On-demand buses have taken public transport by storm
Buses have been operating in a similar fashion since the early 1900’s. But now due to technological advancement, transit agencies and providers are faced with an opportunity to create a new and agile experience for the bus industry.
What do buses of the future look like?
Thanks to advances in technology, the conditions are ripe for a more agile and personalised approach to running buses. Buses of the future will be small, agile, efficient, and most importantly, they will be there when you need them—just-in-time, not just-in-case. On-demand bus technology is yielding benefits to passengers, operators and public transport authorities such as increased efficiency, lower cost of operations and expanded service coverage. All of which, is providing us with a technology-enabled sustainable pathway for the future of buses
The Current Bus Landscape: Buses – Just in case
Public buses have been a constant in the transport landscape for decades. Most bus services today operate the same way they did in the early 1900s. They run on fixed timetables and fixed routes—essentially functioning on a principle of ‘just-in-case’.
In other words, the unofficial contract between the bus and the rest of the world continues to exclaim, “I’ll be doing this route at this time, just in case you need me”.
In the age before mobile phones and instant communications, this approach was entirely necessary — it was the only practical option. Effectively, the just-in-case model has instilled the idea that bus services should aspire to rigid predictability. As long as the bus is running to its timetable, passengers are getting a good service.
However, research shows that the just-in-case model is a highly inefficient way to run a bus network. The following statistics illustrate the extent of the problem:
- According to the 2016 National Transit Database, the average urban transit bus (including commuter buses and rapid transit buses) has 39 seats but carries an average of just 11 people.
- The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics also confirms that the average city bus requires 20 percent more energy per passenger than the average car.
- The ‘empty bus’ problem is a symptom of an outdated model, and low bus loads explain why buses use about as much energy per passenger kilometre as the average SUV.
Most passengers who regularly use public bus services will attest to the fact that buses are very often severely overcrowded, or almost completely empty.
As a result, any efficiencies that buses might deliver when they are running at full capacity are wiped out if they are running empty at other times. But with the advent of smartphones, the old model is no longer the only option. We can now use our phones to make a travel request—we do it all the time for services like Uber and Lyft. People are far more comfortable booking transport with their phones than they were in the past and complex machine learning algorithms have become adept at computing the optimum routes for vehicles looking to service the demand for trips.
The Future Bus Landscape: Buses Just-in-Time
Thanks to advances in technology, the conditions are ripe for a more agile and personalised approach to running buses. The public bus system now has the means to connect supply with demand.
Passengers can lodge a request for a trip from point A to B at a specific time and bus operators can analyse the demand for travel. This is known as on-demand, or a Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT) service.
This emerging model can ensure that a passenger’s requirements are met by a bus at the right location, at the right time. The value proposition for passengers is clear, even if they need to pay a slightly higher fare.
The on-demand bus model means:
- A personalised travel experience — a bus when a customer wants it, from the location of their choice.
- No more overcrowding – on-demand vehicles can stop taking passengers after they reach capacity.
- No more ‘three buses at once’ – each passenger is allocated a spot on a specific bus.
- More confidence for passengers, as fixed pickup and drop-off times, will allow them to plan trips effectively.
The ability to track the live location of the bus as it approaches will also improve the experience.
What are the benefits of integrating an on-demand system for bus transit providers?
For public transport funding bodies, the key value proposition of an on-demand model is the ability to unlock more efficiency from the network—essentially, moving more passengers with less funding. Other potential benefits of on demand buses include:
- Less damage to our roads, as the buses are smaller
- The ability to service some geographical areas that were previously inaccessible or commercially unviable on fixed routes
- Real-time data on the patronage of buses, mobility demand, and trip outcomes
- Instant feedback from passengers to help hone services
An on-demand bus model will also bring a significant value proposition for transport operators themselves, whether public or private:
- They will achieve better asset utilisation and higher patronage per kilometre of travel
- Operation costs will be reduced, as buses will no longer be running empty
- Revenue will increase as new passengers are attracted by the efficient new service model
How can on-demand compliment existing public transport?
So, is it out with the old, in with the new? Not exactly.
Nothing can replace the efficiency of a good old express bus service, running regular, high volume, fixed routes in high-demand corridors.
However, the on-demand bus model can complement existing public transport services by providing an excellent method of transporting passengers to mass transit hubs from the outer suburbs.
In addition, a demand-responsive bus offers a more efficient prospect for moving people around in areas with lower passenger volumes, during off-peak periods, for passengers with accessibility requirements and for remote communities.
Smartphone market saturation and related technologies have led to a paradigm shift in the traveling public’s expectations. Fixed, timetable-driven services, previously the norm, are now in the process of becoming the exception, with on-demand mobility emerging as a significant part of future models.
An on-demand bus network could unlock significant benefits for passengers, operators, and society as a whole.
Importantly, this nascent transport mode could also attract people away from their cars to deliver a positive outcome for the environment. Leading transport operators are recognising the possibilities of technology and beginning to adapt their delivery models accordingly.