LTT Comment: Where Uber leads, community transport should follow

Mobility Matters 6 January 2017

Kate Gifford writes in Local Transport Today

Community transport and car clubs have common ancestry in the UK, but have diverged significantly over the years. The emergence of new technology and more widespread disruption in the transport sector now opens all sorts of opportunities to look again at what the future might hold across and beyond these sectors.

kate

Here, Kate Gifford develops ideas from the recent Community Transport Association’s (CTA) conference.

The recent CTA conference exposed a fundamental conundrum for transport professionals. Those operating community transport on the very smallest scale see very few resonances with car clubs or novel transport providers like Uber, and even fewer with rail and bus operators. The vision of connected transport services and Mobility as a Service seems worlds away from meeting the needs of “those who are otherwise isolated or excluded, enabling them to live independently, participate in their communities and access education, employment, health and other services”.

However, the developments in real time data, booking and payment platforms, fleet management and telematics which contribute to putting public and shared transport services together in Mobility as a Service packages, could transform and energise community transport. It could represent a phase shift in enabling community transport to provide “flexible, accessible and responsive solutions to unmet local transport needs” .

In an environment where the budgets for local transport services are consistently being reduced, community transport has an increasingly important role to play in future provision of local transport services.

Within this same environment of budget cuts, public transport providers are grappling with how to provide smaller scale, lighter, more tailored transport services because it is a better use of their resources. We see that RATP is operating demand responsive shared commuter travel in Bristol. Its ‘Slide’ project using 7 seater vehicles driving between ‘virtual bus stops’ under taxi legislation requires less investment and quickly reconfigures flexible timetables to maximise vehicle use and capacities.

The incredible growth of Uber, whose business claim is merely to ‘offer a platform to allow passengers to connect with drivers’, demonstrates how technology can cut across legislation, reduce the need for investment in fleets and drivers and provide travel flexibility for individuals. Even though Uber is gradually being reined in and given more responsibilities for drivers and passengers, the technology it uses shows a direction of travel for transport that cannot be reversed.

Meanwhile, it may seem like a pipedream to shift the current provision of community transport to all singing, all dancing apps and platforms. However, if community led sectors want to maintain transport provision in these areas, it’s a shift we need to make.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of ‘disruptors’ on the future of community transport. In North America, Uber are starting to provide non-emergency patient transport and look at ways to boost demand for their wheelchair accessible vehicle fleet (which many cities require them to have). Uber’s move into providing dial-a-ride services has been somewhat more controversial – with Pinellas County in Florida being the first area in the USA to subsidise rides. With the spread of Uber across many major cities in the UK, it is only matter of time before we start to see similar developments here.

However, the shift the community led sector needs to make may not be as big as first anticipated. We have already seen how technology can be introduced to allow community resources to be utilised to their maximum potential. Even many of the smallest car clubs use telematics and online booking software.

Sharing this technology is already happening in places.

A good example of this is the provision of a wheelchair accessible vehicle as part of the car club offer in Bristol (operated by BCT in partnership with Co-wheels). The car can be booked online using booking software and telematics provided by Co-wheels. This has made the vehicle easier to access as it is available on-street and can be opened using a smartcard.

Using car club vehicles to provide community transport is another way of enabling better capacity management. For instance, the e-wheels service established by Harbury Energy Initiative provides trips to hospitals, medical appointments and local community centres for those who would otherwise not be able to make the journey. The scheme uses volunteer drivers and car club vehicles. It maximises the utilisation rates of the cars – which local members also drive. Scheduling, duty of care and vehicle maintenance is managed by the car club. The residents of Harbury look set to lose much of their scheduled bus service provision over the next year so it seems likely that the demand for the e-wheels scheme will increase over time.

These initial steps are a good start. However, as we see more moves towards providing joined up Mobility as a Service solutions across the sectors, there are pressing issues for the community sector to address.

The Buses Bill requires operators to provide their realtime data so that buses can be tracked by travel apps and other operators can work to provide joined up services. Without positive intervention from the community and shared transport sectors, journey planners and travel apps will only show the big operators and people won’t know about – or be able to access – services they are entitled to.

There is a practical issue too. Ensuring that community and shared transport is visible to those who need it means grappling with tracking, data streams, APIs and platforms.

The good news is that the equipment has become smaller, lighter and cheaper. Much of the technology is already in use in the car club sector. Producing regularly updated feeds of travel information should not be a huge leap – and there are partners out there willing and able to facilitate that transition.

It’s already happening in the US, where Pennsylvania’s FindMyRidePA integrates community transport including non-emergency patient transport services with other transport options displayed in an online journey planner.
Whilst it may not be as hard as anticipated to move to better management of community transport with technology, there is still an issue surrounding access.

Whilst most of the population now own and regularly use smartphones (c70%), there is a proportion of the population who do not have access to a smartphone or the internet. As technology advances it will become increasingly important to ensure that people are not being ‘left behind’ because they do not have access to the internet to book services.

However, there are creative ways to use all the digital information now at our disposal to give people better analogue access. A ‘bus countdown clock’ designed by Leeds based Urban Sustainable Development Lab was installed in retirement homes for older people. Fed by realtime data, people could see on the clockface when their next bus would arrive and set off knowing they had enough time to walk to the bus stop.

In order to realise the future potential in the community transport sector, existing providers need to think strategically about working in partnership with other transport providers including car clubs and bike share providers, and aligned Mobility as a Service organisations like TravelSpirit, and they need to think innovatively about engaging with the people who use their services.

Put bluntly, either we capture the positive potential of new providers – moving from viewing Uber as a competitor to public transport services, to viewing it as a complement to existing public transport services – or we ensure that community and shared transport move to sufficiently organise their services using new technologies so that they have the efficiency and ability of new mobility providers.

Above all, the sector needs to be open to new ideas and technology – without this there is a risk that new mobility apps and service providers will develop leaving the community transport sector behind.

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