For the last six months, I have walked into the centre of Leeds to work every day. It’s 1.8 miles each way and I’m secretly very smug about my average daily step count because of it. But sometimes, I don’t want to walk all that way. Sometimes, I would like to be able to take a comfy seat and travel in to the city centre a bit differently. As it happens, Leeds offers a form of public transport that runs down the exact same route that I walk, which would get me to work 10 minutes quicker, and it’s free. Leeds Dock Water Taxis have been offering a free service from Leeds Dock to Granary Wharf near Leeds Train Station for a few years now and I have often used it on weekends.
However, when I came to try it for my commute, there was one main issue I experienced which made the service unusable for me. I had no idea where the taxis were or how long I would be waiting until the next one arrives. And when speaking to other people who have tried to use the service, they have all said the same thing. Therefore, in this article I would like to discuss a few ways in which the Water Taxis could improve from the user experience, which would help me, and potentially a lot more people make use of this great service more often.
What they do well
I just want to point out I think the Leeds Dock Water Taxi is fantastic. It’s a great way to link the two sides of the city, especially since Leeds council is putting so much development into the south of the river. And as a service they get lots right. As well as it being free, they send tweets out a few times a day to let people know if they are running, as they don’t go out in high waters or strong winds for safety reasons. They also offer a bit of user delight by referring to the boats (Twee and Drie) as brothers and saying that one is unwell when it isn’t running. On top of this, the drivers are chatty and always welcoming and I often see lots of people using it on weekends.
Schrodinger’s Water Taxi
Simply put, what stops me from using the Water Taxi for work comes down to the timings. The taxis are supposed run every 15 minutes from the stops, but I’m not sure how that 15 minutes is split between the two taxis and stops, or even when that 15 minutes has started. And if only Twie or Drie is running, what does that do to the times?
Not knowing any definite timings on when a taxi will leave, means that I don’t know if a taxi will be there until I am physically stood at the stop. At Leeds Dock (Stop A) this isn’t too much of a problem as I can see it from a reasonable distance when I walk past, and simply carry on if it isn’t there. However, at the Granary Wharf (Stop B), this becomes a bigger problem as the stop is behind the canal wall and there is no way of knowing if it is there without walking right up to it and peering over the side. And after a few times of diverting to check on the taxi just to find out it isn’t there, I simply gave up trying.
On the occasions where I decide to wait at the stop, I then have the dilemma of ‘how long do I leave it to see if the taxi turns up?’ It could be anywhere on the route and as a result could be up to 15 minutes away, by which time I would be nearly at work or home if I walked. I end up in that bizarre transport limbo where you know you should probably move on but you think ‘I’ll just give it another minute.’ We have all been there when waiting for a bus, that moment when you finally get fed up and decide to leave, only for it to come around the corner seconds later.
This lack of visibility, you could argue, is something that also applies to other forms of public transport, yet we manage with those just fine. But the difference is that buses and trains operate on a (mostly) consistent and clear schedule. I can look at the time and know that my bus leaves on the hour or at 18 minutes past the hour and plan to get there at that time. But they also provide us with more feedback such as live departure times and even GPS tracking. All of which is easy for commercialised services but understandably more difficult for the Water Taxis.
From observing the running of the Water Taxis as I walk to work, and by speaking to the drivers and other passengers, it appears that they leave the stop when they have passengers waiting. This is understandable, as by operating on a free service they have to be conscious of how much fuel they are using. Making a journey without any passengers doesn’t really make sense. What I am unsure of is how the two operate together, as I have sometimes seen them pass each other at the middle of the route but I have also seen both waiting at the Granary Wharf stop. I discovered that they are in contact with one another, and they notify the other driver when they are leaving so that the other taxi makes the return journey at the same time. But, it looks like this doesn’t always happen, which may be the cause of some of the passenger frustrations.
Finding the right solution
It is these inconsistencies that seem to lead to many of the road blocks I have with wanting to take the Water Taxi and I believe many of them can be easily solved. However, the important thing to remember when considering any solutions for the Water Taxi, is that it is run as a free service with the goal of connecting people to another part of the city. The best solution will be one that, not only improves the experience for passengers so that they are able to catch the taxi, but also one that has the least financial impact to the Water Taxi business model and allows the implementation of changes with the lowest possible outlay. Below, are a few ideas which take these restraints into consideration.
Track the Water Taxis in real time
GPS tracking could be introduced to the Water Taxis, so that passengers can pinpoint the boat’s exact location and plan their journey based on where it is. We already use similar technology with services like Uber, but this would require a bespoke app which is most likely completely out of scope for what they could realistically do.
Implement a schedule of departure times from each stop
Drawing on the example of how commuters currently use buses and trains I believe that by running the service on set timetable of departure times from each stop, passengers will be able to plan their journey with Taxi more efficiently. The signs at each stop currently say that the service runs every 15 minutes, but I have no idea where the taxi is within this window. By assigning the departures to a set time there would be a medium change in the operation of the service but a significant improvement for passengers wanting to use the Water Taxi. However, as well as needing funds for a new sign at each stop, it is likely that by adding set times when the Water Taxis must depart, there will be an increase in fuel consumption and overall costs of running the service will rise. There is also a possibility that, once passengers are aware they can use the Water Taxi as a reliable form of transport on a morning, demand could outweigh supply. The Taxis are only capable of transporting 12 passengers at a time and if there is only one available it may cause frustration to those that cannot get on.
Tweet from the boat when a taxi is at the start of a route
A way to improve the visibility of the service, without a change to how they currently operate the Water Taxis, could be done via their existing Twitter account. By tweeting whenever a Taxi departs a stop, passengers in the area will be made aware that a Taxi will be soon available. Unfortunately, this would mean a significant increase in time spent managing the account. I am not sure who is currently responsible for it, but if this were to work it would have to be placed on the drivers to send out the tweet as only they would know when they are leaving or due to arrive. This would work in theory, but if someone forgets to send the Tweet then there is no back up for notifying the passengers. Furthermore, if each Water Taxi is making the journey up to 50 times a day then their followers could become frustrated at the number of updates, and they are likely to start ignoring them.
Increase affordance to passengers that a taxi is at the Granary Wharf stop
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I don’t catch the Water Taxi from Granary Wharf is because I can’t see if it is there without walking right up to the stop. By adding a second hi-vis flag or sign to the existing yellow flag , passengers will be able to look for this additional sign from the pavement and know that a Water Taxi is available. This could then be stored on the Taxi and stood on the wall when one is at the stop and removed just before it is due to depart. The additional cost of two new flags or signs would be relatively low and it would also have a low business impact as there would be no change needed to how they operate the service. However, this still would not solve the issue of knowing how long I need to wait before another one turns up, but it would be a big improvement.
These are just some of the potential solutions, each with their own positives and negative, to the barriers that have so far prevented me from using an otherwise great service in Leeds. I would hope that with the future plans for the city, not only the redevelopment of the south of the river but also the importance in the reduction of carbon emissions, that the Leeds Dock Water Taxi can grow as a service and play an important part in this change. And if you happen to live in Leeds and haven’t yet used the Water Taxi, I hope that this has encouraged you to go and try it for yourself!