On-Demand Buses

On-demand buses feature as a solution in The Assassin. A lovely description of how that might look in a futuristic city is offered in the story Efficiency:

The commute home was easy, paid for by Great Lakes Amalgamated and the traffic department, a combination of congestion and rush-hour and snow-clearing credits coming into play. The more people used HoodElectric zipbuses after the storm, the easier it was for the city to clear the highways and side streets, concentrating only on actual commute routes, instead of having to clear all that pavement for private vehicles to get in and out. Simple one-way lanes, this way and that, for the automated buses to follow. Saving energy, grid demand, plowing time. Paying people to get on a bus made more sense than pushing them out to Lyfts and private vehicles, with all the infrastructure that the city had to maintain as a result.

James was just old enough that he could remember when streets had been for cars. Now, more than half his neighborhood street was dominated by solar panels and home gardens, with only a thin lane for the HoodZips to navigate through. In summer, the reclaimed street was full of vegetables and flowers and buzzing bees and people sitting on benches beneath the shade of high-mount solar panels. Now that snow was covering everything, it was snow sculptures, a quiet garden made by the neighborhood families.

Efficiency, Paolo Bacigalupi

Transportation is now the #1 contributor of GHG emissions in the UK since 2016 – with a 27% share in 2019– and it has risen to the #2 contributor of GHG emissions in the EU. Humans have devised ingenious sustainable transport modes, from the bicycle to scooter to the tube or tram, but we remain incredibly attached to the private car. Today, 76% of Americans drive their car to work, while only 11% use public transportation. In Germany, with its significant investments in public transport infrastructure, 65% of people drive to work. Even in the Netherlands, where biking is a way of life, 56% of people choose to commute by car. The on-demand bus could be the new way to reduce the need for private cars altogether. Capital cities usually have great public transport meaning locals don’t need their own car, however in most other towns and especially rural areas, having your own vehicle is the norm. Yes, we can switch to electric vehicles but an even better climate solution is to increase the convenience of public transport across the country so we no longer need individual cars.

Do your own research on the solution

Currently, public transport does NOT work in most places, except for a few select big cities. Have you ever been in a situation where you have waited forever for a bus to come, and then three come all at once? Two researchers from Mexico City have created a mathematical model to illustrate why this happens:

Background to the research: The equal headway instability phenomenon is pervasive in public transport systems. This instability is characterized by an aggregation of vehicles that causes inefficient service. While equal headway instability is common, it has not been studied independently of a particular scenario. However, the phenomenon is apparent in many transport systems and can be modelled and rectified in abstraction.

Conclusions: The equal headway instability phenomenon can be avoided with the suggested technological and social measures.

This article in the New Scientist also summarises the research findings in an accessible way.

On-demand buses are a solution that uses new technology and algorithms to fix this issue, making public transport more reliable and accessible. It is currently being trialled in rural Britain by Norfolk County Council since March 2022, which you can read about here.

The trial covers 20 villages, where previously there was no bus since 1965 due to route cuts. At the moment, it is too early to say how effective the solution is in the Norfolk County Council case but Niki Park from the council who is leading the project has said the feedback thus far has been positive. The pilot is expected to last four years.

The UK Department of Transport has allocated £20 million to the scheme for local authorities to trial the new on-demand service.

The BBC’s Sangita Myska explored the topic in a recent BBC sounds episode and serves as an excellent introduction to how to make public transport more accessible in locations where it hasn’t always been that way.

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Chris Snyder, the CEO of Via the tech transit company talking about the reality of on-demand transport in both larger cities such as Berlin and also more rural areas such as Kent, UK.

Background information (provided by Via)


Transportation is now the #1 contributor of GHG emissions in the UK since 2016 – with a 27% share in 2019– and it has risen to the #2 contributor of GHG emissions in the EU. Humans have devised ingenious sustainable transport modes, from the bicycle to scooter to the tube or tram, but we remain incredibly attached to the private car. Today, 76% of Americans drive their car to work, while only 11% use public transportation. In Germany, with its significant investments in public transport infrastructure, 65% of people drive to work. Even in the Netherlands, where biking is a way of life, 56% of people choose to commute by car.

At the same time, transportation is a historical source of inequity and injustice. In the United States, 45% of Americans have no access to public transport, and at the same time, owning a personal vehicle is the second highest household expense. We know that efficient, affordable, and sustainable public transportation creates access to jobs and educational opportunities, and connects communities. But traditional public transport infrastructure is hugely expensive, so in far too many cities our investments in public transport haven’t kept pace with urbanisation. The result is that increasing numbers of people aren’t able to live within a reasonable commute of jobs – creating a kind of “mobility poverty” that erects barriers to economic opportunity. In fact, studies have shown that transportation is one of the single biggest barriers to escaping poverty.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then, as well as to create more just and equitable communities, we need to fundamentally change how we humans move, which means radically reimagining our relationship with the private car. The good news is that the most important solutions already exist – we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we do have to rethink the bus.

TransitTech companies, such as Via, build innovative software to enable cities, local authorities and transport authorities, among others—to transform their legacy transportation systems – which let’s not forget, are based on 17th century technology – into advanced digital networks that run on data. Technology enabled public transport uses algorithms and mobile apps to create more dynamic and resilient services which can be launched in weeks, then adapted and expanded as the needs of communities evolve. In practice, this can mean creating demand-responsive buses which rural riders can hail with an app, or providing tools to help cities plan more efficient transport networks and redesign streets for shared use mobility, or enabling efficient first and last mile connections from suburban transport deserts to existing high frequency rail or bus services.

Over the last decade we’ve paid far too much attention to electrifying (or automating) single occupancy vehicles, and not nearly enough to encouraging modal shift towards sustainable modes – and indeed to making those modes more and more attractive.

Relevant links and resources

Recommended reading: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/aug/11/all-aboard-how-on-demand-public-transport-is-getting-back-on-the-road

Nottinghamshire County Council video clip of how an on-demand bus service works

Use cases

  • Rural – connecting up previously isolated rural communities with public transport eg Tees Flex
  • First mile, last mile – connecting up communities with the core transport network eg rail, commercial fixed bus routes etc eg Moorlands Connect, Staffordshire
  • Urban gap filling –  Using on-demand services to fill in the gaps around fixed route services or to meet demand at off-peak times eg MK Connect

Case studies

  • Transport for Wales, in partnership with the TransitTech company Via, launched fflecsi, a nationwide demand-responsive bus system that provides flexible transport options for residents of 11 rural, suburban, and urban communities. When riders were surveyed, 73% said that they had been able to reduce their private car usage thanks to the service, and 9% reported that prior to using fflecsi they had never before taken a bus.
  • Via’s MKConnect service, which today operates city-wide in Milton Keynes, England, is the UK’s first fully-electric, on-demand shared ride service.
    • MKConnect is made possible through a £544,000 grant from the UK Dept. for Transport’s Office for Low Emissions Vehicles, and supports the city’s goals to reduce carbon emissions while providing sustainable, efficient transport for residents and visitors.
    • With Via’s MK Connect service in Milton Keynes, UK, residents have access to a demand-responsive service that uses electric vehicles and is fully integrated with the commercial bus network. If a fixed-route service is the most efficient option for a passenger’s proposed journey, they are directed toward the nearest bus stop. Only if fixed lines are not capable of meeting their trip request will a DRT option be shown. MK Connect demonstrates that with smart service design, DRT services can complement, rather than compete with, high-capacity commercial bus routes.
    • Via’s data scientists estimate that the availability of this shared, on-demand, EV service has reduced emissions by 15% and saved over £1m annual budget savings for Milton Keynes.

In the BBC Sounds episode, Chris Snyder talks about how current public transport relies on a system invented in the 17th century (a schedule). This does not work, especially in rural geographies. Just like other industries, public transport needs to move with the times. The big idea is to change the way that we plan the bus, according to Snyder, the solution is DRT (demand responsive transport, or on-demand buses) to focus on demand not supply by routing buses to where bookings are made, the schedule and route would change based on that demand using a mobile phone app and an algorithm.

The key elements of the idea are:

  • Powered by technology, usually an algorithm that uses demand from passengers to plan routes and arrival times.
  • There is no schedule, instead, there is an app or a phone line where users can request a ride just like with current taxi apps such as Uber or Bolt. The system will tell them when the next bus will be, directing them to a virtual bus stop that will be nearby so users do not have to rely on getting to physical bus stops.

Researchers at the University of Antwerp recently published a paper titled “The On-Demand Bus Routing Problem with Real-Time Traffic Information” where they conducted an experiment that found that by using on-demand buses is an overall effective solution, reducing tardiness in both severe and mild traffic conditions:

“Our experimental results show the overall effectiveness of this real-time control under different degrees of flexibility (congestion and number of buses available). Specifically, the average tardiness, maximum tardiness and the number of late passengers are significantly reduced under a wide range of congestion scenarios, from slight to severe. In addition, this effectiveness holds for various ratios of requests to the number of vehicles.”

How does this solution rate on:

Climate impact: tonnes of carbon saved/removedhigh
Climate adaptation-resiliencemedium
Social justice i.e. addresses inequalities, diversity, inclusionhigh
Cost of action needed to progress goalmedium
Which location is the solution most needed/applicableRural areas would benefit the most, but most towns and villages too.

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Interested in progressing this solution further?

Actions for PolicymakersProvide policies to subsidise public transportation including on-demand buses.

The very definition of levelling up is ensuring that everyone has fair and even access to job, local services, and opportunity. Transport is key, and the only way we will ensure that we are levelling up in this space is by mandating public transport is accessible for all. It is not good enough that such a large proportion of the UK population is car dependent due to lack of alternative transport.

To facilitate the above, a complete overhaul is needed of how we fund public transport in the UK. We have to create a long-term funding mechanism (that is either centrally or locally administered) that enables the adequate provision of public transport for all. Currently, we have a two tier system in the UK – the commercial bus networks that are provided, for profit, by mainstream operators. We then have local authorities who are tasked with covering the gaps (that are now very significant post-Covid) while facing their own funding crises. Facing an impossible challenge, most authorities have systematically cut transport budgets over the course of more than a decade and now leaving our bus networks in crisis.
Actions for Funding BodiesInvesting in on-demand transport companies such as Via.

While funding is certainly required, simply funding the same solutions that have always existed misses an opportunity to create more efficient, more compelling bus networks. Muscle memory of how transport is delivered is very strong, so funding bodies need to create a strong steer for change.

This means explicitly calling for new, innovative solutions to meet a new requirement for fair and equal access to public transport. It should also mean facilitating the removal of any silos that exist within local authorities of how transport is currently provided. Transport should be funded and provided holistically rather than in disconnected buckets for school services, medical services and regular bus services.  
Actions for BusinessesIn rural locations, employers should support public transportation initiatives to allow their staff to arrive to work comfortably and sustainably, whilst also eliminating social exclusion.

Encourage staff to use public transport to get to work and discourage the use of private cars by limiting available parking where viable alternatives exist.

Lobby your local authority to provide better transport provision to your place of work to ensure you have the maximum possible access to a potential employee pool.  

The authors of “Why does public transport not arrive on time?” recommend the following for transport companies:

(1) It makes little sense to add vehicles if these are not regulated to maintain an equal headway.
(2) Design methods to regulate equal headways. This will improve considerably the system performance. The most common method is to have scheduled arrival and waiting times at stations, with margins for adjustment along the route and also at terminals.
(3) Educate passengers with publicity campaigns to promote equal headways. In many cases, these cannot be achieved because of passenger behaviour. Explain to passengers the equal headway instability phenomenon, indicating that following certain norms will help them arrive earlier and more comfortably at their destination.
(4) Suggest recommendations as those outlined above, adapted to the local culture.
Actions for the PublicThe authors of “Why does public transport not arrive on time?” recommend the following for commuters:

(1) If a crowded vehicle arrives at a station after a long waiting time, it is very probable that empty vehicles are coming close behind. Do not board the crowded vehicle, contributing to its further delay and of all the passengers within. If even some people follow this advice, it is likely that crowded vehicles will be able to go relatively faster, allowing the vehicles behind them also to go faster, improving the performance of the whole system. Waiting at the station for another vehicle might actually contribute to a faster trip.
(2) Give way to people descending a vehicle before boarding. Trying to ‘‘win’’ and enter before others will delay everybody. Sometimes waiting for a second or a third vehicle is faster than attempting to board a crowded one (especially in transport systems that allow passing).
(3) Inside a crowded vehicle, go far from the doors. Giving space to ascending and descending people will accelerate the travel. Make way to the doors not too long before exiting.

Via recommends:

As a society, in almost all areas outside London, we have come to accept that public transport will not be capable of meeting all our transport needs. Demand more! If we are to meet our climate crisis then we need stronger public, shared, transport. Lobby your local authority to ensure they deliver this and prioritise funding accordingly.

Challenge yourself to use the public transport that exists. We are all part of the solution so it isn’t someone else that should be using public transport, it is all of us.