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On-demand shared transport offers new route for bus travel

The past year has seen the emergence of app-based services offering passengers a flexible, shared transport solution in medium-sized vehicles such as minibuses. Is this a model that bus operators will ultimately feel compelled to emulate?

Beate Kubitz
13 October 2017
Slide Bristol customers can book journeys via an app up to 10 minutes before travel
Slide Bristol customers can book journeys via an app up to 10 minutes before travel
The Arriva Click service in Sittingbourne, Kent, runs corner to corner in 12-seater minibuses
The Arriva Click service in Sittingbourne, Kent, runs corner to corner in 12-seater minibuses

 

As traffic levels hit a record high, there is a pressing need to manage congestion by diverting people from single occupancy cars to public and shared transport. However, with bus passenger levels falling across the country, persuading people to share journeys through conventional personal travel plans does not appear to be having a widespread impact. 

So, how can the bus industry adopt disruptive approaches to change its business model and grow passenger numbers?

The next generation

Over the past year, we have seen an escalation in the number of app-based flexible shared transport services in development or reaching market. These services have some things in common with Uber – which has demonstrated the thirst for tech-based transport on-demand services – but, crucially, they pair and group journeys so that several people can share the same medium-sized vehicle.

The diversity of approaches has made it difficult to group the services and see a thread of innovation common to all, but key players and essential elements have emerged.

While UberPool – sharing your Uber for a fare reduction – made headlines in London, there have been much quieter innovations across the UK that have the potential to change the face of bus travel and reach communities far beyond the urban core. 

Bristol-based, flexible on-demand commuter bus service Slide, owned by international urban transport operator RATP, has been operating for over a year. Also in the South West, Simply Connect has trialled flexible on-demand minibuses for business park commuters in Exeter. Meanwhile, Arriva Click has clocked up six months of operating a completely demand-driven personalised bus service in Sittingbourne. 

Alongside these services, a diverse group of operators have announced plans to launch further flexible services. 

Again, London is the prime target, with Mercedes announcing it will rival Uber with its Via flexible ride-sharing service, and taxi operator Gett teaming up with CityMapper to use CityMapper data to provide flexible ‘taxi-bus’ services. 

Other operators see the potential in smaller cities and towns where expansion has created congestion hotspots. South African public transport and route planning provider GoMetro is bringing its transportation insight to the UK, along with its data-driven Flx mini bus service.

These services are quite different – run by a variety of operators from traditional bus companies to independent start-ups, taxi operators, travel planners and the automotive industry – but they share many key features.

They are all accessed via an app, which you must download to book travel, and payment is cashless with card payment incorporated in the app. All the operators use small vehicles, with some run on taxi licences and others on bus licences, though the biggest vehicle in use on any of these trials is a 12-seater minibus.

These trials focus on providing a quality service that guarantees booked seats in premium vehicles and offers WiFi and USB charging.

All of these services use algorithms to optimise routes and journeys and offer tailored travel. However, whilst they are all ‘on demand’ they are generally not quite door-to-door. Some run between virtual bus stops others corner to corner, and they all run across a set zone.

Currently, all of the services on the ground are market testing trials or pilots. There are three that are testing on the ground and several more coming soon.

Arriva Click

Arriva Click is an app-based on-demand bus service provided across the core of Sittingbourne in Kent. The app is powered by US ride-sharing technology Via.

Anyone who has the app can book a journey anywhere within a six-mile by four-mile zone in Sittingbourne. The service runs street corner to street corner rather than door-to-door but otherwise provides a completely tailored journey. Once booked, passengers get an estimated pick-up time and can track the bus on its journey. The service uses algorithms to match people with other travellers and vehicles going their way and plans optimised routes so everyone reaches their destination. 

Arriva Click runs five 12-seater minibuses configured to a high specification, with leather seats, USB sockets and 4G WiFi. Each has a wheelchair space and is DDA compliant. The minibuses were launched in April, initially covering a corridor between the Kent Science Park and Sittingbourne station, but after six weeks their zone was expanded to cover key residential areas in Sittingbourne, which has a population of 50,000 people.

Journeys are priced by the mile. The starting price for the trial is £1 per mile, which makes it up to 75% cheaper than taxi fares but also, for shorter journeys, cheaper than a single bus fare (£3.50).

The service is run under a traditional bus service licence, with standard service times between 6am and 7.30pm, Monday to Saturday.

However, being licensed under a bus licence does not restrict price as the service is registered as a flexible route, which means it can control price in line with market demands.

The initial reaction from users was tinged with disbelief that a bus service could be run entirely on the basis of requests and at such low cost. However, Sittingbourne residents appear to have taken to it, with 5,000 app downloads in its first six months taking over 20,000 rides, an average of over 125 rides per day. 

Sittingbourne testbed

The Arriva Click service trial was devised in response to several factors. The broader picture is that bus passenger numbers are falling and services have been trimmed over the years, to the point that some routes were of marginal utility. There is also a recognition that technology companies are looking for opportunities to disrupt transport and potentially take market share.

Sittingbourne was chosen on the basis of its demographics – from the usage of smartphones to the number of cars per household – and transport provision. 

While there are parking problems at key employment area Kent Science Park, options to shift people out of single user vehicles are limited. There is only a limited bus service connecting it to the town centre and some kind of creative intervention is required.

The town is undergoing significant traffic disruption with a regeneration process that has created numerous diversions. As Arriva Click buses do not have fixed routes, they can be routed to avoid roadworks and disruption much more easily than a traditional bus service.

The idea was to target car drivers and taxi users, but, in fact, some 60% of initial users were already bus passengers. However, there has not been a noticeable change in bus use on other routes, so it’s unclear whether these people are making additional journeys.

Around 75% of the users are commuters, with 25% using the bus for a mix of leisure and other services. Some users have made very short journeys, suggesting they were carrying heavy shopping or just getting out of the rain. The average journey length, however, is 3.5 miles. The average occupancy is four people and the average wait for a bus is under 10 minutes. With previous bus waits of up to 30 minutes, it is easy to see why this service has been adopted.

Although Arriva Click is a trial that will be adjusted over time, the initial trial results are interesting and heartening. Arriva is currently looking at other potential areas for similar services.

Simply Connect

The Simply Connect trial focuses on a particular commuter-related congestion problem in Exeter. Their small vehicle transport scheme has just completed an initial trial with civic and social organisation Exeter City Futures. For their first trial, Exeter City Futures provided a minibus to transport staff at Oxygen House to and from work. Oxygen House is located in a business park on the outskirts of Exeter. There are high levels of traffic congestion during rush hours, making journeys across the small city extremely slow. In addition, there are parking problems due to the growth in numbers of people driving to work in the actively expanding enterprises in business parks. The current bus network is not making a sufficient difference in overcoming these problems, so as an alternative Simply Connect offers users an on-demand shared ride to work, which can be booked through their app.

This initial trial focused on a single site with a large workforce that helped with a framework for communicating with potential travellers. The key feature of Simply Connect is that it guarantees on-time journeys for commuters, taking the worry out of shared travel. There are no planned routes as journeys are developed based on real-time bookings. Specially designed software plans pick-up points that will ensure users arrive at their destination on time. The journeys are efficient as routes and times are optimised. As Simply Connect is a highly flexible, demand-based service, it can fill in journey gaps where buses are not viable, taxis are expensive and it is too far to walk or cycle. 

The Exeter trial aimed to get feedback from users to find out what they need and how to make the service extremely user-friendly. Simply Connect has gained valuable insight and the service is being refined on an ongoing basis.

Slide Bristol

Slide is another commuter-focused service, but with a wider service area. Commuters book journeys in advance through the app up to ten minutes before travel and are picked up close to their starting point. Slide is not a traditional bus. Seats, pick-up and drop-off points are guaranteed, as is a fixed fare (between £4 and £7) and it offers free WiFi. The cost is lower than a taxi and little more than a bus. 

The vehicles can use bus lanes to cut through dense rush hour traffic, which is a problem for Bristol commuters. Transport is available only during rush hour from 6.45-9.45am and 3.30-7.30pm, Monday to Friday, meaning the fleet is cost effective as they only use resources during peak times.

The Slide Bristol fleet comprises 16 vehicles operating using private hire licences. The pick-up points form virtual bus routes, with virtual bus stops optimised to transport passengers who are travelling on a similar journey. The ‘timetable’ is not fixed, responding flexibly to daily demand. The service guarantees that the journey will not be delayed by more than 15 minutes to pick up fellow passengers. Users can call their driver with any queries, for example, to see if there is space for luggage, so there is no wasted journey or effort.

Slide Bristol is featured on the TravelWest website helping users discover the service, along with word of mouth, advertising, social media and promotions at company events. While it is a new concept and will, therefore, take time to educate people about its service, the initial results are encouraging. 

One of the interesting findings for operator RATP Dev is the positive feedback about drivers. This kind of personal approval and interaction is novel and rare for RATP, which is more used to providing large-scale public transport. 

Gett and CityMapper

With Uber already on the ground (although embattled by TfL’s current refusal to renew its licence) and offering UberPool shared taxis, other taxi services have been looking at ways of providing data driven taxi share services. 

By analysing Citymapper’s travel planning data, Gett Together is providing fixed route, fixed fare shared taxis aimed at reducing journey time along four London routes and one Manchester corridor. The service can be requested through the CityMapper app alongside public transport and Uber. It is another indication of the data CityMapper has access to as people use its journey planning facility, joining the trail South Bank pop-up bus route and the recently launched East London night bus service.

Mercedes Via

The Mercedes Via service that is launching in London later this year matches passengers headed in the same direction with a single minibus, promising dynamic routes and virtual ‘bus stops’. Via provides the technology for Arriva Click. As for Arriva Click, passengers request rides through a mobile app, and Via’s sophisticated algorithm instantly finds a vehicle that best matches the passenger’s route, allowing for quick and efficient shared trips without detours that take riders out of their way.

The commercial basis for the London service is slightly different; Mercedes Vans has invested $50m (£37m) into providing joint services with Via. Currently Via operates its own shared ride service in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC providing over a million rides per month.

As you would expect from an automotive manufacturer, the Mercedes Via service in London will make much of its high specification eight and nine-seater Vito vans. Its longer term plans include moving to electric drive train vans. This is just one of Daimler Mercedes technology trials; it owns the flexible car club Car2Go, taxi app MyTaxi and journey planner Moovel.

GoMetro

GoMetro design, deploy and operate intelligent mobility services, with service offerings currently active in South Africa, Australia and France. They recently opened an office in the UK aiming to become a flexible mobility provider, targeting primary ‘pain points’ for commuters, local authorities and public transport operators.

GoMetro’s experience of providing multi-modal journey planning, demand forecasting and route optimisation, coupled with their Flx Business Shuttle service, enables them to provide multi-modal integration, journey planning data optimisation and demand consulting with practical solutions on the ground. They are currently identifying potential solutions in specific areas for authorities outside London. 

The Flx Business Shuttle targets predictable Monday to Friday trips for business commuters, to and from their place of work. The aim of the Flx Business shuttle service is to alleviate business park peak hour bottlenecks. It offers a free WiFi service per shuttle to increase productivity.

The Flx pricing model differs from others featured as it is subscription-based, contracted monthly, with pricing that is varied according to commute distance but in line with current vehicle running costs. Similar to other completely flexible services, the Flx offering is augmented with an ad hoc Flx dash service, to cater for those ‘quick runs’ to the shops, bookable through the use of the Flx app.

Like Simply Connect, GoMetro is a service working in partnership to solve a transport problem. It aspires to offer full multi-modal travel as well as its shuttle service, integrating innovative mobility and public transport services. 

A multitude of options

It is clear that there is massive potential in the flexible small vehicle transport offer. The diversity of operators demonstrate that there are potentially many ways of configuring these services, ranging from opportunistic commercially viable ‘gap fillers’, with business models more akin to taxis, to services that are essentially reconfiguring public transport on a digital demand-driven model. 

And while the services featured here are primarily work, travel and leisure transport services, there are also projects, such as Liftshare-coordinated HappyCT, working to provide similar levels of personalization and efficiency in community transport sector. 

Equally, the technology on which these services are based varies. Some providers are more about supplying a platform into a local authority context, like Simply Connect and GoMetro,  while others like Via are available to operators to white label and the automotive industry to partner.

The levels of adoption of the services trialled so far show that there are people keen to use technology to access travel.

The issue they have in common is that they require a smartphone, mobile data and bank account to for access. While they could have a real impact on improving bus travel, reducing congestion and parking problems, there will always be a question about how much of a mainstream part of public transport they can become whilst a significant number of people do not have all of these things.  

 
 
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