RATP Dev’s pioneering app-based ‘Slide Bristol’ travel solution is an attractive new option

 

slide_bristolA The Slide app is very easy to use

 

By Robert Jack

Is this public transport’s answer to Uber? August saw the launch in Bristol of ‘Slide’, a new app-based shared ride service developed by French group RATP Dev. It is the first service of its kind in the UK.

It’s not a bus and it’s not a taxi, it’s something in between. There have been many demand responsive, flexibly-routed services in the UK, but this is the first to use an Uber-style blend of an app-based booking interface and sophisicated algorithms to match customers with vehicles.

In the past, this kind of service has always failed to cover its costs. But, without the expense of a booking office, can this digital incarnation of the concept succeed where its analogue predecessors failed? I headed to Bristol last week to find out more.

A good place to start was to meet Coralie Triadou, business development at RATP Dev UK, and Roddy Scaife, digital start-up manager at Slide, at their base, a trendy shared workspace in central Bristol. They explained how one of the first challenges they faced was getting the language right. When they first pitched the concept to random members of the public in coffee shops they found there was an aversion to the word “bus” – perhaps not surprising given the long running negative perceptions of the service operated by the city’s dominant bus operator, First. So instead the service is billed as a “hassle-free commute” on its website (slidebristol.com).

Triadou laughs off the idea that Slide is a threat to First. It’s just six vehicles and six drivers, she points out – although due to increased demand this is rising to eight.

The fleet has already covered 10,000 miles. Customer satisfaction is high. The average rating for drivers is 4.9 out of 5.0 and there is a small, core base of very regular users.

An increasing number of journeys are shared – there have been up to three people on board, although the vehicles have capacity for eight. Triadou wants to see this number increase because RATP Dev wants Slide to be public transport, not “Uber Lite”.

The goal is to create an affordable but convenient grouped service – with commuters as the target audience. Users can book a week in advance or just 10 minutes before they want to travel. Fares start from £4 – the same price as a day ticket on First’s network in Bristol – and there are discounts for regular users in the form of credits.

The higher price limits its ability to abstract passengers from buses, but Triadou believes that Slide offers a new option. It’s cheaper than a taxi and more convenient than a bus, reaching into parts of the city that are by-passed from the core corridors that radiate out from the city centre.

“We see Slide as being one of many options,” she says. “I think there’s a place for everyone.”

A bus user might chose to Slide (yes, they use it as a verb) if they needed to travel with a heavy suitcase, for example.

To promote the service, the Slide team have handed out flyers to local businesses. They also offer a free rides to people who refer the service to their friends.

RATP Dev is a global player with metro, bus, rail and tram operations in 15 countries across five continents – so why was Bristol chosen for this experiment? The company has a presence in the area as the owner of Keynsham-based Bath Bus Company, but no affiliation beyond that.

The market conditions were right, Triadou explains. There is a transport problem that needs solving – the roads are congested, there are parking restrictions, and the north of the city, the part of Bristol which Slide covers, is not especially well served by public transport and offers an attractive mix of businesses and households. Importantly, however, Bristol is very innovative place, offering a rich pool of tech-minded people who are willing to become early adopters of a new kind of transport service.

For now, the priority is stablising Slide Bristol, but other UK cities could feature in any roll-out of the concept. “The UK market is very reactive,” Triadou explains. “The economy is more dynamic. If something picks up it will pick up quicker.”

After parting company with Triadou and Scaife, my next step was to download the app and to go for a Slide. I chose a 2.5-mile journey to Bristol Temple Meads station from a pub (obviously) in the Redland area of the city.

The app was very easy to use. The £4 fare was more expensive than the £1.70 bus fare I paid to get to Redland, but less than a large glass of house red in this well-heeled suburb. And while the bus required a 12-minute walk to the stop, Slide offered a pick-up location just around the corner

The experience was stress-free (see the screenshots above). We encountered traffic, but could either divert onto quieter routes or use the city’s bus lanes.

It’s an attractive new option for travellers in Bristol. It will be fascinating to see if it works.

 

COMMENT: Are buses the land that time forgot?

We inched up the hill and through Clifton at the pace of an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, to borrow a phrase from Blackadder.

But it wasn’t the traffic that was slowing us down, it was the long waits at bus stops as those boarding our Cribbs Causeway-bound First bus paid by cash. The service was busy, but crowds like this are quickly hoovered up on London’s buses, where cash has been extinct since 2014. In London, passengers either use Oyster cards or contactless bank cards – but elsewhere cash is still king.

First Bristol is making progress under the leadership of James Freeman, one of the most respected bus bosses of his generation, and his efforts are being backed up by a substantial investment in the fleet – my journey was made on a shiny new Alexander Dennis Enviro400 double decker. The company is also trying to steer its customers in the direction of smart cards and m-ticketing, but it still has is a long way to go. My 1.3-mile journey took 15 minutes, a speed of just over 5mph, but Bristol’s crippling traffic congestion wasn’t to blame this time. Over a third of the time was taken up at bus stops.

These slow boarding times are a self-inflicted wound, but this is not just a problem in Bristol. Contactless bank card ticketing has been hailed as the answer. The industry’s biggest players have pledged to introduce it nationwide by 2022, and some areas will see much faster progress, but this probably won’t be the simple tap-to-pay system that London has had since 2012. It will instead require bus users to specify their ticket and pay with a contactless bankcard – but will that be much faster than using cash?

And it’s not just payment systems where the bus industry is lagging behind on technology – the apps aren’t great either. First’s is the worst. Don’t take my word for it, look at the damning one-star rating (out of five) it receives from users on Apple’s App Store. I tried to use the First Bus app to plot my journey to Redland from Bristol city centre, but I had to give up. I entered my destination but it insisted that I chose a bus stop – what use is that to a traveller heading to an unfamiliar destination? Google Maps was much more helpful.

First is not alone. Stagecoach’s UK bus app, which was launched in September, has received a rating of only 2.5 stars, while Arriva’s gets three. But these consumers are not impossible to please – Transport for Edinburgh, an organisation that has far more modest resources than these three bus empires, has an app with 4.5-star rating. I am a regular user and it’s in a different league. Slide Bristol also has an impressive app – despite having just six vehicles.

Is it really too difficult or too expensive for the big bus groups to develop systems that compete with the best retail experiences? By failing to do so, buses are starting to look like the land that time forgot.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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