’s to build their award winning TFL go app or to build bus shelters whatever it may be. They have lots of different suppliers bringing their individual skill sets into play and that’s basically what we do.

But I think that one of the things that we do bring to the party because we’re a tech startup is innovation and the ability to pivot quickly and come up with sort of entrepreneurial new ideas that we can bring into play and throw them out to TFL and say, listen, what do you think about this?

And so we can move quite quickly. 

Did you have to go to them to sell into this or is your company kind of a result of being in discussions with them and starting the company because this opportunity existed?

Chris Johns: It’s a mix between the two actually. So TFL actually issued a tender some time ago that we want to produce the platform and we’ve taken it on from there and given it a life of its own and extended the service beyond London as well. So working with other transport authorities and other partners outside of London. 

So this is audio, so it makes it a little difficult to visualize things. But can you give me some sense of how this manifests itself within the transport system? And then in public and private buildings. 

Chris Johns: Okay. I’ll give you a couple of examples. For example, in every bus station across London, there are digital totems. And those digital totems are a bit like an airport or a train station where you’ve got a central totem and it shows all the services where they’re going and whereabouts within the bus station they’re leaving from and if there’s any disruptions.

So we look after all of those for London. Another example would be smart bus shelters, whereby you could have a large format digital screen with detailed route maps for each of the services that are running via that bus shelter with real time information on all those routes plotted not on a fixed JPEG of a route but actually plotted live onto a legible London style map.

With onward time estimation to reach all the onward stops, onward travel information such as the tube status, any disruption notifications and more so that people can quite easily contextualize their journey and see if it’s going to be running smoothly all the way through. Another example, could be at a bus stop itself.

So across London, there are about 18,000 bus stops and only about 2000 bus shelters. So only about 2000 of these locations have any real time information. So what we can do for those ones is put in QR codes and customers can scan the QR codes and open up a real time digital sign on their personal device with no registration, no login, no heavy download.

It’s just a purely web based solution that shows all the upcoming departures for that particular stop with detailed route information, onward stop information et cetera and then links to download the official apps. So it’s like an interstitial page where it’s easy for everyone to access. Hopefully you’re going to convert more people into downloading the official apps.

Now the official app is the TFL official app or yours? 

Chris Johns: No, we don’t do apps. I’m afraid.

One of the points about what we’re doing is about trying to make everything as open and as accessible as possible. So there is no registration, there’s no login, there’s no download. All you need Is a modern web browser and you can access the information. We don’t ask anything from the customers.

We don’t track them. We don’t do anything really about that. 

Yeah. That’s one of the problems when you go to an unfamiliar city and you decide I’m going to use their transport system. You go to the app store to find the app for the mass transport system in that city. And there’s five or six of them and you don’t know which one is official or which one’s riddled with ads or not updated or God knows what.

Chris Johns: Yeah. In London, I can’t really speak for other cities because our primary focus is London, that’s our area of expertise. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who are digitally excluded. People who don’t have smartphones at all and then there is a whole another segment that are extremely low digital users and I think in London, there’s about 2 million of those, according to a Lloyd’s report.

You’ve got about 2.5 million people that are not going to be using smartphones or not downloading apps and you’ve got to provide real time information to those people because those are also a core audience for the transport authority because they tend to be looking at the demographic. They match perfectly the sort of TFL bus user type.

But at the moment they’re somewhat excluded from the service or the latest developments of promoting those services. 

Is the focus more as a result on road transport, buses and so on, as opposed to the London underground? Because the underground has maps. It’s got covered areas and everything else. It’s easier to convey information. 

Chris Johns: That’s right. Like train stations and tubes, they’re fairly straightforward. You go onto the platform, you take a train going one way or the other way or if you go to a train station, it’s all linear.

But if you’re taking buses or you want to go get a bicycle, they’re within the built environment itself. And they could be going pretty much any direction. And you really need to know where the best location is for you to find your particular service and then how long you’re going to wait and if there’s any problems with that particular service.

Also the other thing is that the tube services are linear again. They’re always getting the district line, for example and are always going to go to those particular routes, one way or the other. They might stop slightly earlier but generally, they’re always going to follow that same path.

And if you wait one minute, then the next one’s coming along for two or three minutes. So what we do is that we just show on the tube status. We show if there’s any problems on any particular line. And then we say all of the lines are running fine, which is the sort of TFL standard approach to displaying the statements 

Yeah. This year I’ve spent a couple of weeks in London, doing interviews and then I was there semi holidaying as well and I was struck by the amount of real time information that you could get on. I was taking the Elizabeth line more than anything else and it was terrific in terms of telling me, I definitely don’t want to go on the Circle line right now.

Chris Johns: Yes. the Northern line. 

The really old ones.

Chris Johns: Yeah, some of them are better than others, to be honest. Also you’ve got to pick the right one. It’s freezing in London at the moment and some of them have heating and some of them don’t. Like in the summer, some of them have air con and some of them don’t as well. We don’t flag that as much. I couldn’t tell you offhand which ones are which.

Toko on here is stifling. 

Chris Johns: Yeah. It could be useful information to many people.  

What you’re doing is a little reminiscent of a US company called TransitScreen. 

Chris Johns: Yeah, I know. I’ve heard of TransitScreen.

Yeah. They would sell a service into a building and they would also layer in things like the availability of Rideshare, Dockless bikes. I’m not sure what their status is right now but probably scooters as well. Do you do any of that?

Chris Johns: Not at the moment. It is something that we are quite interested in.

But we are dependent on the data sources that are available to us. And obviously we are primarily funded by TFL as well. Our modus operandi is to really promote TFL services. When we’ve looked at it before there are Lime and Forest e-bikes for example, across London.

But they don’t actually have an open API that we can access. The other thing I think separates us from the transit screen service, I think they’ve rebranded actually now. But I think they don’t tend to have maps or contextual maps on their screens. They tend to be very linear in terms of saying information is available on this particular site type of service at this particular place.

And that it’s 500 meters where you have to go and work out which direction it is, whereas in London, we’ve got what’s called the legible London wayfinding scheme. So across London, you find all these Totems which are just flat totems, they’re not real time information.

But they’ve got localized maps with all the local highlights on it. So, there’s a sort of native way of expecting maps and how they should appear to people as they’re moving through the built environment that we’ve tried to replicate.

Ultimately, what we’d like to do is to take over those totems and convert them from being static information locations to being real time digital totems with wayfinding public transport information and other information as well. 

I suspect the barriers, there are steady advances in e-paper.

As that gets better versus using LCD or things like that require a lot of energy to be visible in daylight. 

Chris Johns: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head there or bleakly by saying, really the issue is cost and technology. There are hundreds of legible London totems around London.

Not all of them have power nearby and the cost to convert each and every one of them would be very substantial but if we can bring in as technology advances and things become cheaper, solar power and other sort of lower energy burn options come into play then that’s where we’re hoping that there’s an opportunity.

So, I think I saw you guys have your offices or technical location and the Battersea area. If the Battersea power station which is now a kind of a multi use mall and other things, wanted to put your content on a large screen in their main access areas, would they need to do what’s involved?

Chris Johns: It’s really quite straightforward. They just need to install a screen of any particular size, it can be small or super large. We put a 75 inch screen into an office complex, Paternoster Square, just a week or so ago. But you can go for pretty much any size screen.

The larger ones tend to be ethernet connected rather than Wi Fi connected. As long as that screen has browser capability then we can deploy a digital sign onto it. And it will be suitable for displaying both small scale and large scale. So you could have it within a stadium. If you’ve been to the power station, they’ve got the huge sort of warehouse-y style engine rooms there which are now full of shops but you could put one at the end of one of those engine rooms and it would look fantastic. 

Yeah. I was there three-four months ago. It’s a great reworking of that building. Outside they could really use wayfinding but that’s somebody else’s problem. 

Chris Johns: Yeah. Also there’s boats there as well. So Uber has taken over the boats in London. So, unfortunately they no longer provide data onto the TFL data feed.

And so we’re trying to work with them to get data from them. But at the moment, they’re not included within the TFL API feed.

I’m understanding this correctly, there’s a URL per geo-specific site. 

Chris Johns: That’s right. 

And if it was a digital sign in a building that was also showing, if we’re using the Battersea Power Station as an example, also showing sales promotions for some of the retail tenants, could your information be scheduled in or does it need to be on there full time?

Chris Johns: No, it doesn’t need to be full-time. Obviously, we’re very aware that digital screens need to pay for themselves and often that’s through advertising. Our content can be part of a playlist and run for 15-20 seconds every 40 seconds or whatever the host decides is best.

So, we’re working on another project at the moment which is actually something very similar to that, whereby the content will rotate with other content about walking routes, heritage and other information that takes to a particular place. Because obviously, public transport information is not the only thing that’s of interest to people as they’re moving through the built environment.

But it’s one of the time sensitive things that is important to them. 

Because it’s web based information, is it responsive?

Chris Johns: Yeah, We do smartphone friendly signs as well but usually they’re going to be QR code based. So, someone will scan a QR code and then it will open up a smartphone or other personal device friendly version.

Some of the other signs that we’ve designed particularly for larger format digital signage screens.

So what I’ve seen examples of was a portrait mode screen but you could do a landscape screen, no problem. 

Chris Johns: Oh yeah. We’ve got loads of them. It’s roughly 50-50 at the moment in terms of deployment between landscape and portrait.

I don’t really have a preference. I think they look good. I think the one we put in last week into Paternoster Square was a portrait and I think it looks really quite nice in portrait style. 

And have you done the design and everything to mirror or parrot the transport for London colors and so on?

Chris Johns: We’ve built it to meet the TFL brand guidelines. So that was very important. Obviously, because we’re paid by TFL and the map is styled to look as close as possible to the legible London guidelines but without copying it. We use a service called Mapbox to do that which allows us to play with the layers and the design of the layers on the maps very efficiently.

And we actually did a project for Melbourne as well, Transport for Victoria in Australia where we came up with a similar whole range of concepts for Melbourne and again using their sort of legible Melbourne guidelines or Transport for Victoria guidelines with their branding and their mapping as well.

So is there a consulting wing to what you do as well? 

Chris Johns: Basically we can provide just consulting but really what we’re hoping to do is to build long term relationships with transport authorities where we can deploy the platform, make the signs available across their estate and out to their community.

And if that option is available to us then we’ll do the consulting bundled into a longer term agreement with them. 

But it’s not fundamental to your offer? 

Chris Johns: No. No, not at all. 

My next question is, are you working outside of London? So you’re in Australia.

Are you elsewhere as well?

Chris Johns: So, we’re one of the winners of a global innovation tender for Transport for Victoria and we developed a whole range of concepts for them. Unfortunately, their data wasn’t quite a state as yet to enable the concepts to be deployed. So that one very much watches this space.

We’ve also had discussions with others, both, in Europe and also in North America as well. We’re quite keen on working internationally. I think on the international side, we’re much better when we work with a bigger technology partner. So, usually with transport authority tenders, they put them out there and there’s big organizations which pitch for them. We’re typically too small to pitch for them but we can go in with those larger organizations and bring that element of innovation and entrepreneurialism and some design to give them an extra edge in their tender over and above everyone else.

So you might be going with an IBM or somebody like that? 

Chris Johns: Yeah. The big one in America is VIX Technology and they’re a nice bunch of guys. But we’ve also partnered previously with Trapeze which is in the UK. And also, there’s a one in the UK who we work with very well called True Form Engineering as well.

We’ve done stuff with them both in London and outside of London as well. 

You mentioned at the start that you’re working with the London authority which has a world reputation for its data API and everything else. And you also mentioned that Melbourne isn’t quite at the same level. Is that a big challenge when you look at other jurisdictions?

Chris Johns: Yeah, totally. Basically, the world is changing and it’s changing very rapidly. The data is becoming less of a problem. But one of the problems that remains is the cost of data which means that actually using our service may be prohibitive to smaller towns or organizations outside of London.

With the CFL API, we have free Access to that but if it was outside of London, for example, in Bristol, then we would have to partner with a third party data provider. And there are a small number of those that can provide that service. But it’s not free and their costs are extensive.

And then we have to layer our costs on top of that and it may be that for that transport authority which they look at that and say, we can’t do that sort of cost at the moment. Indeed somewhere Bristol actually used to have their own API and then took it offline.

Because they said, we can’t justify the cost of maintaining this open API strategy which to my mind is insane because surely the biggest way of generating demand for public transport authority is telling people what services there are there. And you can only do that if you’ve got real time information.

So if you suddenly say to all the developers and even your own services, we’re not going to have an API anymore. It just means that you’re going to have a natural impact on demand. 

I don’t know if this is a simple answer or way too involved to even get into but I’m curious if I’m a transport authority, let’s say in Kansas city, Missouri, Winnipeg, Manitoba, or Munich, Germany.

Do you need the shape and structure of data to make this workable? 

Chris Johns: It’s what we call a JSON API and then documentation around it and we’ll take it from there. So, most of the APIs follow a common standard these days and we can work with any of them, really.

We’ve not done any multi-language so digital sign designs as yet. So we do need to consider the elements of user experience for trying to work in something like Japanese, for example, would be challenging for us at the moment because we’d have to consider how they interpret information which is different to how we might interpret information in the UK.

But somewhere like Missouri and Munich would be fairly straightforward for us. 

Okay. So if people want to know more about your organization, where do they find you? 

Chris Johns: So the best thing to do is to look at our website, which is at, or connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m quite chatty on LinkedIn, and I post a fair amount, and also the company is on LinkedIn as well.

That’s how I found you. 

Chris Johns: Yeah, and the more the merrier, really. 

All right. Chris, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Chris Johns: Thank you. Have a great day.

  1. Stephen Gottlich says:

    Extremely interesting interview, these transport related scenarios remind me of our wayfinding programs developed for Simon Malls, they have always been insistent that the customer experience comes first and I am sure that approach has been why the program is so successful. Advertisers like in most media follow where there is high interaction.

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