Bus, stop!

The most gas-guzzling form of transport isn’t a 4×4, it’s an eight-litre public bus, driving around almost empty, burning it’s way through diesel and subsidies. But a surprising technological solution could change that, and even mean the end of buses as we know them.

The answer is not electric buses or hydrogen fuel, they save carbon, but are still too costly. In fact the answer isn’t transport related at all, it’s information technology, and in particular smartphones.

Buses can work well in city centres where lots of people are commuting in predictable patterns. But in smaller towns and lower density suburbs the journeys people want to make are too few, too varied and too dispersed. Car ownership in such places is consequently very high indeed.

But public transport is an essential public service, helping those too young, old or poor to be able to drive. So we subsidise routes that make no commercial sense, at frequencies that will only ever attract those who have no choice. The public subsidy per passenger can be so high it would have been cheaper to call them a minicab.

There is a better way. It’s called “demand responsive transport” (or DRT), and it could carry more people, more conveniently, and at less cost to the taxpayer and environment.

In fact, the idea is a very old one and in its basic form exists already around the world. From the traditional American Jitney, through Kenyan Matatus to Songtheows in Thailand, there are many forms of semi flexible public transport that blur the lines between flexible buses and shared taxis.

This offer varies, including buses that can can deviate from a broad route or timetable according to passenger demand, to fully flexible taxis that pool together people going in the same direction.

In the UK the best known form is the dial-a-ride service for disabled people. Some wider services operate under brands like DART and Wigglybus, but tend to be in rural areas where use is very low.

Part of the problem is that such services are peripheral and low profile. A number of studies have suggested that the benefits would only really be felt once a whole town’s bus system was replaced by DRT, making it the accepted and understood alternative to the car.

The prize is lower costs (only running services when they’re needed), lower emissions (no more empty buses wasting fuel), and potentially more people shifting from cars (to a system serving routes never on the bus map).

But who will be brave enough to try out the theory and convert a whole town’s bus network to DRT? In Britain’s deregulated bus system, it will be very difficult to achieve the central co-ordination required.

But the environment is changing, and widespread adoption of smartphones could soon take the potential of DRT to a new level.

To illustrate, consider the impact of technology on three other sustainable transport ideas.

Since the 1960s “White Bike” movements persuaded a number of towns to leave hundreds of free bikes lying around unlocked, in the hope that people would use them to hop around town, and then leave them for the next user. Most were stolen within months and the projects failed. Now, post internet, Londoners can check the location and status of the nearest “Boris Bike” at the tap of a smartphone app, while tagging, connected docking stations, and on-line credit card registration ensure remarkable few get stolen.

Or think of home food deliveries, long promoted through “vegetable box” schemes as a way to reduce the need to own a car. The result was worthy but marginal until Tesco went online, and broadband became mainstream. Now the UK leads the world in internet food shopping.

Similarly car clubs were long touted as the way to wean people off car ownership, but it was only with the internet (and electronic tags to manage access) that services like Streetcar really took off.

The same transformation in viability could happen with DRT. The four key elements needed are all now routine technology.

Firstly smartcards like London’s Oyster, to simplify and co-ordinate payment while simultaneously collecting huge amounts of data about who travels where and when.

Secondly GPS and sat nav, to find and guide all the vehicles.

Thirdly internet-connected apps on smartphones, so passengers can broadcast where they are and where they want to go.

And finally central IT systems to co-ordinate all this information and bring vehicles and passengers together.

You can think of the result either as a bus that knows where it’s passengers really want to go, or as a taxi that knows who else is heading your way and wants to share.

If at a couple of taps on your phone you could call a ride that was almost as flexible as a taxi, but almost as cheap as a bus, then public transport might no longer be the preserve of those unable to drive.

The question is, who and where is going to take this leap into the future first?

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