TAPAS.network | 10 May 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Innovation needs analysis – so why has DRT had so little?

Phil Goodwin

NO ONE surely doubts that there’s a strong case for bringing new thinking to bear about some of the persistent problems in the world of transport for which to date there hasn’t been a clear answer. And when a possible solution is offered, it is a good idea to try it out. Indeed, the last few decades have seen a wave of proposals and projects that test new ideas and possibilities offered by emerging technologies, some of which have proved significant new elements in the transport policy toolkit – from congestion charging as pioneered in London, to new forms of traffic engineering and signal optimisation for urban areas.

More intractable problems – beyond replacing the internal combustion engine with a carbon-neutral alternative – include matters such as making the best allocation of mixed-use road space in urban areas, obtaining optimum capacity from congested strategic highways, and finding a form of public transport that offers an attractive and effective alternative to the private car for shorter journeys, and solving the ‘last mile’ problem.

In terms of road traffic management, great efforts have gone into so-called ‘smart’ systems, harnessing technology to both improve flows generally and dynamically with the interaction of vehicles and infrastructure, and schemes such as re-engineering motorways, for example the recent introduction of general use of hard shoulders for moving traffic.

Not all of these projects have delivered the anticipated benefits, or have done so only by bringing new problems, and the recent effective abandonment of the Smart Motorway concept is a good case in point. More generally, unintended consequences have included the expansion of highway capacity being the trigger for further traffic generation that returns the situation of congestion to much as it was before, and meanwhile encourages unsustainable travel patterns and land uses.

Coping with rising road traffic is indeed a wicked problem in its own right. But as for public transport – and more specifically buses – the problem is the converse one of an endemic decline in passenger usage for at least the last 50 years. The causes of that are well known – a combination of rising car ownership, changing lifestyles and altered land uses and travel patterns unsuited to conventional fixed route regular volume passenger flows.

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Demand Responsive Transit systems, once known as Dial-a- Ride, providing public transport services by small vehicles running to dynamically determined schedules based on specific customer journey requests, have long been touted as ‘the answer’ to the financial problems of running conventional buses in areas of relatively low demand, for example rural and low-density suburban areas.

Among the unwelcome consequences are that providing traditional bus services is neither sufficiently attractive or commercially sustainable. There are certainly grounds for questioning whether the established business model amongst bus operators is the right one, but simply stating that things should be done differently is not, by definition, a viable alternative solution. Advocates of change must find some form of brand new offer that can be developed and tested to demonstrate its suitability, appeal and affordability.

Demand Responsive Transit systems, once known as Dial-a-Ride, providing public transport services by small vehicles running to dynamically determined schedules based on specific customer journey requests, have long been touted as ‘the answer’ to the financial problems of running conventional buses in areas of relatively low demand, for example rural and low-density suburban areas.

They are also seen in some circles as a ‘smart solution’ to getting people out of their cars, providing some of the magic of digitally-driven travel offers like Uber, with individuals able to call up transport services as they need them.

As yet, however, there are few examples of successful DRT systems substituting for bus networks on any significant scale, and little evidence they tempt new users to public transport – or can be commercially self-supporting, or even cheaper to provider than the bus services they replace.

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For outside the main densely-populated urban areas where rapid transit in various forms remain a viable option, the experiments with (mostly failed) DRT schemes seem to have eaten up tens of millions of public money already spent unsuccessfully on trying to find a business model for sustainable DRT. 

But enthusiasm for such new mobility approaches seems undimmed, and last month saw the start of yet another scheme and one which is claimed to be the largest DRT operation to be introduced in the UK. It began just two days after the controversial withdrawal of many tendered bus routes within the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) area – although it is contended that there is no connection between the two things. Indeed the origin of the DRT project has been in the context of considerable tranches of Government funding intended to support bus service innovation, though not supposedly to be used for replacing existing services. The actual basis of the funding has been clouded in some apparent political manoeuverings and a less than transparent approach to how the operation has been brought into being. What is clear, though, is that a very considerable sum of public money is underpinning the scheme without any real evidence of whether DRT can be a cost-effective alternative to the bus services it has effectively replaced.

In an article in the LTT868 (10 May 2023) issue of LTT magazine, respected bus industry innovator and business leader, Roger French, now a respected commentator on the sector, is highly sceptical about how well the new system will do the job, and whether DRT is ever likely to be a cost-effective alternative. In exploring the background to the project, and how things may work out for passengers, and the transport authorities, he has documented more than 50 similar projects introduced in the UK over the past few years, only a couple of which have survived for more than a year or so, despite, or perhaps the result of a dependency on public funding rather than passenger fares.

For outside the main densely-populated urban areas where rapid transit in various forms remains a viable option, the experiments with (mostly failed) DRT schemes seem to have eaten up tens of millions of public money already spent unsuccessfully on trying to find a business model for sustainable DRT.

A preliminary assessment indicates that around £20 million public funding has been spent on the DRT trials under the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund, plus another £20 million on other individual projects, and a further allocation of £37 million of Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP ) funds for DRT schemes. In addition, the private sector has been encouraged to try out such operations like the ‘Click’ commercially trialled schemes by Arriva in Liverpool and Medway, and by GoAhead in Oxford and RATP in Bristol, as well as other operators. And then sundry uses of Section 106 and sustainable travel plan monies linked to DRT-type services at new workplace and housing developments. In total, it seems that approaching £100 million must have been spent on trialling out DRT in the last decade or so, with little enduring success or replicable achievement.

Most worrying, surely, is that whilst there have been plenty of theoretical studies and PhD theses about the potential of DRT, there has been no methodical, or proper methodological analysis of what actually happened with these schemes, and any sense of value for money calculations. Anecdotal evidence, does however, point to very small level of uses and per passenger subsidy running at around £4 a trip even after taking fares into account.

Regrettably, a National Audit Office report from 2020 about improving local bus services in England outside London referred to the potential of DRT, but did not establish any cost parameters.

Nor did a DfT local authority toolkit on DRT published a year ago, despite also referring to the potential of such schemes.

In the most recent official examination of the Government’s expenditure on such innovations by the Transport Select Committee in its report, published in March, on Implementation of the National Bus Strategy the MPs did comment that frequent themes in the evidence they received about the content of BSIPs included the idea of demand-responsive transport schemes in providing shared transport to users who specify their desired location and time of pick-up and drop-off. They confirm that fifteen LTAs were allocated funding for DRT schemes totalling over £37m as part of the BSIP process. A further seventeen pilot schemes have also been funded by £20m from the Rural Mobility Fund. “We heard mixed views on the effectiveness of DRT. Proponents argued that it can improve mobility in low-density areas and at low-demand times of day.” But they also had heard it described as an “abdication of the government’s responsibility to genuinely meet the needs of rural towns and villages” and by a bus operator warning “ironically, the more demand there is for it, the less responsive it becomes”.

Baroness Vere, then the Government Minister responsible for buses, had told the Select Committee that once the Rural Mobility Fund pilot schemes had ended – they range from two to five years in length – the Government would look at what outcomes they achieved. She expected this to examine “Did they work? How much subsidy did they need, if any? What sort of people did they pick up and where did they take them?” Indeed, in February 2023, Richard Holden, the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, responsible for buses, told the House of Commons that the Government planned to publish interim findings “in the first half of 2023”.

It will be most interesting to see this information – and hopefully other detailed and rigorous analysis of exactly what DRT schemes can achieve, how this fits alongside other public transport provision, and what are the costs.

And if any readers have other information of this kind, from either the UK or internationally, LTT will be delighted to give it appropriate coverage.

In the meantime, there is surely a case, as with the Smart Motorway concept, to put a pause on the continued advocacy and public expenditure on DRT schemes. The need for innovation and experimentation remains, but logically, repeating the same kinds of project, and experiencing the same outcomes, is not a good use of either public sector energy or expenditure.

Wanting it to be true, and showing it to be so, are not the same thing.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT868, 10 May 2023.

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