How Do You Solve a Problem Like: Demand Responsive Buses?

An elderly yellow Optare Solo passes me by, occasionally, off on a meandering trip to the countryside. All around it the other buses are bright and clean, with free wi-fi and some with USB charging for your phone, but not this one elderly bus.

They all work from the same bus depot, but the problem is that the service it operates on probably makes far less money. For those that live in Hampshire and the New Forest, I suspect you have occasionally also seen the ‘Cango’.

The problem is that the Cango does not really work. It is a great idea that did not work with the times and develop to be an essential demand responsive bus service. The question is though, why didn’t it?

A Demand Responsive Bus?

Why Not? Around here there are really only a few different type of bus service:

  • Frequent commercial and profitable buses. Running at least every half hour and customers only having to walk a few minutes to find a bus stop
  • An hourly service which is more community desired. Sometimes run with council support to the fringes of the town
  • The rural service that runs a few times a day, or only a few days a week

Actually, in that rural service section there is one around here that runs once a week, on a Wednesday, giving  just 90 minutes in town to do business and go home.

So Here is an Example

In the New Forest there is a pre-bookable service that operates Monday to Saturday. There are two types of bus stops on the service; Green stops where buses will stop and Yellow stops in villages which must be pre-booked.

Travelling between two green stops is easy – you turn up and go. Travelling from a Green to a Yellow, a Yellow to a Green or between two Yellow stops requires booking.

This is all great, but this is also where the system falls down; bookings are not really that flexible.

  • You have to phone between 7am and 9am on a Weekday to book, although that can be for a booking either in advance or on that day
  • or have to phone at least a day in advance for the first service of the day, because it departs from it’s first stop before 9am
  • and have to phone at least a day in advance to book for a Saturday as the telephone only operates on Weekdays

Not surprisingly many of the former Cango services in Andover and Basingstoke now operate simply on a fixed route.

The Problem: Cango is Not Everywhere

There are so many villages though that are increasingly cut off from public transport. These are hamlets so small that they might not even have a village shop, some will just have a church or a public house. The residents of the village may change, but with the lack of transport it won’t be young families unless they can all drive.

You remember that once a week bus service? Not 10 years ago there was a morning town bound commuter service and an evening return journey as well; people moved knowing they could get the bus to work.

But Is There A Solution?

I think there is.

Private Hire cars are demand responsive like the Cango. Yes they are more immediate, you can usually phone and get a car in minutes, but the principle is the same.

So why can’t we apply the same principle between a service like UberPool (the car sharing edition of Uber) and a demand responsive bus service?

What is UberPool?

So the principle of UberPool is simple. You request an Uber, you allocate it to UberPool and another rider and divert the car to pick them up and head in the same general direction as you. When I did a quick G<search> of UberPool it touted savings of up to 25% when you do this.

Of course you don’t get to pick who you ride with and only 2 people may pool together; so they could be an obnoxious person with a hygiene problem.

This means multiple pick-up and drop-off management on a small scale is possible and indeed Uber already offer it.

Expanding the Pool

So if you expand the concept, adding in some timing points for example, you could run a demand-responsive and real-time bus service.

Welcome to Basingstoke and Newbury. There is a direct bus between the two which runs mostly via the A339 and stops in Kingsclere village. North of the A339; Thatcham, Baughurst and Tadley have a frequent bus service, but the villages to the south don’t.

It would not take much work to work out which of these villages could handle a minibus. In fact from memory, many of the villages have handled 53 seat school coaches for years, on private contracts.

So you could have a service programmed that would depart Kingsclere at a time, maybe meeting a bus coming in from Newbury, and have a pre-determined time arriving in the center of Basingstoke; but with a defined “roaming area” within the area south of the A339. If Uber can allocate people to cars, then surely you can allocate people to a bus?

As Flexible as Uber

Even after the bus sets off, just like Uber diverting cars to passengers the GPS can guide the bus. If someone requests a pick-up that means the service would not get to Basingstoke in time then it would have to be rejected; but over time people would realise that you still need to book a little time ahead. It would not need meticulous pre-planning though.

It should not be too difficult to use destinations to allocate space on a bus with some creative bin-packing, managing the number of spaces available on the service.

Unlike Uber of course, the roam zone as we could call it is defined. Maybe on the way into town there could be pre-set stops you can alight to catch connecting regular buses or – in Basingstoke’s case here – get on or off at the Leisure Park.

Mixing Uber with CityMapper

CityMapper were trialing their technology in Central London recently and this apparently included real-time data collection for a better demand responsive basis.

So you do not need to rely on bus driver recollections to work out whether some services need two minibuses, or whether there are specific times of day that are popular in specific villages, the data is already provided.

In fact, could this even be tied into calling Uber style cars to match the demand when the need arises?

The Problem is Regulation

This is a bus service at heart. Has anyone ever tried to do something new with a Government department? It can be like drawing blood from a stone getting past a panel of civil servants.

Yes there are already demand responsive services like Cango, but demand responsive with unadvertised duplication and limited seating restricted by an app? There is an Uber for that, and no Government department seems to like Uber at the best of times.

Now, if I had the skills and money I would already be trialing it. I am no Uber or Citymapper though, just a crazy idiot with a strange idea… oh and I just gained an extra hour a day (average) on my hands.