Blog post:

DRT and Chaotic Disruption to Passenger Transport

Andrew Fish | May 26, 2016

Tags: Demand response | Local authority |

In the world of public transport, fundamental shifts in the way the industry is designed and how it operates do not come easily. It’s probably fair to say that innovation in our sector can be slow and incremental – occurring gradually over time due to restrictions and limitations imposed by infrastructure, financial aspects such as austerity, and a generally risk-averse culture.

However, given that we live in interesting times, and I want to explore some of the possibilities that may emerge from a (hypothetical) revolutionary redesign of our public transport networks.

Our current transport systems are facing constant pressure to adapt, brought about by a combination of local and global trends – things like hyper urbanisation, the Smart Cities Agenda, demographic and societal changes. Technology presents us with great opportunities to adapt to this new world.

The emergence of new concepts such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), supported by modern technology, could be one such an answer: placing passengers at the centre of transport services, offering tailor-made mobility solutions based on their individual needs.

As yet, MaaS is a young and rapidly evolving subject of interest. But what would happen if the public transport industry were to suddenly embrace the concept, and completely overhaul existing networks – replacing them with what would essentially be a customer centric demand-responsive transport model?

In this disruptive hypothetical scenario, traditional timetables and fixed bus and train schedules would no longer exist. Services would become deregulated and usage would be determined by the direct demands of users – who would have access to the transport service they most needed (accessible at the touch of their fingertips, using a Smartphone or other digital device).

Obviously there is a sense of chaos about the notion of completely replacing traditional public transport services with DRT ones. However, what is interesting is that chaotic models tend towards deterministic outcomes. In other words, they begin to self-regulate.

If we apply this theory to our chaotic transport model, therefore, disrupting the existing transport network in such a way it’s very likely that we would see bus networks start to align with the timetables and schedules that previously existed, as this would be a natural by-product of customer demand. However, this network may become better optimised through tighter alignment with passenger travel needs.

In areas of high demand, therefore – i.e. urban spaces – we would likely see a near re-emergence of something approaching our traditional timetabled transport network.

But what would happen on the fringes of this new network, in rural areas and suburbs?

Well, because of their lower population densities, it seems unlikely that high-frequency transport routes would emerge. A more probable outcome is the development of high-quality DRT feeder services, which would then provide links to the main high frequency networks established in the urban areas. This would thus provide an optimised solution that once again meets the demands of passengers.

Of course, it’s important to note that these outcomes would rely on transport organisations leveraging the potential of modern technology and making it accessible to the travelling passenger.

As an interesting report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) notes: “New technology has enhanced demand-responsive transport (DRT) in rural areas and small towns. DRT is a more flexible approach to providing public transport than conventional, scheduled buses: it often uses smaller vehicles to provide door-to-door transport solutions, or semi-scheduled routes that respond to customer requests for journeys,” the report adds, pointing to both “smart ticketing, which broadens access [to transport] and makes fare-setting fairer” and also “mobile apps, which enable passengers to book journeys”, as examples of where technology can support these services in responding to customer requests for journeys.

Indeed, a research paper from UCL suggests that just “one platform” would be needed to facilitate this new world of DRT. The authors note this platform would provide “an intermodal journey planner (providing combinations of different transport modes: car-sharing, car rental, underground, rail, bus, bikesharing, taxi), a booking system, a single payment method (single payment for all transport modes), and real time information. Users can use the service either as Pay-As-You-Go or they can purchase mobility packages based on their or their family’s needs. [This would therefore] offer door-to-door seamless mobility and improve travel experience.”

These examples touch upon something that we at Trapeze have long suspected – that advances in technology mean that such hypothetical visions for a new world of public transport needn’t remain as simple conjecture or theory.  It’s our aim to provide systems and solutions that can provide passenger transport solutions that align with the ever changing needs of the travelling passenger.

The majority of today’s transport networks are the results of systems designed to serve societies with rather different characteristics and requirements. Since then, key drivers have restructured the way we live and think – and it seems unlikely that, were we to design our public transport networks from scratch today, we would choose to base our model on existing systems and layouts.

With that in mind, is it time we recognised the potential power of modern technology to help advance our public transport networks, revolutionise them, and start building a new transport system for the future? Perhaps it’s already within our grasp and all it needs is some disruptive thinking.

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About Andrew Fish

Andrew Fish is Trapeze's Product Manager for the Demand Responsive Transport sector of the Local Authority Transport market. He has worked in transport & technology roles ranging from software engineering to product management and implementation delivery.

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