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A smart bus trundled into London and we went along for a ride

We rode Citymapper's smart bus around the British capital and a world of possibilities opened up before us.

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Could nimble, connected buses like this be the future of inner-city transit?

Katie Collins/CNET

You know what it's like: You wait ages for a bus, and then a free one comes along.

At least it did for us on Tuesday.

The Citymapper smart bus is no normal London bus, and not just because it's green instead of red. The most unusual thing about it was that people -- strangers, no less -- were breaking the No. 1 rule of using public transport in London: Don't talk to anyone. And to our surprise, it was actually quite nice.

On Tuesday morning we stood waiting at bus stop near the River Thames when Vivienne Rogan, who lives on the outskirts of London, asked us the way to the Tate Modern art gallery. She was meeting a friend to go to an exhibition -- "Wolfgang someone, it looks awful" -- and was running late, so she jumped on board the smart bus with us. Rogan knows all the buses around Wimbledon where she lives, "which is great around tennis time," but like many Londoners struggles to decipher the tangled network of routes beyond her own area.

It certainly is complex, which is why plenty of commuters and travelers already swear by the free travel information app from Citymapper, which is in 39 cities around the world. But this week the app company branched out into the real world by testing a "smaller, nimbler vehicle" in London. Three customised Citymapper smart buses loop around the city centre, taking roughly half an hour from Waterloo across the Thames to Blackfriars and around again.

Those Citymapper buses are in the flow of cities and tech companies tackling the increasingly terrible prospect of getting around in crowded cities. More pie-in-the sky projects include autonomous buses and companies like Uber and Alphabet's Waymo working on self-driving cars (when they aren't fighting each other in court). BMW wants to build artificial intelligence-powered cars able to work with a smart city's traffic lights.

Citymapper's plans are a bit more grounded.

Our bus, which boasts smart displays and USB charging ports, offers free rides from standard bus stops. It also uses real-time tracking software to keep tabs on the number of passengers aboard and shows up at stops based on algorithms. The goal is integration with the infrastructure of the city.

It's only running for two days -- part experiment and part publicity stunt -- but it offers an interesting insight into a potential future of smarter public transport that can adapt to people's needs, to traffic and to other changeable criteria. The company said it hopes to identify new routes and improve existing ones.

Fellow commuters or new friends?

Most of the people on the bus were Citymapper employees. But as we continued on our loop around central London, one or two "real" people began to hop on. Nurse Adelaide Mensah jumped on at Waterloo, delighted to get a free ride to a job interview.

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Passengers were keen to make use of the USB chargers.

Katie Collins/CNET

The trial bus was great news for history student Mariam Merchant and Ph.D. researcher Dom Weldon. The route connects the Waterloo and Strand campuses of their university, King's College, a journey that normally requires a walk across Waterloo Bridge or a bus that inconveniently follows a one-way system away from the campus. The convenience of the Citymapper bus for King's students is a coincidence -- the route was chosen because the company wanted to keep the bus circulating close to its office -- but it's an example of how transport routes can be adapted to the specific journeys people take.

Weldon notes that the bus is "pretty swish" and feels like a real bus, despite its smaller size.

Merchant is keen to see improvements such as phone chargers in the seats, which she's seen on public transport in other places she's lived. But she spots some potential issues with high-tech adaptive transport: "How would you be aware if the route had changed, especially if you got the bus every day?"

She also questioned whether people would pay more for a fancier bus.

The self-driving future

Any conversation on the future of transport inevitably turns to self-driving cars. Simon Gibbons, a software engineer at Citymapper, believes autonomous vehicles could transform the trucking industry in as little as five years, but sees the chaos of the city as a bigger challenge.

"Look at the obstacles, the people walking around," he said, gesturing out of the window at the obtrusive roadworks, scurrying pedestrians and fearlessly darting cyclists of London's teeming streets. "We're a long way off self-driving cars in this kind of environment."

Whenever they turn up, would the average passenger trust a self-driving bus? "If it was the first self-driving bus," Merchant quipped, "probably not."

TfL and Uber

There's already controversy over independent vehicles on London's streets. The taxi industry has sued the city's transit body, Transport for London (TfL), over Uber.

Citymapper, by contrast, is making all the right noises about working with the regulators. "It's important to have transport that fits in with the existing infrastructure," says Gibbons. He also points to TfL's embracing of technology like open data as part of a positive attitude to innovation. "TfL is really forward-looking," he said. "Other transit agencies around the world look to TfL."

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A traditional London bus appears in the rear window of the Citymapper bus.

Katie Collins/CNET

London's buses are already pretty high-tech in their own right. Besides carrying CCTV and contactless payment gear, London buses are fitted with the iBus system. iBus tracks every bus and updates bus stops with a countdown to arrival, as well as giving buses priority at traffic junctions.

The capital's routes are contracted out by TfL to private bus companies. Although they're run by various firms, including Arriva, Abellio and Stagecoach, buses are highly standardised: They use the same Oyster smartcard payment system and, of course, they're all red.

TfL works with many different partners around the world to improve transport in London, says Michael Hurwitz, the authority's director of transport innovation. "We are very much open to new ideas and are actively engaging tech companies and innovators on some of the challenges facing the city," he says. "Citymapper have some very interesting ideas and we're in discussion with them about how they might work in London."

In it for the long haul?

Citymapper may benefit cities that don't have an efficient regulator like Tf and still rely on more informal transit options to keep them moving.

A great case in point is Nairobi, Kenya, which has a network of small buses -- "matatus" -- that are all owned and operated independently but run on roughly the same routes. It took a team of researchers traveling around in matatus to discover and map the 130 matatu routes in 2014, much like the Citymapper team are doing in London right now.

Whether you're travelling in a state-of-the-art London bus or a Nairobi matatu, buses have one thing in common: a reputation problem. They are universally considered to offer a subpar experience and to be the least attractive transportation option. "Even when they're the best transport option, some people don't take them," Citymapper wrote in a blog post.

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The smart bus route crosses the River Thames twice.

Katie Collins/Screenshot

Ultimately the company hopes to help these old timers of the transport industry evolve into something more capable of meeting real-time needs.

Citymapper employees were keen to point out that the smart bus is just an experiment for now, but the best-case scenario is that the results could help inform hyperadaptable inner-city transit systems of the future.

Even if it doesn't, over the next day or so, the bus will make a difference to people across the capital -- whether they're Citymapper users already or not.

As Rogan climbed on board with us, she was greeted by the Citymapper crew, who explained that not only would the bus drop her by the Tate, but that the Citymapper app could help her avoid similar confusion in future. She downloaded it on the spot.

As Rogan alighted at the gallery, we waved goodbye. Mensah followed shortly after, with everyone aboard wishing her good luck for her job interview. With the atmosphere jovial, we trundled off across Blackfriars and the talk turned to Merchant's impending exams. Soon it was our turn to alight and we wished her well as we left.

You certainly don't get that on a Routemaster.

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