Cities across the world are facing a quandary. The very nature of travel has undergone a massive rethink in recent years, but urban infrastructure has not. As a result, public transport ridership is in freefall, congestion is at an all-time high and satisfaction with transport is at it’s lowest level in years.

Despite this, buses remain the most used form of public transport in Britain – accounting for 59% of all public transport journeys in 2016-17. Simultaneously, technology driven by the ubiquity of the smartphone has given people the power to create their own journey. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft enable commuters to travel as and when they’d like, but they’ve also contributed to the rise in congestion in urban areas.

So could the solution lie in combining the two disparate worlds of public transport and private hire? How would it work? And, perhaps most importantly, what do demand-responsive transport (DRT) services mean for the future of public transport?

How does DRT work?

Modern demand-responsive bus services function much like ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft. Passengers register their request for a service via an app, which then uses algorithms to match them with vehicles travelling in the same direction. Drivers are then routed according to the information provided by passenger requests through the app to find the optimal route for their trip.

Journeys are calculated according to the fastest route (fed by real-time data on traffic and city infrastructural disruptions like construction, accidents, weather hazards, etc.). Journeys are allocated a guaranteed fare, time of departure and arrival, based on this real-time information.

Although there are a limited number of test cases, it’s clear that demand-responsive bus services work. Arriva, one of the largest transport operators in the world, launched ArrivaClick in 2018. The service currently operates only in Liverpool, but it has proven to be a major success. Arriva claims that, of those surveyed using the service, more than half of customers switched from using private cars to ArrivaClick, while 43% adopted the service for their daily commute.

Changing attitudes

The rise of ride-hailing apps points to a change in how people perceive transport. It’s no longer a service around which the passenger constructs their schedule; it’s a service that should work to fit around the passenger’s schedule. Passengers want something that is quick, simple and flexible to their own needs.

App-based transport services offer a key element of the modern travel experience – personalisation. While public transport networks are working to introduce new technologies, they’re still playing catch-up to the private ride-hailing companies. A demand-responsive bus network combined with a mobile app, however, could hold the key. A mobile app enables passengers to save specific journeys, track arrivals and follow their progress when on board.

There are many who would argue that demand-responsive bus services are just another attempt to reinvent a service that, if given sufficient investment, would work fine in its current form. But this misses the point – public transport is suffering not just because of underinvestment (although that is definitely a key reason). Previous efforts to increase ridership of mass transit focused on changing the commuter, rather than the amenity. In this context, DRT could be seen as the logical response to changing commuter requirements.

Using onboard WiFi on demand-responsive bus services

Public vs private

DRT is not a new concept. The idea has existed in some form for decades. Indeed, experimental flexi-route, dial-a-ride and community car and bus schemes have existed in some form as early as the ‘60s. But it was the rise in ride-hailing apps that sparked the latest push for user-oriented on-demand transport.

Simultaneously, when people opt for the private ‘ride-hailing’ bus, publicly run services suffer. This, in turn, means less money to expand services, which ensures public DRT remains a niche service. This has already happened in Bristol, where the local microtransit scheme recently announced it would no longer continue to operate, citing increased competition from other ride-sharing services.

Oxford trialled an on-demand bus service last year, part government-funded, run in conjunction with a local transport operator (Oxford Bus Company, owned by national transport provider Go-Ahead Group). Transport for London, meanwhile, announced last year that it was exploring the introducing a demand-responsive bus service as a means of complementing the existing bus network. In all of these cases, the local transport authorities have partnered with local transport operators to supply the vehicles. In this way, public transport isn’t completely shut out and passengers can choose the best option for their travel needs.

The congestion question

As cities begin to seriously consider how to reduce urban congestion and improve air quality, local transport authorities have turned to DRT as a solution. But questions remain about just how effective these services would be in reducing congestion. For instance, would these buses be allowed to use bus lanes?

Using them in areas underserved by current public transit services could help alleviate issues of accessibility, but they don’t go the whole way to reducing the number of cars on the road. For one, current demand-responsive bus services tend to use smaller vehicles than a standard public bus. So although there might be fewer vehicles on the road, there will still be more vehicles than if passengers were to utilise large capacity public transport.

Simultaneously, for DRT to offer a genuinely environmentally sustainable service, vehicles must come equipped with low emissions technology. While some cities have made this a key component of their on-demand bus service, that’s not necessarily the case for private ride-sharing services.

Reducing congestion through demand-responsive bus services

Potential pitfalls

It’s not all rosy in the world of DRT, however. Experts have warned that demand-responsive services shouldn’t be used as a replacement for traditional services. In 2016, Transport Focus produced a review of demand responsive transport that said: “Introduction of DRT tends to result in even less frequent services, shorter time at destination and restricted destinations. This limits social and leisure activities of passengers.”

Simultaneously, arrival times for DRT tend to be less concrete because they depend largely on the level of demand at that moment. Subsequently, routes are less optimised as the on-demand bus must alter its journey according to who needs to be picked up and from where. In the same vein, limited vehicle numbers can restrict passengers who try to book a journey during peak hours.

There’s also a danger that the ‘smartphone-first’ approach could leave less tech-savvy commuters out in the cold. This is a particular issue for elderly passengers, who make up a significant portion of public transport passengers.

Using mobile ticketing service on public transport

While they offer a valuable alternative for elderly and disabled people, DRT services can only succeed when they are fully integrated with local public transport networks. When integrated with other sustainable transport, they can increase accessibility, reduce congestion and improve air quality in urban areas.

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