Joining up journeys with SPT
Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) is an impressive organisation. Not only is it responsible for transport for around 42% of the entire population of Scotland (across a fifth of the country’s landmass); it does so while blazing a trail of invention and innovation, frequently championing new, modern projects, schemes and ideas – and in many ways changing the way we think about public transport.
To illustrate, see the Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) sector, where SPT’s ‘MyBus’ service – formally known as Dial-a-Bus – has been operating for more than 20 years. The service has been revamped in recent years, resulting in huge growth; and now caters for some 500,000 trips per year.
How did SPT achieve this level of success? To find out we spoke to the man at the heart of this story: Demand Responsive Transport Team Leader, John Knox.
Joining up journeys
Speaking with John it is immediately clear why SPT’s MyBus initiative has proven so successful: he has huge passion and commitment to the cause and a strong belief that the most important people involved are the passengers themselves. “MyBus is so valuable for anyone with a mobility issue or those who don’t have ready access to public transport services,” John says.
“The service opens the world up for a lot of people by enabling them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. For some, traditional public transport can be a daunting concept rather than a means to an end. Not being able to get out and about gets in the way of people being able to live their lives and basic things like getting to the shops or socialising with friends become massive challenges.
“It’s about making transport accessible,” John explains. “Part of this relates to physical changes – lowering the height of steps, making sure there’s enough room available for wheelchair users, and so on – but there’s also a trend toward using technology to improve transport accessibility.”
Technology works: 361%
SPT’s willingness to embrace new technology has played a fundamental role in the continued success of the MyBus service: “Modern technology is so important to increasing mobility and increasing accessibility of public transport,” John explains. “This is true for mainstream services but is especially so with DRT.”
Statistics convincingly illustrate this point: when SPT first installed Trapeze’s PASS-Web online booking portal in 2012, online MyBus bookings immediately jumped by 361% – and that rise has continued: “When we introduced online booking the system was taking 400 trips each month; now we average 2,500,” John says.
Interestingly, this trend contrasts with that seen with traditional booking methods, reveals John: “The numbers of MyBus telephone bookings is actually pretty stagnant; the real growth in our bookings is coming through online bookings.”
“Online booking makes transport completely accessible. You no longer need to telephone a call centre to make your booking – something that could lead to long waits,” John explains. “Instead, people can book their trips from the comfort of their own home and at a time that suits them. It puts them completely in control of their journey.”
The tablet revolution
It is interesting to note that John doesn’t view the delivery of technology as the only factor here; he sees a deeper cultural factor element, and it’s one we’ve seen elsewhere in the transport sector: the rise of the tablet computer.
“For a long time people didn’t have access to technology as they do now,” John explains. “One of the challenges we faced when starting out with MyBus was that the majority of the older population didn’t have access to PCs and didn’t really want to use computers or technology.”
“However, technology has become more accessible and we’re seeing it used more and more by our passengers,” John continues. “Tablets have played a crucial role because they’re easy to use and people don’t think of them as computers, so are more willing to use them. The rise in tablet use has really underpinned the success of our online DRT system, and it has seen PASS-Web come into its own.”
In the back office
Of course, huge growth in bookings produces work for back office staff, which requires careful consideration. “As the number of people using our services grow, managing and maintaining service levels is critical,” John explains. “You’ve got to use technology to do this, and Trapeze’s systems help us do that. They enable us to continually grow our services without adversely impacting our passengers.”
Having been one of the earliest UK adopters of Trapeze’s PASS software for managing demand responsive services more than 15 years ago, staff at SPT are well positioned to evaluate its effectiveness. “PASS allows us to do lots of different things – it’s very versatile,” John explains. “Crucially, it allows us to see multiple feeds and processes in one place, which enables us to streamline our working practices.”
Fleet management is another important component, because staff are able to see all the vehicles in one place; while driver communications is also greatly improved: “The driver doesn’t get a last minute call when he clocks on for work at 9am, saying he has to get somewhere 9 miles away,” John explains. “It means they are prepared.”
“The real value comes in the time that is freed up for our staff,” John continues: “They can use their time more effectively and efficiently; but also we can take more calls, which means people who do phone in don’t have to wait so long,” John says.
And of course the bigger picture here relates to cost savings. “Without Trapeze we wouldn’t have seen the growth we have,” John says. “We would have needed twice the number of staff to help us manage and maintain our service levels to meet rising demand – so it has helped us realise significant savings in that respect.”
What people want
The success of the revamped MyBus service can be seen in the results it has delivered: “Online booking is changing the behaviour of our clients,” John says. “Those who are using it to book and take trips are doing so more frequently – which is great because it proves we are helping increase mobility and make travel accessible.”
Of course, ensuring systems meet the needs of passengers will always remain John’s utmost priority, yet here too Trapeze’s PASS-Web system is proving useful, by enabling the organisation to gain customer feedback and communicate effectively with passengers.
“We send surveys to users and the feedback we get is very good,” John says. “We ask users if they would go back to using the old call centre method, and 99% say no.”
The never-ending story
But despite the positive feedback, John knows that systems must continually evolve in order to meet the perpetually changing requirements of the transport industry: “When it comes to technology, you’re never going to be one step ahead: you’re continuously trying to catch up. But it’s important you do because technology is the future.”
With this in mind, John is also acutely aware of the need to ensure his team are ready to embrace new opportunities to develop and grow SPT’s DRT services. Indeed, he always has one eye on the future, noting his interest in utilising Apps in order “to deliver real-time information to our passengers as easily as possible.”
The beginnings of a brilliant partnership
But when introducing any new technology – whether an App or online booking portal – John knows how important it is to work with the right supplier. He saw this first hand some 15 years ago, when SPT took the pioneering step of introducing Trapeze’s PASS system: “We were the first in the UK to use it,” John recalls. “The team were excellent at developing and upgrading the system so that it suited our needs.”
“My relationship with Trapeze is a reciprocal partnership, rather than a simple business-client relationship,” John continues. “There’s always a two-way dialogue between our teams and we work together in product development.
“The support staff in particular are excellent – they understand from a client’s perspective what is required and they can empathise with our needs and objectives,” John finishes. “This means they’re able to take on board client suggestions which means development of the products is very good and in line with what we as users need.”
A true success story
John is convinced that Trapeze technology has helped SPT to completely change the way people think about DRT services: “It revolutionised our services – completely changing our processes,” he says simply.
However, while this is surely true, it is also clear that so much of SPT’s success is down to John and his team in the MyBus office – a team who, when not carrying out day-to-day duties or picking up an award for their work and vision, will be found using their expert knowledge to help SPT’s partner organisations to overcome their own challenges.
And while John remains modest about the achievements – insisting they are down to a combination of “fate and being in the right place at the right time” – the facts speak for themselves: vision and foresight, and willingness to champion new technology solutions have shaped one of the nation’s most impressive transport success stories.
“The service opens the world up for a lot of people by enabling them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to"
-John Knox, Demand Responsive Transport Team Leader, SPT