Earlier this week one of Transport for London’s more breathlessly excited press releases arrived in inboxes announcing that the agency “plans to trial an innovative ‘on-demand’ bus service” which will allow the people of Sutton to book seats on a minibus via their smartphone.
The service will run in “areas not currently served by public transport” – or to put it another way, in places where TfL has previously failed to provide bus services.
The agency won’t say how much the trial will cost, citing its usual commercial confidentiality line, but we can assume that the app and supporting infrastructure, plus the eight Mercedes Cityline Sprinter vehicles and drivers collectively carry a hefty price tag.
And, as the fares will be higher than the usual TfL bus fare and won’t be included in Oyster, the operation costs are clearly more per passenger journey than on a standard bus route.
Michael Hurwitz, TfL’s Director of Innovation, is very excited, gushing: “We are always looking at how we can harness the latest technological developments in transport to improve the service for our customers.”
But passengers in those areas where TfL’s shortening and axing dozens of bus routes might wonder how the agency has cash to spend on this venture while they’re about to face significant disruption to their daily commute.
Two of the stated project criteria are “to understand the economics of a demand responsive bus service,” and “to understand if a demand-responsive service will support the objectives of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy in reducing car dependency.”
All very laudable, but a quick phone call to the States could have provided those answers.
Ford, one of the world’s largest car makers, has already tried making such a venture work – the firm has been running its Chariot service both in the US and more recently here in London.
Like TfL’s trial, it deployed a fleet of 14-seater minibuses which users could summon via an app and, like TfL, it envisaged the service playing a part in getting people out of their cars and easing congestion.
Unlike TfL, it’s already concluded that such a service isn’t “sustainable” – Chariot closed its London operations on January 25th and its US operations were mothballed the following week.
TfL first mooted this venture a year ago, since when it’s been tested and rejected as viable by an organisation with far more resources than it has.
Yet neither the failure of Chariot nor the often lamentable performance of TfL’s existing ‘responsive’ and less tech-dependent minibus service appear to have informed its thinking or tempered its enthusiasm.
I asked TfL for a copy of the criteria it’ll use to determine whether the trial has been successful – it fudged by providing a copy of the trial objectives instead. Perhaps the London Assembly’s transport committee will have more luck.
The best way to get people out of their cars and onto public transport is to boost the services which already exist, including creating new bus routes integrated into the main network, not to create a mess of regional services with different fare structures and bespoke hailing arrangements.
London’s first mayor, Ken Livingstone, proved this when he invested heavily in new buses and routes, delivering a dramatic increase in bus ridership that’s been allowed to slowly ebb away under his successors.
Rather than trying to ape large US firms or compete with the Taxi and minicab trades, TfL would be better revisting its own past successes.