Blog post:

The rise of demand responsive transport

Andrew Fish | October 07, 2015

Tags: Demand response | Local authority |

It is a time of change in the UK public transport industry – and within the bus industry in particular. In London, bus services are thriving – with more passenger journeys in the capital than in the rest of England combined. Yet, as Guardian columnist John Harris notes in this interesting article, elsewhere in the UK the bus industry is facing “crisis”, created by the need to balance budgets in an extreme time of austerity, while also provide high quality service to passengers.

In response to these changes, we have also seen the rise of so-called ‘Total Transport’ initiatives – where agencies within the bus industry get together to pool resources and expertise. With the UK Government now providing funding for local authorities looking to implement such changes to their transport policies – via the ‘Total Transport Pilot Fund’ – it certainly seems that this trend is part of a fundamental change to the way local authorities provide transport .

Alongside these changes is another trend, which may come as a surprise to some. And this is that Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) – hitherto seen as primarily used to help support people in remote communities with mobility issues – is increasingly becoming seen as a potentially mainstream service, and a practical means of providing public transport in place of traditional fixed route services.

So, what gives?

The idea that DRT services are becoming a more common phenomenon, which is set to continue to grow, isn’t simply conjecture. Rather, it is evidenced in this interesting report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

This report, which aims to “build on the government’s successful ‘total transport’ pilots”, explicitly points to demand responsive as being a means of improving the delivery of cost-effective, high quality bus services. Indeed, it says, “demand responsive transport can more efficiently match demand for and the supply of bus services.”

What is also of note here, is that the report believes modern technology will play a vital role in underpinning new DRT services. In the author’s own words, “new technology platforms” will facilitate the development of “transport that is more capable of meeting the demand for and the supply of local bus services.”

“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.

Technology in action

So, for local authorities looking at potentially increasing the use of DRT services, what technology should they consider using to support such services?

There are a number of options available, here, as the IPPR report notes:  “There are various new technological developments that could be applied to DRT to improve services for passengers and deliver greater operational efficiency.”

Technology can be used to assist with planning the routes of services in the area , processing of trip booking , and even driver communications . And increasingly there is a trend towards improving services to passengers – look at Trapeze’s TravelMate solution, for instance, which reduces workloads on staff, while also empowering passengers.

Of course, the specific technology requirements will vary according to the aims, objectives, budget and scale of any new DRT service. Yet it is interesting to see how technology is being used by different organisations throughout the UK to support DRT services.

Think of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, for example, where Trapeze’s PASS-Web online booking portal has been used to improve user access to the ‘MyBus DRT services, while the core PASS product itself helps SPT staff manage the provision of their ‘MyBus’ service effectively.

The IPPR report specifically points out Staffordshire’s Moorlands Connect DRT service, which has used routing technology to “schedule and plan the routes of services in the area.”

Lincolnshire, meanwhile, are also mentioned in the report – again for using software to support the routing of journeys for their Call Connect DRT services. The local authority have also used technology to develop and online booking service.

When it comes to these latter two examples, it also appears as though the technology could be improved. The report notes that the " application is helpful for routing and relays journey information to drivers; however, it does require input into the route setting process by someone with geographical knowledge."

Such limitations in technology can, fortunately, be avoided: Trapeze algorithms for DRT technology have been tried and tested on large-scale sites around the world, often scheduling up to 15,000 trips per day, with route setting done automatically and in a streamlined manner.

Conclusion

In many ways, both the IPPR report – and the above real-world examples - clearly show something that we at Trapeze have long suspected – that technology is driving the agenda for DRT services. 

With tools like smartphone apps, which provide greater accessibility to these services, DRT is no longer only applicable for local authorities looking to increase social mobility for older people or those with restricted mobility. Rather, DRT is increasingly becoming a cost-effective, mainstream alternative to traditional scheduled public transport services providing a mid range tailored door to door service that sits between the premium single occupancy taxi service and a public transport journey traveling from a bus stop. And with the right smart technology to support it, such schemes can help revolutionise the way local authorities provide transport in these times of change.

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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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