Upgrading Driver Communications with SPT
While Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) can offer essential mobility to those in society who need it most, such services are sadly far from immune to the budget restrictions and increased austerity cuts affecting authorities across the country.
Some organisations have responded by shaving costs wherever possible. However, we have also been encouraged to note the alternate approach that some organisations have taken: investing in technology to help deliver maximum value for available budget.
Of course, the advantages (and limitations) of computerised DRT scheduling are well understood by many Local Authorities around the country, but what about driver communications? Given that fewer organisations have explored this area to date, could it offer as-yet untapped potential for efficiency and cost saving?
We contacted Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) to find out.
As we have previously explored, SPT is an extremely impressive organisation, responsible for transport for around 42% of the entire population of Scotland, with a history of invention and innovation. The organisation’s ‘MyBus’ service has been operating for more than 20 years and caters for some 500,000 trips per year.
While SPT uses Trapeze’s PASS system to schedule work in this area, it is the team’s investment in driver communications technology which is particularly interesting. SPT uses Trapeze’s DriverMate to deliver improved schedule efficiency (no more inability to proactively react to changes, and cancelled or rearranged trips) and reduce operational costs. But how exactly do improvements in driver communications impact on services, and how do they improve passenger experience?
Old ways of working
Before implementing DriverMate, SPT struggled with hardware that could be unreliable , but some operators have no in-vehicle equipment at all and so have to rely on manual scheduling that is distributed to drivers via printed manifests. This of course causes huge difficulties when dealing with schedule changes, or communicating passenger no-shows and rearranged trips.
SPT currently has 200 DriverMate devices in operation, which has seen paperwork virtually eradicated because drivers have all the information they need in the palm of their hands. There is less stress for despatchers and drivers, while passengers have greater confidence in services that are reliably on time.
To understand more about how DriverMate contributes to a cost- effective transport solution, we spoke to SPT’s John Knox, Demand Responsive Transport Team Leader. The hardware SPT used was causing problems and repeated cost outlay for it to be fixed. John said: “The main issues were cost. DriverMate is an affordable solution. Previously, aside from the cost, an engineer would be required to install a cradle on a vehicle. With a mobile phone there is less scope for damage. The time saving and costs savings are significant.” Crucially, since it is based on the Android Operating System, DriverMate is also convenient and easy to deploy: “Download the app to an Android phone and the system is ready for a route,” John concludes.
Easy to use modern devices
Having a familiar device like a smartphone is of value for those who use it - the drivers. DriverMate uses Google Maps, Navigation and Street View, arming drivers with the tools they need to always arrive at pick-ups on time and to schedule. John says: “Drivers no longer have sat navs and multiple devices, but one device that is a mobile phone, satnav, tracker and DriverMate - ideal from a provider’s point of view, but also for the driver.”
While technological convergence feels like an inevitable step in the modernisation of public transport, and is clearly great for drivers, it also has a business benefit, as John explains : “ DriverMate directs from the current location to the next job – no need to enter postcodes or locations . If a driver is not familiar with a district, not only does he have a device that will get him to from A to B, he can pull up Street View for a reference.”
The ease of use factor is also helpful for passengers, but in a way that ultimately has a business benefit too. DriverMate, when used in conjunction with PASS-Web online booking, puts the passenger in control of their journey – jobs appear on a driver’s device without any need for office staff to become involved. John says: “This obviously saves an organisation staff time and releases call centre staff to take bookings from other passengers or provide assistance to passengers who require it. Technology if used as a package can save money, through staff time, but also increases efficiency and revenue.”
Real Time information creates passenger confidence
DriverMate enables integration of Real Time information into SPT’s DRT services , and vehicle location monitoring has proved a real advantage. John realises the positive value of the accuracy of RTPI (Real Time Passenger Information), acknowledging how attractive it is for both the customer and the operator: “To be able to tell someone that the vehicle is just around the corner and for it to then appear.” In this way, passengers learn to rely on their vehicle arriving exactly when need it. John said: “It enables us to give real-time info to passengers, if they contact us about a journey. Having that information saves us having to call the driver, this which saves the drivers’ ’ time as they can concentrate on passengers without the office constantly contacting them. It also enables us to tailor the service to the passenger; if the real time info shows a passenger needs a bit more time we can allow for it. This saves frustration for the drivers and hopefully prevents the passenger from feeling rushed.”
The benefits of using DriverMate to improve driver communications seem clear. But is investing in new technology a sensible use of increasingly stretched budgets? From John’s perspective, investment is a way of future proofing the services that SPT offers. He said: “We felt that DriverMate was only going to improve, as it is constantly being developed. We have put through six or seven development requests that have been included in future builds for us. I think that is useful for Trapeze as well, to have that feedback.” Collaborative technology development such as this allows for targeted improvement in what software providers can offer – working with transport operators to deliver exactly what is needed to improve services and, ultimately, save money by reducing costs.
What is the cost of doing nothing?
Any decision to invest money in a new operating system is one that has to be weighed carefully, thinking not only about the impact on operators and passengers (including the problems new technology can solve and the benefits it can bring), but also the cost of implementation. When SPT had to make a decision as to the future of the driver communication side of their DRT services, they considered all options. John Knox said: “When we first started using DriverMate we were looking for an affordable solution - not only from our own perspective but also for our partners and councils . Our old devices were coming to the end of their life and starting to develop faults. We considered buying new devices, but cost-wise this Android solution made sense: we were getting 10 Android devices for the cost of one piece of old hardware.”
Cost savings are not necessarily the only driving factor in choosing technology to support driver communications - it clearly needs to be a system that works perfectly for those who run it as well those who use it. John sees his current system as one that perfectly fits the delicate balance of those requirements. He said: “The biggest selling point is that is a simple to use, affordable and reliable system. It does help save money - it is an affordable solution that offers real benefits both to the organisation and to the passengers. And that is important, because it is the benefits to the passengers that we think about.”
"[T]he time saving and costs savings are significant.”
- John Knox, Demand Responsive Transport Team Leader, SPT