The roots of Demand-Responsive Transport

Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT) has recently received major attention as an effective solution when it comes to covering the first and last mile section of public transportation networks. This rising interest is connected to new solutions in geolocation technology and advanced algorithms. One way to look into both its potential and its risks is to study other contexts where on-demand shared transport systems have been running for decades.

Collective transit is run "on-demand" almost exclusively in countries that lack the means to form a solid transportation network. This trend is well noted and exposed in Roberto Cervero's insightful UN report, Informal Transportation in the Developing World (2000). If cities want to reduce the number of private cars on the road then they should look into how transit operates in places where people simply can’t afford to buy a car.

This way of looking at the issue provides insight into the potential pitfalls of DRT but also suggests what a sustainable and smartly deployed DRT service could look like and what added value technology will bring to cities.

The pitfalls of what has already been there before

TNC’s data-driven ride-hailing Apps are having a major impact on cities around the globe. Unfortunately, initial results indicate that the solutions they offer are not only increasing the number of privately owned vehicles acting as taxis in higher density areas but they are also contributing to a decline in transit ridership. This leads cities and transit operators to question the efficiency and the potential impact of these new operators on the overall roads and network capacity.

As a result, the traditional model employed by transit operators is being challenged by tech innovations that bring new choices to the market.

In fact, informal modes of transport in the developing world have already proven to result in similar outcomes when operating along urban corridors in densely populated areas: they skim off the cream at the expense of formal transport on already cramped streets. 

Yet, DRT does not have to be dismissed so easily as it can be harnessed effectively as a means to help existing service providers. Informal Microtransit can tell us a great deal about how to implement technology in an efficient, sustainable, and smart way. It could actually reverse the decrease in ridership by utilising operational tools which will allow operators to deploy more flexible services, particularly on those lines that are identified as less popular.

What makes Demand Responsive Transport work efficiently

Informal Transportation – i.e. unregulated transportation which often operates under insufficient standards in terms of safety and pollution – has the advantage of being driven by the necessity to fill gaps. This is where demand for collective and affordable transportation really lies. 

Here is a list of observations on how all the Colectivos, Dollar Vans, Danfos, Dolmushs, Fula Fulas, Matatus, Sheruts, and Tuk-Tuks of the world can inspire deploying DRT:

  • Vehicles tend to be small and range from 3 to roughly 16 seats. The smaller the vehicle, the more flexible and “taxi-like” the service in terms drop-off locations.
  • Travel time from origin to destination ranges from several minutes on local journeys, up to several hours on interregional trips; although their range tends to be concentrated on shorter distances, since shorter travel time on shared vans compared to alternative modes is generally more convenient and more likely to be profitable.
  • Connections tend to be between urban or regional hubs with destinations located in more peripheral locations where low income commuters often live; ie. they can cover diverse and varied corridors.
  • Drivers, most of whom are self-employed and are accustomed  to estimating the average number of passengers that they will pick up along the way in order to cover expenditure. Often, depending on the time of  day drivers might have to leave even if their vehicle is not full.
  • Pricing of tickets is a function related to seating occupancy and waiting time. In many cases the driver leaves the main station once all seats are occupied or might start to negotiate the price for an anticipated departure.

At first sight, popular shared modes of transport are most attractive for commuters with lower levels of income and/or those residing in low density areas. These are services operated with small vehicles as quick feeding services from and to under served areas. 

How can technology uplift traditional shared van services?

The main advantage of DRT technology for places with a well established transportation network lies not only in a better optimisation of resources, compared to human routed itineraries, but also in providing an edge on better addressing demand and hence enhancing user-friendliness; e.g. serving specific local demand beyond the corridor, and thereby widening the potential user group to those who could afford but don’t want to buy a car.

New mobility platforms like Shotl are currently helping transport operators improve the performance of low occupancy lines, by emulating shared van services like those firmly established in developing countries or those seen operating in the low income neighborhoods of large western cities. We can transform these proven models into efficient first and last mile transport services, by adding a technological twist. 

As a result, transit agencies now have an effective way to regain momentum when it comes to attracting users. This technology can also substantially decrease operational costs while building paths to a future where using public transportation will be as flexible and convenient as driving a personal car.

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