Feature: How on-demand bus services could be the future of passenger transport

07 February 2019

With bus ridership numbers continuing to decline in most areas, operators are having to be ever-more dynamic in order to make catching a bus as easy as using any other form of transport.

As a result, there has been a huge surge of interest in Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) services in recent months, including from major national operators and even vehicle manufacturers.

Both Mercedes-Benz and Ford have offered direct ride-hailing services in the past year, though Ford has recently announced that it is to close its ‘Chariot’ service later this year.

But on-demand, app-based passenger services definitely have a future- that’s the view of national bus operator Go-Ahead. Its successful pilot DRT system covers the eastern side of Oxford and will be rolled out across other areas in time.

Last year, Go-Ahead subsidiary, the Oxford Bus Company, invested £850,000 in six 17-seat Mercedes-Benz Euro 6 minibuses, with Wi-Fi, USB charging points, wheelchair access and high-back seating to launch the PickMeUp service. Operating via an app, it connects passengers with buses that are collecting other riders on their route via a network of ‘virtual bus stops’, which are never more than a 200-metre walk away.

Phil Southall, Oxford Bus Company Managing Director, said: “We are always keen to devise new solutions to meet the needs of our local communities. Though we have great bus links to and from the city centre from the Eastern Arc, connectivity has been a challenge for routes across the east of the city and we believe our new service will help where traditional bus routes do not work commercially.

“The idea of PickMeUp is to provide a new way to get people around swiftly, efficiently and on-demand. I hope this will further encourage people to leave their cars at home, help reduce pollution and improve connectivity in east Oxford.”

Go-Ahead Group Chief Executive, David Brown, said: “We’ve listened closely to what the local community has been asking for in Oxford. Passengers are keen for a quick, easy and flexible way to get to work, to college or simply to travel around town.

“On a broader level, we firmly believe that ride-sharing is part of the solution to congestion and pollution in our towns and cities. It’s essential that we provide services that will tempt people out of their cars and technology will be key to that challenge.”

Users of PickMeUp register either their debit or credit card details with the app, or pay via PayPal, Android Payments or Google Pay, with each journey costing a flat rate of £2.50.

A similar model is being run by national bus operator Arriva, whose ArrivaClick service is now fully operational in Liverpool, following smaller-scale trials in Sittingbourne, Kent, in 2017.

ArrivaClick also uses Mercedes-Benz minibuses, with a fleet of 25 vehicles operating within a defined area between Liverpool City Centre and John Lennon Airport. It uses a cashless app, charged at £1 per mile, which is billed back to the passenger.

Passengers can ‘order’ and track a vehicle from the app, which will also tell them the name of the driver, and allow them to choose their pick-up point, and reserve a seat. Powered by global ride sharing transportation platform, Via, algorithms match passengers traveling in the same direction, dynamically routing vehicles in real-time to find the optimal route for their trip.

The shortest and fastest routes are calculated, with a guaranteed fare and real-time information on time of departure and arrival is provided, much like the ride-haling service Uber. Passengers are then picked up and dropped off by the bus in the order most convenient for them.

During the pilot in Kent, more than half of customers surveyed switched from using private cars to ArrivaClick, with 61% of users using the service a few times a week or more. 43% adopted the service for their daily commute and the average rating from users was 8.3/10, with 9 in 10 saying they would recommend it to a friend.

Kevin O’Connor, Managing Director of UK Bus, Arriva, said: “The bus services we run in Liverpool are relied upon by thousands of customers every day, and we are proud to bring this innovative and complementary new service to the city.

“ArrivaClick will complement existing public transport in the region, giving customers more options to use shared transport and we have big ambitions to make this flexible, responsive service available for thousands more journeys.

Matt Goggins, Head of Bus at Merseytravel, added: “One of Merseytravel’s main aims is to make sustainable journeys a more attractive choice for people in the Liverpool City Region, particularly when accessing things like training, education and employment. By providing a new way to use public transport, ArrivaClick supports that vision.”

It’s not only in major cities that DRT systems can make a big difference, either, with the Isle of Man’s operator, Bus Vannin, launching a new service called connectVILLAGES at the end of last year. The service has no fixed routes or times but can be summoned by residents in the island’s villages to take them to the capital city of Ramsey.

Jason Moorhouse, the island’s Public Transport Minister, said: ‘The trial for connectVILLAGES is all about convenience and social inclusion – many areas in the north are not serviced by a regular bus route and this will provide people with the opportunity to travel more freely.”

It’s surprising, then, that a similar scheme that was launched in Bristol in 2016 has since announced its closure. Slide Bristol was the idea of global public transport operator RATP Dev, which blamed increased competition from rivals for the closure of the DRT system.

Coralie Triadou, Microtransit Director at RATP Dev, said: “Slide Bristol was the first microtransit service to be launched in the United Kingdom and we are proud to have worked with the local community to provide this service to its commuters. Slide has proved to be extremely popular, covering more than 210,000 kilometers over a two-year period and receiving an average 4.9 out of 5 rating from customers for its drivers and service.

“Our experience in Bristol has shown us that Microtransit services in large city centres can only operate smoothly when they are fully integrated with the public transport network, and this is where we want to focus our efforts. As these conditions became challenging to meet in Bristol and with increased competition from two new Metrobus Rapid Transit routes, we decided to end the service.”

“We are proud to have transformed what was initially planned as a short pilot project into a full two-year operation and remain committed to investing in microtransit services and in developing new creative transport solutions which benefit commuters throughout the UK and beyond.”