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Aug 25, 2020

How to Launch a Successful Demand-Responsive Transport Service

9 critical elements to a successful service and what to avoid.

How to Launch a Successful Demand-Responsive Transport Service

There is one word to sum up the how and why of  Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT)—agile.Transit agencies need to be prepared to be agile and adapt their services to the needs of the passenger. Being able to deploy a model within a tight timeframe and have the ability to adapt it in real-time is one of the biggest advantages of DRT (also known as on-demand transport) and will result in quick uptake and loyal passengers.

What learnings can we take from previous trials?

Transport for NSW—an Australian State Transportation Agency— has undertaken the world’s most comprehensive, coordinated multi-site on-demand trials. The initial trial included 22 sites (11 metro and11 regional) and now has 24 active sites. The breadth of this trial is allowing the Agency to instigate learnings on a larger and much rapid scale, identifying key models, behaviours and motives that lead to greater coverage and increased convenience for passengers. 

Shifting people’s behaviour is no small feat and to do so, we must analyse the key attributes that encourage positive change.

Using Fogg’s Behaviour Model to assess Demand-Responsive Transport 

Taking a look at the experience we gained whilst participating in one of the world’s most comprehensive ongoing multi-site on-demand public transport trials, we must first explain our methodology as to how we arrived at our conclusions. 

We use the framework of Fogg’s Behaviour Model to look at some of the key aspects of what makes a DRT service work. In its simplest terms this is known as “B=MAT”.

Behaviour = Motivation + Ability + Triggers

When changing a behaviour one must have the right forces in place to facilitate a change that will form new habits. By looking at the three principal elements within the Fogg Behavioural Model we will provide a checklist of nine core things to think about when deploying a new DRT service:

  1. Motivation

This is the physical, social and emotive response people seek when adopting new ideas or behaviours. Motivation is valuable as it provides internal and environmental feedback on the status quo which can ultimately lead to an individual seeking a new path or staying the course.

  1. Ability

This refers to the ‘cost’ of carrying out the tasks required for change.This ‘cost’ could be financial, time, social perception or even the challenge of learning something new. This is the perceived friction along the path to achieving something different.

  1. Triggers

The age old “What’s in it for me?” question. What is going to incentivise me to do something different? It may be legislation, an influencer, a cause or a discount. Triggers are the crucial element to give an individual a ‘shove’ in the right direction.

Now we will take these three principal elements from Fogg’s Behaviour Model and unpack nine critical elements needed when it comes to implementing DRT services.

Nine Critical Elements to Launch a Successful DRT Service:

Looking at Motivation:

The following three items focus on areas that will help to provide the motivation for public and private agencies looking to deploy a DRT t service.

1. Check the influence of supporting infrastructure

Avoid deploying a service that competes with convenient parking facilities or reliable public transit services.

What external forces influence the primary mode of transport in a multi-modal journey?

For example, is there increased capacity from a new mass transit option available? Does this new transit capacity (passengers per hour) match the onboarding capability of the supporting infrastructure i.e. are there enough car parks for people driving? Do other modes feed passengers onto the service at a rate high enough to utilise the new asset appropriately?

2. Classify all transport services within the proposed zone

Avoid the ridiculous comparisons of cost in the first few months of service and make sure any gains made downstream within a transport network are clearly accounted for.

Low frequency fixed route services are the easiest services to convert and create a following. These services can transform to solve a first mile, last mile issue, connecting commuters to a main, high-frequency artery. The important consideration is the overall network effect. Do not look at the cost service in isolation but a full comparison of network efficiency over time. Does the new on-demand service improve mass rail patronage by ‘X’% each month? What is the average cost per passenger over the entire journey?

3. Multiply the motivators with parking problems

Avoid focusing solely on parking congestion as a main driver for deployment—commuters need options, just like they need multiple influential reasons to engage in different behaviour.

Where is the proposed service located and are there visceral parking problems? Do people openly talk about their trouble parking and is there any current way of incentivising higher occupancy travel? Reduced stress from parking is one of the easiest benefits to leverage when designing shared mobility solutions. Make the benefits of safety, convenience and reduced trip time apparent when using a lack of, or poor parking as motivation to change behaviour.

Looking at Ability:

By exploring some abilities within shared mobility we will uncover not a feature set, but a set of capabilities and desired outcomes from a commuter-centric perspective. This section defines how simple it is for a commuter to affect change.

4. Define a start point, close to the status quo

Avoid looking for new flashy features within the app.

By providing transport to those that need it most, you must account for the many different types of personal situations that arise. In this age of instant gratification a user base will quickly tell you if the app is not working by the social ‘justice’ one can administer one tweet at a time. Therefore the focus should not be on a feature set, but the ability for the commuter/user to feel comfortable whilst being intuitively guided through the booking process. First focus on identifying the critical behavioural queues then build the service and technology around them. I.e. If a passenger will only walk up to 150m before choosing a different mode of transport then build this into the overall design.

5. Can an approved carer make a booking on behalf of the passenger?

Avoid being constrained to a fixed outcome. n-demand transport is fluid by nature, therefore don't be afraid of taking a phased approach and rolling out additional capability after you have tested the first iteration.

Ensuring that your fleet is equipped with the appropriate modifications that enable all passengers to access the vehicle in a similar manner goes a long way towards providing transit equity. Whilst Demand-Responsive Transport is improving every day with new technology it’s important to remember that some passengers may not require or be able to use a smartphone. This is where call centre support and ‘surrogate’ bookings help expand the reach and improve the ability for specific people to use the service.

6. Don’t over-complicate it with additional competition

Avoid placing a DRT service where it will compete with existing services or compromise the overall goal for public transport in the area.

There have been multiple stories of failed DRT  businesses around the globe. The successful deployments have shown an ability to provide ongoing synergies with the overall transport network by:

  1. Improving access to, and integration with high-capacity mass-transit modes
  2. Improving and deploying convenient first-mile, last-mile commuting options
  3. Increasing vehicle utilisation and decreasing operational costs

Given Australia’s  preference for single occupancy commuting, it is imperative that when presented with an alternative, the ability or 'friction’ felt when making a change is minimal, is an improvement on old habits, and is facilitated in a way that makes sense for the commuter.

Looking at Triggers:

The final section speaks about the ‘triggers’ or ‘incentives’ required to balance out the behavioural forces that instigate positive change, read on for specific incentives to ‘nudge’ commuters in the right direction.

7. Don’t be afraid to modify pickup and drop off options

Avoid placing too many constraints on the service during the launch phase and strategically wind back the flexible pickup options by consolidating major pickup zones in order to improve vehicle utilisation.

The greatest incentive of DRT service is convenience. Fixed route services are rigid, fixed and in this sense, unable to adapt to demand. A point-to-point or point-to-hub service incentivises commuters through the promise of convenience—making it easier to get to your destination or connect to a second leg. This flexible connection is characterised by the term ‘first-mile, last-mile’ and is predicated on the fact that the hardest and most inconvenient legs of a journey now become convenient and flexible filled by on-demand transportation operators. This is one of the main benefits to Demand-Responsive Transport and is a main contributor for on-boarding new passengers to public transport.

8. Prioritise convenience over utilisation initially

Avoid finding the ultimate solution day one and ensure that passengers receive a convenient door-to-door or curbside pickup.

Key constraints come into play to optimise an on-demand transport service. It is important that critical service levers can be adjusted to introduce or mitigate friction and ultimately improve or degrade the passenger experience. 

Allowing the passenger to define the pickup and drop off location places the control firmly in the hands of the passenger whilst at the same time introduces potential friction for subsequent passengers and may have an effect on wait times.

 Ultimately it is a balance between degrading the passenger experience and managing fleet utilisation—too convenient, then a vehicle will be forever prioritising convenience over utilisation. Merged stops forcing passengers to get their on-demand bus at a centralised location prioritises fleet utilisation and degrades the passenger experience by making them walk to a pickup or from a drop off location.

9. Clear communications on how and where to access the service

Avoid being overly conservative to a degree that it may hinder uptake.

Ensuring there is excellent marketing support and training in place will give the service the best chance for success. People need to be incentivised to do something and the first tactic for triggering an event is pure awareness. Communicating the service and how it will fit into your commuter’s daily schedule is critical to getting acceptance and ongoing change. With many contentious issues in the market, it is easy to hedge bets and aim for low touch soft launches. Make sure that there is a comprehensive communications plan in place that will inform, educate and incentivise commuters and don’t be afraid to modify your approach.

By considering these nine points, you are well placed to make informed decisions on how to best deploy an on-demand transport service!

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