Bringing equitable and economical DRT to the masses
Via’s European CEO Chris Snyder tells Intelligent Transport how demand-responsive transport can best be used to enhance the experience of all passengers, no matter their circumstance.
How can DRT operators ensure that people who are digitally excluded can still use these services?
Chris Snyder (CS): Just because a service is powered by technology doesn’t mean that only digital natives can use it. In Milton Keynes, where Via’s technology powers a service called MK Connect, the service allows phone bookings as well as app and web bookings. In addition, the service will soon offer riders the option to book at a bus ticketing machine where they might otherwise buy a bus ticket for a standard service.
As a public transport service, DRT can and must be something that is intended for everyone. That means DRT must be designed for inclusion as opposed to this idea that a digitally-enabled service is exclusive. You might think of the first wave of transport technology as “for digital natives, by digital natives” and I think what we are trying to pioneer is a new wave of public transport technology that is designed with all of the intelligence of a digital platform, but which is also accessible to all riders of public transport. If you are booking by phone, you’ll still receive the same visibility and benefits of those booking through a mobile app. For example, riders booking by phone will receive an automated phone call to alert them that their vehicle is arriving, instead of a mobile pop-up or text message for a smartphone user.
Payments are part of this story, too. In Milton Keynes, we’ve ensured that residents who use their MK Move card (a fare payment card) to pay for bus journeys can use it on the new MK Connect service. Integrating with all of the ways that people pay for public transport, including integrated ticketing with the commercial network, for instance, is crucial. In our experience, DRT services that provide this level of accessibility to riders can be very successful.
How can DRT include the significant proportion of the population who are unbanked or underbanked without access to the requisite technology?
CS: Firstly, DRT public transport solutions need to integrate with existing public transport payment methods, whether that’s Oyster in London or MK Move in Milton Keynes. We’ve actually announced a partnership with Ticketer, which is a major bus fare payment provider, to make this increasingly seamless for DRT in the UK.
Second, unbanked riders need to be able to use cash to pay for trips. It’s often the case that you can’t use cash on the bus, but you can use cash to purchase a voucher or a transport card, and that should be equally possible for DRT. Today’s most innovative DRT schemes include that capability. If that’s the principle, then I think we can afford to focus on the next level of accessibility – what about all the population that lived too far away from the bus to use it in the first place? That’s actually a level of accessibility that DRT opens up in a way that existing public transport perhaps can’t, because it can be much more flexible in those more remote areas.
Can DRT have cost-efficiency benefits?
CS: Some of the work that we did in the UK last year in the Kentish town of Sevenoaks with an operator called GO-Coach was exactly related to this challenge. In our current situation, there’s a new reality around ridership and huge cost pressures on how to take existing assets (including vehicles, drivers, and riders), make the most of them, and provide the service that riders need. It’s an interesting example where the entire bus network in Sevenoaks transitioned overnight from a fixed-route service to a DRT-based service using the same vehicles and the same bus stops. That immediately resulted in huge cost efficiency savings. As certain pockets of demand returned, we were able to work with GO-Coach on this service to transition certain routes back to fixed-route operation.
That’s the level of flexibility that the technology gives you, to realise the cost efficiencies where it makes the most sense, and run more traditional services where they make sense.
Is it possible to make DRT economically viable without removing the driver?
CS: I think a lot of people are holding out the hope that autonomous vehicles will revolutionise the ride-hailing business model, and that may or may not be true. Regardless, I think it’s important to contextualise DRT as a public transport mode in a way that is fundamentally different from ride-hailing.
As a form of digital public transport, DRT is often deployed in situations, for instance, like rural or suburban areas where traditional fixed-route buses are already struggling to deliver good outcomes for riders, but are equally struggling to deliver good financial outcomes for councils, authorities and operators. I would argue that the standard of commercial viability is not the right one. In these contexts, we’re really talking about delivering a public good, which is mobility, to populations with real need. Frankly, I would say that it’s not only economically viable to deliver public transport with drivers in those areas, but especially as we’re recovering from the COVID pandemic, it would be economically imprudent not to deliver mobility to populations that rely on public transport to access jobs. I think it elevates the question from mere profit and loss to the question of what a city or municipality needs to deliver to citizens in order to enable a broader economic recovery.
It’s important to recognise DRT is never going to have better financial performance than a packed city bus, but we have found again and again, especially in suburban and rural contexts, that DRT can deliver better service quality for riders than fixed buses, and for less money.
Catch up on demand with Via’s 2021 webinar, where expert presenters from across the UK and Europe gathered to explain how their use of demand-responsive public transport is aiding their communities, and acting as a springboard for recovery from the pandemic.
How can DRT be an efficient mode of transport, or the mode of choice for people with disabilities? How do you go about making sure that the vehicles are fit for purpose in that way?
CS: We deploy wheelchair accessible vehicles in almost all of our DRT services, and we therefore have considerable experience in providing rider experiences as well as driver experiences that can support riders with disabilities. Typically, riders with disabilities rely on inefficient dial-a-ride services for their basic mobility needs, and what we’ve learned after talking with hundreds of users of those services is that riders with disabilities often simply don’t get the same level of mobility as everyone else. That’s a question of fairness. When you’re starting from a situation in which riders have to book multiple days in advance using a dated phone booking system, there’s an experiential change to being able to use an app or a web booking portal to book in near real time. You should not have to plan your whole day around getting to the grocery store.
There are various other elements that need to be considered too; what kind of mobility aides do those people need, what kind of assistance will they require? Having a digital profile that exists, is connected to you and is easily communicated to the driver and easily communicated to the booking system means that your specific needs are always being considered. That’s something that tech-enabled, accessible DRT can do, and something that is very challenging to do with pen and paper. On the trip delivery side, being able to use algorithms to assign these trips and organise them efficiently, and improving the planning, routing, and scheduling has a real reduction in cost per ride. This is especially true if you’re comparing to dial-a-ride services, which historically are tremendously expensive. What we’ve seen is a really significant increase in service quality for riders when the service is organised with them in mind.
How should DRT services be integrated into the existing network when it comes to ticketing and passenger information?
CS: The most effective rider experiences come when DRT services are properly integrated with the commercial network. That means the booking app or service needs to be multimodal. It needs to have integrated ticketing and the technology needs to have a way of automatically suggesting that riders take the commercial network when it makes more sense and not the DRT network. Without any of those pieces, you can’t really achieve a seamless connection between the two – and that is the goal, seamless mobility across the entire network.
It’s our responsibility, as well as the local council or authority’s, to engage with the community. We invest a lot of time and effort to educate riders about the new service, answer their questions, and then show them why there’s real value for them. We can’t make the mistake of assuming that people will just get it. There is often an attitude of “I like what I know. I don’t really want to change, even if it’s better.” It’s incumbent on us to explain why the change is better. In fact, I think once people feel like their voices are heard and really understood, then when we see really high levels of satisfaction with new services.
What is an ideal environment for DRT kind of roll out in terms of the conditions, population size and density and existing public transport network?
CS: There’s no one size fits all strategy. There are, however, a few examples of cases that we’ve seen to be very, very effective and popular.
One is rural areas that may be adjacent to more urban areas, but which have traditionally lacked public transport coverage. A great example is in the Tees Valley, in the North of England. The Tees Flex service, which our technology powers, has been hailed as a fairly transformative service in a rural area and it’s actually grown quite considerably even in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secondly, DRT can thrive in places where the supportive bus network has long headways, relatively poor rider experience, and is maybe failing to attract growing ridership despite the community itself growing. Again, Milton Keynes is a great example here. Authorities there recently launched an integrated DRT service to replace the entire supported bus network.
Thirdly, areas where authorities or municipalities are trying to attract riders to high frequency bus connections or to a high-speed rail, and so serving as a first and last mile service has been very effective and efficient. Whether you want to call them feeder services, or first and last mile services, we have services in cities like Seattle and Dubai that have been remarkably effective in this area.
Lastly, I think we’re seeing a real interest in places where multiple services that are siloed can benefit from being combined into a single platform. MaaS is such a popular buzzword, but the thing that we’re actually seeing a huge trend around is what we call integrated mobility services.
You could go to Quimper in France, or to Golden Empire Transit in Bakersfield, California, and many other places where cities are seeking to unify the delivery of services like DRT, paratransit, home-to-school, dial-a-ride services, which historically have been siloed. Combining them into a single, data-driven platform creates real efficiencies for the cities. It also creates a completely new experience of those services for the riders.