The key DRT question: How to manage passenger communications?

The Trapeze Team | October 12, 2015

When it comes to passenger communications, Local Authorities, and providers of demand responsive transport (DRT), are increasingly looking to streamline working processes, while engaging their customers more effectively.

Of course, successful passenger engagement is dependent upon convenience and ease of use, which must increasingly be tailored and personalised to the needs of passengers. These requirements have been met – and will continue to be met – by technology, as this article from the IPPR explains: " There are various new technological developments that could be applied to DRT to improve services for passengers […] communication technologies are important to the future of transport, and could be key for buses in terms of improving information for passengers [...] [and] improving passenger experience."1

But the question often facing Local Authorities and DRT teams is what this technology might be – and what tools are available to them that will help them manage their passenger communications most effectively.

In order to answer this, we’ll look at some of the potential solutions available in detail over the course of this article…

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What is being done?

Traditionally, passenger communications have been facilitated via the telephone and email – as this detailed study from the Scottish Government notes, “Travel booking and customer communications can occur through a range of methods, via telephone and email”.2

However, as many booking office staff will attest, these simple communications channels quickly become overwhelmed with passenger enquiries when a service becomes popular or expands its reach. In order to cope with rising demand for transport, therefore – and the correlating rise in demand for information – the use of SMS messaging and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems have been implemented in several call centres and booking offices.  

This echoes the findings of a World Bank study on DRT services and technology, which notes that “ICT-based computer architectures supporting DRT operations are organised around the concept of a travel dispatch centre (TDC) […] these usually feature a communication system based on public or private long-range wireless telecommunications networks, supporting communication and information exchanges. […] there are several types of DRT user interfaces, enabling communication between the user and the TDC through different channels (i.e. phone, internet, GSM/SMS-Short Message Service, and automated answering devices – Interactive Voice Response (IVR) with Computer telephone integration (CTI).”3

IVR, SMS, Apps and RWD

The business case for IVR systems can be succinctly summed up in this introductory article on IVR.4 Here we see the systems enable interaction between callers and internal computers via a telephone, and can be used to help booking offices handle high call volumes, while also providing service to customers after normal business hours.

Meanwhile, when it comes to SMS utilisation, this mode of communication serves commonly as an accompaniment to IVR systems, with transport organisations using SMS messaging to push out alerts to passengers – as well as other booking information. This mode of communication has been used for DRT and mainstream public transport services. For example, Aberdeen City Council uses an “SMS Stop Information Panel” to help passengers receive departure information for individual bus stops.5

While SMS and IVR therefore offer certain advantages to Local Authorities and DRT teams, developments in technology have created potential alternative solutions to help these organisations better manage communications with their passengers .

For example, modern Apps and Responsive Web Design (RWD) systems have the potential to both streamline working processes for administrative and booking teams, while simultaneously engaging passengers more effectively – offering personalised service to passengers, while also ensuring accurate and consistent information, among other key benefits.6

Indeed, discussing these benefits, the Scottish Government study notes: “The key benefits of using modern ICT systems for DRT services are that higher numbers of journey requests, and short or real time requests can be made directly […] managed effectively [and] […] has the potential to create a service that can constantly adapt to the needs of users, avoiding the restrictions placed upon services that have to be booked before the vehicle has left its base. Additional benefits such as route planning assistance through GIS systems, records of journeys, the streamlining of requests from internet, text etc., and the production of reports and invoices are also added benefits to these systems.”

Increasingly, these modern tools are being adopted within the industry. For example, SPT uses PASS-Web for their DRT service, MyBus.7 Using this mobile tool has increased passenger bookings significantly and greatly improved communications between the SPT DRT team and passengers.

Considering the available solutions, then, the next logical question is for organisations to determine which solution best suits both their organisational needs, and the needs of their passengers.

What passengers want

Booking office staff are often inundated with the same passenger queries over and over again. Passengers frequently ask when their vehicle is expected to arrive - or whether it is possible for them to cancel previously booked trips.

Such queries cannot be dealt with easily via SMS messaging, while IVR systems can often prove confusing to users and deter passengers from using this tool. As this article explains, users often levy a number of the same complaints against IVR systems: that they are difficult to navigate, confusing, often annoying and frustrating (due to background music and being kept on hold for long periods, and also having to provide the same information multiple times).8

In fact, these disadvantages are summed up succinctly in this article, which notes: “the greatest disadvantage of IVR systems is that many people simply dislike talking to machines.”9

The drawbacks of these systems thus mean passengers often phone the booking or dispatch office directly – taking up valuable time of staff.

What passengers seem to want, therefore, is ultimately accessible information that provides them with clear answers and responses to their various enquiries. This demand can be seen in the rise of social media utilization by passengers and public transport organisations alike – with people looking to circumnavigate the need to deal with IVR systems or long telephone conversations or email correspondence, by using instant messaging services, such as Twitter.10

This seems to suggest that passengers are demanding a simple, easy to use communications channel that provides them with instant and reliable answers to their queries. So can Local Authorities deliver this, while simultaneously streamlining their own internal working processes?

Fortunately, it would seem as though they certainly can! 

What can be done? Accessible, personalized communications

In order to effectively meet passenger communications requirements, while also increasing passenger engagement, an alternative solution to IVR or SMS is to use Apps and RWD solutions to provide passengers with easy to use, personalised communications portals that can be accessed wherever and whenever is needed – night or day; at home or on the bus.

Such solutions are identified as being critical to  DRT services by a study conducted by Active Age.11 In this report, the authors note that “It is in the area of developing ICT solutions for customised, personalised engagement with passengers that ActiveAge believes there are gaps in the market and opportunities for further development […] of course, some technology can be complicated […] it is important to ensure technology is accessible to users.”

While RWD solutions may need to be used in conjunction with SMS or email, Apps in particular actually possess the same advantages of SMS – such as providing automated, direct notifications and alerts. Yet both tools – Apps and RWD - also offer great depth and functionality; thereby creating a richer solution for passengers.

Indeed, tools like Trapeze’s TravelMate or Family Portal actually offer more direct communication between organisations and passengers than either SMS or IVR – enabling them to make cancellations, amend personal details and receive answers to other enquiries they might have relating to their journey.

What is more, such holistic solutions also offer users greater visual aids, including GPS tracking and Maps, which cannot be offered by either SMS or IVR . And, while using IVR requires passengers to remember long lists of options from audio menus, which can be confusing and difficult to remember; Apps and RWD tools, on the other hand, put all passenger options in and easy-to-navigate, well-structured and intuitive layout. This encourages passengers to engage with and utilise the system as a first point of call, rather than making time consuming phone calls to operators and booking staff in the transport dispatch office .

But perhaps the key benefit these solutions bring to the table is that they they work seamlessly with new smart, mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. With 90% of us set to be using smartphones by 2017, these tools can be easily accessed by users via their phones; thus offering passengers the convenience and immediacy we all demand in so many aspects of our modern lives.12

The key benefit of these systems is summed up succinctly by John Knox - Demand Responsive Team Leader at SPT – who explains that, because Trapeze tools like PASS-Web and TravelMate are device agnostic, they can run on any platform used by these smart devices: "Tablets and smartphones play a key role in encouraging people to use online self-service tools,” John says. “People don't think of [these devices] as computers, so are more willing to use them."

Evolving solutions

Tools like TravelMate, therefore, are a potential alternative to traditional communications tools like SMS and IVR. Not only do they provide benefits to passengers, they also offer profound improvements to the service provider, whose staff no longer have to deal with enquiries and can focus their time more effectively on other, higher priority tasks – crucial in an industry facing the increasing challenge of austerity.

These tools are only going to grow and develop, increasing their functionality and thereby the number of benefits offered to both passengers, and transport organisations – as pointed out in this Business Insider article.13 This puts them in contrast with IVR and SMS solutions, which are essentially stuck as they are, and unable to develop at the same speed or extent of Apps and RWD tools.

This is important to keep in mind when deciding upon which communications tools to implement. Because, as this detailed report from Atkins notes, “new technologies are fundamentally shifting customer expectations and opportunities.”14 In an age of ever-evolving technologies, passengers increasingly demand organisations use IT solutions that are modern, and up-to-date – so tools that are unable to evolve and adapt are at a much higher risk of becoming obsolete, and even potentially alienating passengers.


It’s clear, then, that mobilised apps are part of an evolving, exciting market, which is providing opportunities to make transport more accessible. In a future of total transport where we are increasingly likely to see the continued rise of the  mobility as a service concept such tools will be critical in making local transport more appealing to passengers, and engaging with them via effective communications that avoids the need for double data entry and ensures accuracy and consistency in information.15

Technology is driving all this by providing passengers with easy access to information, while simultaneously minimising the amount of administrative work booking staff have to do - saving organisations both time and money.

When it comes to managing passenger communications, then, it’s clear that technology holds the key for Local Authorities and DRT service providers. But it’s not just for the future – it’s for the present, too.


  1. RAIKES, L., STRAW, W., and LINTON, C., ‘Transport Authorities: A New Deal For Town and Rural Bus Services’ Institute for Public Policy Research   
  2. HALDEN, D., ‘Review of Demand Responsive Transport in Scotland’ Scotland Transport Research Planning Group
  3. CLAVEL, R., CASTEX, E., and JOSSELIN, D., ‘The Role of Intelligent Transport Systems for Demand Responsive Transport’ World Bank
  4. ‘Intro to IVR’ Genesys
  5. ‘Aberdeen City Public Transport Guide’ Aberdeen City Council
  6. EVERSON, P., ‘Mobile Passenger Information: Apps or Mobile Web?’ Trapeze
  7. ‘Joining up journeys with SPT’ Trapeze
  8. ‘Top 5 things people hate about IVR’ IVRS World
  9. ROOS, D., ‘How Interactive Voice Response (IVR) works’ How Stuff Works
  10. EVERSON, P., ‘Social Media: this time it’s personal’ Trapeze
  11. ‘An introduction to Demand Responsive Transport as a Mobility Solution in an Ageing Society’ ActiveAge,d.dmo
  12. ARTHUR, C., ‘The death of the featurephone in the UK – and what’s next’ Guardian
  13. SHONTELL, A., ‘The future of mobile apps’, Business Insider
  14. BURROWS, A., ‘Journeys of the Future: Introducing Mobility as a Service’ Atkins  
  15. HIETANEN, S., ‘Mobility as a Service’ – the new transport model?’ ITS & Transport Management Supplement

If you would like to know more about improving passenger engagement, please get in touch.

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About The Trapeze Team

The Trapeze Team are here to bring you news and information from Trapeze Group (UK) and the public transportation industry.