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Galway’s CitySwift to roll out big data tech on New York buses

Irish founders set sights on US market as public transport battles the legacy of Covid

Transport tech company CitySwift has partnered with New York City’s public bus operator to help improve its vast commuter network with big data and machine learning.

The Galway-based tech company has secured a one-year pilot deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to deploy its software across a handful of bus routes from February, and its co-founder hopes the move will be a launchpad for their expansion across the Atlantic.

"It's a great opportunity for us to work with the largest public transport operator in North America, prove the value that could be gained from our unique and innovative technology, and then roll it out with large scale," said CitySwift co-founder Brian O'Rourke.

The company’s cloud-based engine gathers swathes of datasets to analyse reliability issues across routes, optimise timetables and predict on-board crowding on a stop-by-stop basis.

They previously worked with bus companies in Britain, including National Express, the Go-Ahead Group and Transport for Wales.

Mr O'Rourke and his co-founder Alan Farrelly started CitySwift in 2016 to modernise public transport through artificial intelligence and data, similar to what was happening with new e-hail taxi services at the time.

“We’d seen around that time the likes of Uber, Free Now, Halo and all the innovation that was going on within the taxi industry and we were looking to apply some of that innovation into the public transport sector,” said Mr O’Rourke.

The two originally met in secondary school in Ballymahon, Co Longford, and Farrelly knew firsthand some of the issues facing bus companies as his family has run a local coach company since the 1980s.

After college, Farrelly joined the family business and O’Rourke worked in financial services and data for a few years, before they launched their joint venture six years ago. In the early years, they tested their ideas on Farrelly’s coach buses.

Their first client was British group Stagecoach in 2018 after they met with then-managing director Robert Montgomery, who previously headed up Dublin Bus in the early 1990s.

Bootstrapped

CitySwift was very much a bootstraps operation in the beginning as public transport was not a magnet for venture capital at the time. “It probably wasn’t the hottest segment or a section of the market they were looking to invest in,” Mr O’Rourke said.

As the company developed, support came from Irelandia, the investment vehicle of the Ryan family that founded Ryanair, along with Act Venture Capital, and former CarTrawler chief executive Mike McGearty. Investors have put in more than €4 million to date.

Demand for their products surged during the Covid-19 pandemic as more transport companies wanted to better track user behaviour and routes to adjust to the health crisis. CitySwift grew from 14 staff in March 2020 to now 55, headquartered at an office at Galway city’s Eyre Square.

“Before Covid, people knew they wanted CitySwift, they knew they were going to need data and the solutions, but there was no urgency to do it. When Covid hit, obviously, there was a massive urgency and they needed the information,” Mr O’Rourke said.

The deal with the MTA came after it was named one of three winners from 200 entrants in the 2020 Covid response challenge competition organised by the nonprofit Partnership for New York City's Transit Tech Lab, which runs regular contests to deliver new technology to the transit agency.

MTA has a fleet of almost 6,000 buses that carried 678 million passengers pre-pandemic in 2019, or 2.2 million on an average weekday. The agency also operates New York’s sprawling subway system, suburban commuter railroads, and several bridge and tunnel tolling operations.

New York City was an early epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused bus ridership to plummet by more than 80 per cent in the spring of 2020. The numbers have partially rebounded to about one million a day.

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