Bus services are squeezed between commercial pressure to save money and the demands of Bus Service Improvement Plans and Enhanced Partnerships, both aimed at improving the network.
Commercial pressures traditionally focus on reducing the frequency on routes and increasing efficiency along narrow corridors that can be optimised to ensure their costs are covered by the fares taken.
This tends to reduce the capillary like feeder services that reach into communities and ensure that people can access buses easily from their homes. Meanwhile, Enhanced Partnerships have been drawn up, at least in theory, to improve that very broad network ensuring a comprehensively accessible transport network.
One of the suggested tools for network improvement (with the potential for cost-effective service development) is on-demand buses. And, analysis suggests, the greater part of BSIPs and EPs do indeed place at least some reliance on demand responsive bus services. Local authorities have experimented with smaller trials of DRT, demonstrating it in rural areas.
What DRT can do – when done well – is provide the connectivity of a frequent bus without the resources required to operate one. Where people can book their bus ahead, software can combine their trips and ensure that multiple people all reach their destinations on time
Urban and semi-urban DRT has been a more mixed experience, often trialled by operators on marginal routes that are unsupported by subsidy and which they have found not quite commercially viable despite excellent customer feedback.
Whilst DRT has demonstrated that it’s potentially useful tool in smaller schemes, it’s not yet been trialled as an integrated service across a metropolitan area in the UK.
In France, the city of Orleans has been piloting DRT since 2018. Over the last four years there has been a strategic shift in the transport system, adding under-served zones to the transport network using DRT and moving less frequent fixed route services to DRT, guaranteeing people connections to the rapid transit network.
This process started with an initial pilot in 2018 which converted a legacy ‘dial-a-ride’ style system to a modern DDRT platform run by Padam Mobility. The previous scheme had been complicated to book, with strict advance booking deadlines and little real time information about the bus arrival times.
The April 2018 pilot covered an area of north east Orleans, which piloted DRT booked via app or call centre, with the back office systems and data analysis ensuring that the service was efficiently run and monitored.
Real-time bus information enabled users to book transport at short notice, and uptake of the app increased, enabling call centres to give a better service to those passengers booking by phone.
As the technology was proven, the city began to make adjustments. Local elected officials noted its new popularity and requested that it be expanded to three new areas. The service was allowed to cover some of the routes that were fixed (rather than forcing people to switch to existing fixed routes for some of their journey – reducing the complexity of travel) and service operation hours were increased so that they started at 6.15am.
Operations were streamlined by optimising parking for vehicles waiting for bookings to reduce empty kilometres.
In September 2019, over a year after the first improvements, the scheme was expanded to nine areas which almost encircled the city. The fleet of vehicles was expanded from 4 to 13 to cover the whole of the urban area.
Over the next two years, the services was extended and optimised more gradually. This process of tweaking adjusted the service cover a population of over 95,000 people and an area of 161 km2 by 2021. The service comprised 19 vehicles that offered connections within the areas and to rapid transit nodes, allowing people to travel to and from central Orleans from 6.00 am to 9.00 pm.
There is now an opportunity to connect those who live off the corridors to the network using the full panoply of available services and technology
At the beginning of 2022, the areas were redesigned into four simplified areas (as shown). This further expansion brought the area covered up to 300km2 and the population to 175,000. The number of vehicles was doubled to 40.
Whilst the service area and population was not quite doubled, the numbers of people travelling per week almost tripled from 2,900 to 8,500 in 2022. Padam Mobility claims that 33% of its passengers have switched from private cars, while 19% had previously had no access to transport.
The city authorities, having committed to ensuring that people have access to public transport even in the outskirts of the city, were seeing the costs per person travelling falling satisfactorily. More people were travelling without the network requiring additional subsidy.
“It is shared local service at an ultra-competitive economic cost because it is no more expensive than traditional public transport.” according to Romain Roy, VP in charge of transport for Orleans Métropole.
“We have the feeling that we are investing taxpayers’ money better, especially as Orleans Métropole’s strategy is not to make economies of scale, but to offer a better service. Demand Responsive Transport , an innovative solution that does not exclude anyone, not only complements the classic offer, but goes further by connecting 100% of metropolitan residents to the transport offer…”
French authorities have the advantage in that they are able to oversee the network and make decisions about which areas are better served by DRT and which by fixed lines, tram and train.
In the UK, the downward trend in passenger numbers has focused operators on efficiency and ensuring the best services on those buses that run. The best services pay great attention to passenger experience, provide excellent facilities, have simple, and, as far as practical, affordable fares. However, the best bus in the world is no good to someone living further from the bus route than they can comfortably walk or needing to travel at a time it does not run.
What DRT can do – when done well – is provide the connectivity of a frequent bus without the resources required to operate one. Where people can book their bus ahead, software can combine their trips and ensure that multiple people all reach their destinations on time.
With new models of Enhanced Partnerships and franchising, there is now the opportunity to revisit models of bus network provision. Whilst the corridor model and reliance on peak time fares have served profitability, there is now an opportunity to connect those who live off the corridors to the network using the full panoply of available services and technology.
Looking at networks and integrating feeder services will essentially increase the number of people who have access to buses near their homes, and when they need them. Looking at the increase in passenger numbers for Orleans is heartening – but we need the same purposeful planning and adoption of change at scale to have any chance of emulating it.
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