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Demand Responsive Transport: To schedule or not to schedule?

The Trapeze Team | December 11, 2015

Tags: Demand response | scheduling |

When it comes to effectively scheduling transport services, have we been asking the wrong questions? Have we been looking at the challenges and opportunities from the wrong angle?

Those were just two of the perplexing questions raised by Mark Lee during his intriguing session ‘To schedule or not to schedule’ at the recent Trapeze UK Conference.

Mark Betts at the Trapeze Conference

The session focused on current approaches to scheduling, and the potential alternatives. As many of you will know, manual approaches, using maps and pins and spreadsheets, have been used by Local Authority teams around the country for decades – and with very real success, as Mark noted:

“The first time I visited a Local Authority to look at providing a scheduling solution, they took me to the room where they worked out their schedules. It was incredible: each wall was covered in a huge map of the entire county – and on this map were hundreds of multi-coloured pins, each with pieces of string attached. The amount of skill involved was absolutely amazing.”

Is this incredibly impressive, tried-and-tested method still the best approach in the modern transport world? After all, much has changed in the past 20 years, including:

  • Demand for services as number of passengers change
  • Changing associated costs (vehicles, staff, maintenance etc.)
  • Service expectations of parents and passengers
  • Restrictions on available resources

Perhaps one of the most important changes to address is of staff turnover, and changes in the skillset of new employees. This is part of a wider societal change, as the tradition of working for a single organisation through one’s working life gives way to a more fluid, transient employment model. 

This is a critical issue for scheduling teams, because scheduling is of course incredibly complex. As the experts who have been involved in scheduling their entire working lives gradually retire – or perhaps change jobs – eyes begin to fall upon the next generation of schedulers.

The next generation

So what does the next generation of schedulers look like? In Mark’s session several delegates pointed out that graduates and trainees often don’t have the time to learn such skills from experienced colleagues, since organisations are increasingly under pressure to ‘do more with less’. As a result, the emphasis is on short-term priorities rather than long-term learning.

There’s significant risk of a skills gap here, since the level of expertise required to create a well-organised ‘map and pin’ approach (and then maintain it, and understand it to inform schedules and dispatch drivers) is developed over the course of years rather than months.

So, what is to be done?

Automatic, systematic

Clearly, any solution to this challenge must empower staff to do more with less, ensuring they have the time required to focus on developing the long-term skills that support their own careers and help them meet the needs of the organisations they work for. And this is where another change that has taken place over the last 20 years or so should be addressed: the developments within technology.

Automatic scheduling solutions offer a truly effective way of collating critical pieces of data relating to transport, and producing optimised schedules that save time and money.

Mark explained: “Scheduling algorithms utilise huge amounts of data relating to vehicle capacities, speeds, driver information, road conditions, the needs of passengers and so on: All the factors that schedulers must consider when designing schedules can be piled into these systems, so that they have all the information they need to produce perfect schedules.”

However, any such system is only ever as good as the data it uses – and this does require quality checking and testing to ensure the information schedules are based on is accurate. Human error is a real risk; and Mark reminded delegates that the benefits of automatic scheduling – reduction in transactional and administrative work required of staff – can be negated if the time spent managing systems and data ends up taking days and days of staff time.

When it comes to scheduling solutions, therefore, it is not necessarily a case of either manual or automatic. There’s no need to think pursuing one approach negates the need for another, which can complement it. As Mark concluded:

“There’s definitely a place for both an automatic and a manual approach. There will always be factors or considerations regarding transport scheduling that a human being is still best placed to deal with. But equally, the potential time and cost savings available via modern scheduling solutions can free up staff time for employees to deal with these situations.”

In short: “If you’re asking, ‘which is better? Automatic or manual?’, then you’re not necessarily asking the right question.”


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

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