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Britain’s next generation of public transport is demand-responsive

  •   4 min read

How demand-responsive transport could help bring aging networks into a new era of convenient, flexible, and accessible ridership, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

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For many Britons, the idea of leaving your personal car at home and taking public transport isn’t just a time-consuming and complex challenge — it may not even be an option. While traditional modes of transport like trains and buses function well in some of the most urban environments, owning a personal vehicle is oftentimes a necessity rather than a choice in less dense areas.

Here’s a quick snapshot: Across Great Britain, 68% of workers typically travel to work by car. Meanwhile, traffic and congestion continue to worsen — road traffic went from 255 billion miles travelled in 1990 to 328 billion miles in 2018, an increase of 29%. And in 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from road transport made up around a fifth of the UK’s total GHG emissions.

Most solutions — from light rail to high-speed rail to bike lanes to more walkable urban areas — are attractive in theory, and the Government have shown their commitment to making these a reality, most recently with the announcement of a £2 billion package to increase cycling and walking in England.  

Yet these solutions are only one piece of the puzzle. At the same time, our current moment also calls for technology-enabled change. As we adapt to needs for physical distancing, sanitary improvements, and contact tracing as governments look for ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, mobility sits at the heart of our ability to get back to work and return to new routines. Technology has the opportunity to support necessary changes in public transport which can be adapted in real-time, as needs evolve.  

What is demand-responsive transport?

For all of these reasons, many communities are considering an alternative that combines advances in mobile technology and artificial intelligence to deliver a demand-responsive transport network that can be deployed immediately and is relatively inexpensive compared to big-ticket projects.

DRT is essentially a unique blend of the ride-hailing concept and the familiar city bus. Passengers request a journey through an app, get picked up quickly and within a few metres of their location, share the trip with others in a multi-passenger vehicle that is configured to adhere to local safety guidelines, and get dropped off either near their destination or at their door. Pickups and dropoffs often occur within a short walking distance from the requested locations to maximise routing efficiency, eliminate lengthy detours, and keep trip times closer to those of a private vehicle. 

What makes the concept work is an intelligent algorithm running behind the scenes, which considers all incoming trip requests and quickly calculates the most efficient routes vehicles can use to pick up passengers heading in the same direction.

This ‘curb-to-curb’ approach can work in urban and rural areas, using existing roads. It does not require communities to lay track or purchase fleets of trains or large city buses. 

Significant advantages for any community.

Immediate pickup, requested via an app, is incredibly convenient, and the model helps keep costs, traffic congestion, and the resulting vehicle emissions much lower than a private car. Together, cost and convenience drive demand, giving passengers a much better alternative to waiting for a fixed-route bus that may take 90 minutes to make a trip that would take less than 30 minutes in a car, should the passenger live near a bus or train station.

Demand-responsive transport is more flexible than fixed-route systems, unlocking transport access to a wider range of people than those who already live near existing stops. The technology that powers DRT also has the ability to rapidly adapt, which cities and transport authorities are quickly realising is more important than ever. As communities look for ways to support the safety of their constituents and help them return to a more mobile daily life, DRT can incorporate changing regulations like the frequency of vehicle cleanings, caps on the number of people who can share a journey, and even help facilitate tracking interactions between passengers – a potentially necessary step in curbing future outbreaks of the coronavirus. 

In the face of the pandemic, cities with existing DRT networks, like Berlin, were able to rapidly adjust their networks in order to limit vehicle capacities and address changing regulatory needs. Other cities preparing to launch DRT networks like in Sevenoaks, Kent and Timaru, New Zealand, were also able to do so within days, launching services well ahead of schedule to provide essential transportation in their communities. Even cities without prior DRT plans were able to build something from scratch: in just a few days, cities like Abu Dhabi built a new DRT network, proving how agile and flexible these new modes of public transportation can be.

Helping those most in need of mobility, who currently lack public transport options.

In addition, demand-responsive transport is better able to serve elderly citizens and those with disabilities. Using public transport can be very difficult for these riders, which is why they often rely on specialised mobility services that must be requested anywhere from one to three days in advance.

For example, West Sacramento On-Demand, a DRT service we power in California, is now averaging more than 3,000 trips per week, about 14 percent of which are taken by residents who are older or who have disabilities. As a direct result of the program, 66% of passengers say they feel safer getting around town, and 59% say they have a greater sense of independence. Notably, over 40% say they now drive alone less often. 

It’s important to note that DRT is not a replacement of fixed-route systems. Rather, it can be used in an ‘all of the above’ approach. In areas where bus ridership is already high, vehicles are well-utilised, and costs-per-passenger are low, DRT can be used to reduce dependence on single passenger ride-hailing services. 

It can also be deployed to effectively extend the footprint of public transport, bringing passengers from outlying areas to transport hubs, serving as a ‘first-and-last mile’ solution to boost ridership on commuter rail, for example, which may become even more important as cities lift shelter-in-place orders and get back to work. Further, demand-responsive technology can be used to optimise fixed lines, supporting key activities like seat booking to manage demand, and shifting underutilised vehicles to support peak ridership in other locations. 

DRT fleets are already operating in a number of cities, from London to Dubai to Sydney. At scale, DRT has the capacity to deliver an immediate drop in congestion, taking cars off the road, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and support safe travel in communities around the world.

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