All aboard! How on-demand public transport is back on the road | Technology

Dn the early stages of the pandemic, Transport for Wales (TfW) decided to try something new. In May 2020, it launched fflecsi, an app-based service that allows people to book a minibus shuttle from “floating bus stops” near their homes directly to their destination.

Available at 11 locations across Wales, the service was an immediate success: within five weeks passenger numbers increased by 150% and in its first 12 months it carried 50,000 journeys. Even better, 9% of its users were people who had never used public transport before. As one passenger said, “It’s too good to be true. This is Pembrokeshire, we don’t have transport like this.

Wales was not the only place to experiment with demand-responsive transport (DRT). DRT pilot projects have also sprung up in the suburbs of Munster in Germany, Osaka in Japan and Lone Tree in Colorado.

Shared mobility enthusiast and market expert Lukas Foljanty follows the various DRT programs around the world and thinks we may have reached a tipping point. There are already at least 450 programs around the world, but last year 54 new projects were launched in the space of three months.

DRT’s roots are in community transportation, often door-to-door shuttles for older or less mobile citizens, and we’ve known for some time that it could have huge environmental benefits. A 2005 study modeling the impact of a theoretical DRT network in the Helsinki metropolitan area concluded that there could be a huge impact. He said: “In an urban area of ​​one million people, trip aggregation could reduce the adverse health, environmental and other adverse effects of car traffic by 50-70%, and if implemented, it could attract about half of the car’s passengers, and within a year. a wide operational range would require no public subsidy.

But so far, the diets haven’t quite worked out. In the mid-2010s, several DRT operators in the United States – such as Chariot and Loup – appeared, then quickly went out of business, either because they had failed to attract enough customers or because they did not meet health and safety requirements. Ali Vahabzadeh, then CEO of Chariot, told The Verge in 2017, “To not sound dramatic [but] no one in the history of the world has created a profitable public transport service… This is our mission. This mission failed in two years.

And the United States was not alone. In 2019, with technology partners Via and MOIA, Transport for London (TfL) launched two DRT trials in Ealing and Sutton on the outskirts of London – two areas with high car use – designed to complement existing transport. While it was running, the team said “satisfaction was really high”, with users rating the service 4.8/5, praising the ease of use, security, cleanliness and accessibility. But low turnout, misunderstandings about the recipient of the service and safety concerns around uninformed stops – combined with the challenges posed by the pandemic – led to the 12-month trial being cut short.

But if it can be made to work, DRT is an obvious and excellent answer to a number of tricky questions. Public transport is in dire need of modernization, and congestion and pollution mean traffic needs to be reduced. Now local authorities are beginning to hope that technology – the ability of mapping apps and algorithms to improve efficiency and better group journeys on the shoe – has brought the idea into the 21st century. Companies like Via, ioki, spare, Padam and RideCo could provide apps and mapping algorithms to run services; local authorities could provide buses and drivers.

What about concerns that DRT would increase rather than decrease the number of vehicles on the road, since some users might choose the service over existing public transport? Lisa Dang, a research associate at the University of Lucerne, looked at the impact on traffic volumes and found that only DRTs complementing existing public transport were there CO2 reductions, because the users of these places have abandoned the taxi or the private car. To operate, she thinks, DRT will have to shift most of its trips from private motor vehicles, while reaching an average capacity above that of the private car.

David Carnero, head of international business at Padam, which operates DRT technology across Europe, Asia and North America, says successful DRT requires three key elements to be successful. “DRT, however you try to cut it — unless you’re lying — requires subsidies,” he says. Second, it needs to be implemented “on a large scale, and I would say the other important aspect is integrated transport policy” – in other words, making sure it integrates with existing transport, rather that it does not compete with them.

Carnero added: “DRT is not the Holy Grail at all, but it is an element of an integrated transport policy or network offer that allows you to tackle things like social exclusion .”

In Lincolnshire, the rural CallConnect DRT service is now in its second decade. Most users are older people and students, and Lincolnshire transport manager Stuart Eccles says that without it many people would struggle to travel, relying instead on lifts from neighbors or friends, or on very expensive taxis.

Eccles says the recent introduction of an app has increased the number of last-minute bookings, which he sees as the technology giving users more freedom and control. While the phone option will remain for older customers, he says app data provides vital information about user needs and potential improvements.

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