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Why ‘On-Demand’ Is Transport’s Greatest Leap Forward

Introduction

Demand responsive transport (DRT) or on-demand transport (ODT) has taken on many forms over the years. From dial-a-ride shuttle services, taxis and now app-based pick up and drop off options, transport services that are 'on-demand' are making it easier and more convenient for commuters.

Throughout this article, we explore how we see on-demand transport working and what to expect when trying to change the fundamentals of how we access our transportation network.

What is on-demand transport?

In its simplest form, on-demand transport has been around for a while now - from phone services that allow you to dial-up and schedule a car or taxi through to the sophisticated app-based services that connect commuters with a fleet of privately owned vehicles.

For the context of this article, we define on-demand transport as mid-capacity (5-22 seat) vehicles operating within a designated zone to dynamically pick up and drop off passengers in a flexible manner.

In a sense, on-demand transport has a broad remit, with an emerging constant being the smartphone that enables a seamless booking experience. Through our smartphones, we are unlocking a world of opportunities. Commute to work today by scooter, take a taxi or privately owned passenger vehicle. You can even see where the local bus is from your smartphone and get picked up at a location convenient to you.

The underlying principle for on-demand transport is that it is convenient and comes to you. It has taken our vulnerability for instant gratification and decline in patience to serve up transport on a platter.

In this article, we will focus our efforts on discussing on-demand public transport (ODT). To improve the existing bus and rail networks, on-demand has become the main focus for state transportation agencies across the globe. How does a more flexible, agile service improve the effectiveness of an existing and expensive legacy network? In our opinion, modes that service this need will provide the most value to a strained network.

In short, there is a huge opportunity to incorporate on-demand public transport to reduce the cost of operation, improve patronage and increase plain old 'bums on seats'.

Rigid Bus made Smart?

There comes a certain stigma associated with public transport. A UQ study suggests culture will influence one's choice in commuting patterns. Old vehicles, dirty seats and a cold wait on the side of the road, all while hoping your bus will turn up. These are just some of the challenges that commuters have to deal with when it comes to catching a traditional fixed-route bus service.

A shift is occurring, one that puts the balance of power back in the hands of the commuter. Allowing the passenger to choose the service they want to use is at the core of any on-demand public transport service. Creating an experience that is compelling and conforms to the behaviour of the passenger is the main attraction for this new emerging mode of public transportation.

As more elements of our lives become automated, on-demand or fueled by our reliance on instant gratification, it’s only logical that transportation services follow suit. On-demand buses paint a vision of the future that is streamlined, convenient, reliable and more importantly - visible to the passenger.

By improving the visibility to the service, passengers can benefit from increased productivity by knowing exactly when and where the bus will show up — no more waiting in the rain at a bus stop. Not only will there be improvements to the passenger experience, but transport operators will also benefit from having a connected fleet with optimised vehicle occupancy and reduced the unnecessary costs.

How to improve this experience and truly make the 'rigid bus' smart?

A smart bus is one that will adapt routes & schedules to pick up passengers and at the same time not degrade the onboard passenger experience. Now, this seems counterintuitive as people want the assurance a fixed route service gives you - with known stops and destinations. What they don’t want is to wait, or waste time going to a stop with nobody to pick up.

The fundamental difference between fixed-route and on-demand public transport is that the service can be truly designed around the passenger demand - not a supply that forces demand through specific corridors.

An improvement on the status quo is on-demand transport’s claim. The ability to connect people to mass transit in a more convenient manner, scheduling updates in real-time, integrated timetables and flexible pickup and drop off locations make this service a superior experience to the norm.

Why will ODT change how public transportation is viewed?

Unfortunately, in some cultures, the mode of transport you choose will come with a predefined perception of who you are. By creating a more flexible nature to public transport we open up the opportunity to serve more of the population and create experiences that ultimately lead to a change of behavior. In this regard, it can create new opportunities for enterprise and development. Providing more coverage for local commuters and flexible scheduling not only creates recruitment and retention opportunities but allows local governments to test their traditional views of suitable infrastructure requirements to maintain a car park to vehicle ratio.

Differentiating through passenger experience... “I've got an app for that.”

Now it's easy to say that you have a brand new app and a fancy algorithm backed by machine learning that powers on-demand transport. “Great sign me up...wait, what am I getting again?”

Beneath all the features, benefits and hype of the burgeoning market, at the centre of on-demand public transport is a fine balance of convenience and the degradation of the passenger experience. Ultimately you want to create something so convenient and experiential that it outweighs the current choice and at the same time not make it so convenient you end up compromising the utilisation of your choice of vehicle. This can be seen with major Transportation Network Companies (TNC) as they struggle to actually reduce overall vehicle trips and in some cases contribute to traffic congestion by having such a personalised service that it only encourages the underutilisation of a vehicle.

So herein lies the challenge: How do you create a compelling reason to increase shared trips and get more people on the public transportation network? You improve the overall convenience of the service but degrade the passenger experience enough to make the service sustainable. Two things that don’t really go together when thinking of improving experiences.

Understanding the surrounding environmental factors influencing the daily decisions of commuters leads to designing the right type of on-demand model most likely to succeed. Ensuring that the benefit is clear for the commuter, giving them back their time in exchange for an improved experience. For example, substituting wait times for productive activities whilst seeing in real-time, the vehicle on-approach, reducing poorly lit active commutes during the evening (not walking in the dark) and no requirement to first find then pay for parking before changing transport modes (multi-modal commutes). All of these are valid reasons why a commuter would modify their behaviour and it is these types of factors translated into a feature-set within a convenient and intuitive application that can have a large impact on the design of a service.

Keeping the public's interest aligned with the vision

Let’s be clear; public transport costs a lot of money, taxpayer money. So obviously there is a need to ensure that the government maintains its stake in the very infrastructure that dictates their success. It’s also essential that the vision for ODT doesn’t end at the realisation of an overpriced IPO and works seamlessly to improve existing outcomes for the public transport network. In this sense, working to complement and not compete with the efficient and effective transit corridors improves the overall ability for a transit network to connect people to place.

Key behaviours that dictate success

There have been many forms of on-demand transportation services available over the years. The following are just four of many key behavioural characteristics that go into creating a successful on-demand transportation service.

Set-down time: What is the profile of the passenger and are there any requirements that may extend the set-down (time the vehicle is not in motion) period for each passenger pickup?

Willingness to walk: What is the current active commute (walking) distance of your passenger to access the transport network and would they extend this distance to access a new service?

Multi-modal journey preference: Does the passenger currently commute to a transit hub to access the metro rail system or bus rapid transit and what is the determining factor for choosing a multi-modal commute?

Competing Modes: Is there a preference of mode during certain periods or days, and are there competing modes that have clear benefits over the other under certain conditions?

Summary

On-demand transport (ODT) is emerging as a major technology in regards to contributing to increased efficiencies within future transportation networks. It shifts that balance back in favor of the commuter and provides them with an opportunity to access major transport infrastructure in a more convenient manner. Liftango provides the technology platform to design and instigate behavioral change that can be serviced by on-demand public transport. Working collaboratively with Transport Operators and Public Agencies, Liftango helps to realise the benefits of greater coverage and increased patronage.

If you are interested in deploying an on-demand transport service download our checklist below to uncover critical thinking around best methods for successful on-demand transport deployments.

On Demand Deployment Checklist

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

Woman stepping out of vehicle onto road.