Trialling 'smart' public transport in Lake Macquarie - what will it take to succeed?

You grab your phone, open an app, type in your destination and select ‘send’. A few minutes later you receive an alert, and you head out to start your journey - in a public transport bus, which has stopped right on your street corner.

Smart buses

For Lake Macquarie residents, this exact experience is a newfound possibility, thanks to the roll out of Newcastle Transport’s On Demand service. Passengers can arrange to be picked up and dropped off anywhere within the region of the trial, which will operate across areas of Dudley, Whitebridge, Mount Hutton, Windale, Tingira Heights, Eleebana, Warners Bay, Gateshead, and Charlestown. Each one way trip will cost $3, is bookable by phone and app, and the service will run in addition to existing bus services in the area. The 22-seater minivans used in the operation are fully wheelchair accessible.

While ‘on-demand’ public transport might sound like a novel idea, various embodiments of the concept have been in operation in many cities for quite some time. Typically, the services operate more like a government-subsidised taxi service. Most of these are available in rural areas which aren’t well integrated into existing public transport routes, or they are used primarily by people with disabilities who are unable to access more traditional public transport options.

 Although New York City's subway is a great form of transport for able bodied persons, many of the stations lack elevators and so are inaccessible for many. The Access-A-Ride service offers an 'on-demand' service for those who are unable to use the subway, but it's a notoriously  inconvenient  option. Flickr, Juan Beltran (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Although New York City's subway is a great form of transport for able bodied persons, many of the stations lack elevators and so are inaccessible for many. The Access-A-Ride service offers an 'on-demand' service for those who are unable to use the subway, but it's a notoriously inconvenient option. Flickr, Juan Beltran (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Instead, the Lake Macquarie On Demand operation runs more like a ‘smart’ car-pool. In fact, Keolis Downer teamed up with Via, a ride-sharing app, in order to provide this particular Newcastle Transport service.

Public transport start-ups

Via has been rolled out as a real-time ride-sharing service in New York city, Chicago and Washington DC - multiple passengers are matched with privately-owned vehicles heading in the same direction.

The organisation have also teamed up with public transport providers in the US, the UK, France and, now, Australia, to optimise new smart ’microtransit’ services. Like most software companies, they’re not the only specialists on the scene: Liftango (founded right here in Newcastle), UBERPool and flinc (Germany) offer similar services, and companies just like them have struck up similar deals with local service providers across the globe.

It’s a perfect example of smart outsourcing. Why would Keolis Downer, or any other public transport service, attempt to use internal expertise to expand into such foreign territory, when they could employ the talents of a company who are already experts in the field?

ride share.jpg

Business and government have long realised the benefits of ride sharing. It saves on car-parking space, eases congestion and reduces emissions. Plenty of businesses actively encourage employees to opt-in to carpooling options for these exact reasons.

Of course, ride sharing isn’t as flexible, reliable or private as owning and operating your own car, or perhaps ordering a taxi or Uber - but for public transport users who are accustomed to abiding by rigid timetables and maps - it’s a definite upgrade. So why has it taken us so long to optimise public transport by treating it more like a ride-sharing service?

Well, it’s only recently that, thanks to the widespread use of smart-phones, the necessary data (user’s current location and eventual destination) can easily be sent to where it needs to be. In addition, the complex software required to optimise the service has only recently reached the point of sophistication, wherein ride-sharing operations can be rolled out on a large scale.

It’s a great step towards a smarter city.

However, similar operations have been trialled before - and not always with great success.

The Kutsuplus (Finnish for “call plus”) on-demand public transport pilot ran between 2013-15 in Helsinki, and despite its success with consumers, the government subsidy required to run it was just too high. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around why this was. Some speculate that the 100 square kilometre service area was overly ambitious, while others cite problems with marketing. There just wasn’t enough awareness of the service to drive a consistent clientele.

The US-founded Bridj attempted to offer a ride-sharing service with a difference. Unlike Lyft or Via, the company owned their own fleet and all the drivers were company employees. However, without the significant subsidies that come from partnering up with a public transport service, the operation flopped. Overheads were too high and the firm was unable to compete with the existing private and public transport options. Why pay $5 for a shared ride when you can pay $2.50 for a normal bus seat?

Bridj did make another attempt to break into the ride-sharing scene - they partnered up with a Kansas City public transport provider and estimated they’d provided 200 rides a day during their pilot phase. Six months in, they’d reached a grand total of 600 rides in total and consumers weren’t happy. Although people did download the Bridj app, usership remained low as the service wasn’t operating where and when people wanted to travel.

 Many companies in the US encourage 'casual car pools' for their employees. Flickr, Sharon Hahn Darlin 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Many companies in the US encourage 'casual car pools' for their employees. Flickr, Sharon Hahn Darlin 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Newcastle Transport

So what’s the moral of the story? How can the Newcastle Transport On-Demand trial succeed?

The good news is they’ve limited the size of their operation to a serviceable region. Just 20km squared - a fifth of the size of that offered by the Finnish Katsuplus. Disappointing for those wishing to travel outside of the region, but evidence from previous trials does seem to indicate that over-ambitiousness can be a dangerous factor. Similarly, the hours of operation are also limited.

Reassuringly, the cost of the service ($3 full-fare, $1.50 concession) does hit a sweet-spot. Similar in price to a standard bus ticket, and definitely less than an Uber or a taxi. We know that Newcastle Transport have partnered with Via, and that Via has similar public transport-ride share fusion attempts being rolled out in cities across the world. So it seems that the software at least is trustworthy - at least according to several different transport authorities. It’s reassuring as well that Keolis Downer had the wisdom to seek out an experienced partner for its foray into the field - but it would be interesting to know more about how the partnership works. Did they work together to decide which region of Newcastle would be optimal for the trail, and which hours of operation to run?

Whatever happens throughout the trial, it’s important to realise that it is just that: a trial. While the media’s coverage of similar pilot projects may refer to their discontinuation as a ‘failure’, in reality this is all an experiment. And any good scientist will tell you that you can learn as much from failure as you can from success.

The Newcastle Transport partnership with Via is actually part of a larger experiment that’s rolling out across several NSW suburbs. Various public transport providers have teamed up with different software companies right across Sydney. Unless consumers are left in any danger or neglected in any way, the worst outcome of this trial will be the failure to share data and analyse outcomes - whatever they may be.