Transport for London says that non-financial objectives will guide its trial of demand-responsive minibus technology in the south London suburbs

Last month TfL announced plans for a year-long trial of a demand responsive minibus network in Sutton

 

Transport for London says that the success of its demand responsive minibus trial in south London will be determined by non-financial outcomes such as its ability to stimulate modal shift and meet aspirations – such as the inclusivity and ‘Healthy Streets’ principles contained within the Mayor’s Transport Strategy.

Last month TfL announced plans for a year-long trial of a demand responsive minibus network in Sutton, with ViaVan and Go-Ahead London awarded a contract to operate the new service (PT203).

In an exclusive interview with Passenger Transport, Michael Hurwitz, TfL’s director of transport innovation, said that there was no question of replacing mainstream London bus services with a new demand responsive model. Instead the aim was to fill gaps that existed within the current network.

We have a well rehearsed bus contracting mechanism. It efficiently gets people from A to B; it’s still the biggest mover of people in London each day and there are tremendous social and economic benefits. We don’t want to change that, in fact we want it to grow.

“We have a well rehearsed bus contracting mechanism,” said Hurwitz. “It efficiently gets people from A to B; it’s still the biggest mover of people in London each day and there are tremendous social and economic benefits. We don’t want to change that, in fact we want it to grow.”

However, he said that TfL had two issues that a technology-based demand responsive solution could tackle, namely creative public transport alternatives to the car and the need to develop solutions in areas that are hard to serve by traditional public transport methods.

The area around Sutton was chosen for the DRT pilot as it features large post-war housing estates that can be difficult to serve with a traditional bus service. “We are testing an area-based approach rather than the traditional corridor-based approach to planning,” he added.

Hurwitz acknowledged some of the problems that upstart operators like Chariot and Citymapper faced in the London market. Citymapper abandoned its night bus service in East London a year ago, while Chariot, which operated a fleet of Ford Transit minibuses on commuter routes that aimed to complement rather than compete with the TfL network, closed its service last month (PT201).

Hurwitz said the problem was that these operations were designed around regulations that were “designed for the 1970s”, namely the London Service Permit system that governs commercial bus operations within Greater London outside the scope of the TfL network.

“Chariot was almost a traditional bus service in that it went from A to B with pick-up points along the way,” he added. “In America they had an interesting model in that they crowd-sourced bus routes, but in London you can’t do that because of the London Service Permit system. We talked a lot with them, of course, but it was very much a traditional bus service in the way that it was delivered. Our trial is different, it’s about taking an area-based approach rather than a corridor-based approach to plug gaps in the suburban network.”

Hurwitz added that the 12-month trial of the service aims to allow TfL and its partners in the project to learn more about how demand responsive technology could be used elsewhere within Greater London. It also aims to probe whether it could offer a more cost-effective way of providing bus links in some specific instances.

This is not about profit; the economics of this sort of thing are hard, but it may inform how we do buses… It’s a learning opportunity for us and we want to see if we can provide an alternative to the car that provides public transport in a less demanding way for subsidy

“We already subsidise the bus network,” he said. “This is not about profit; the economics of this sort of thing are hard, but it may inform how we do buses… It’s a learning opportunity for us and we want to see if we can provide an alternative to the car that provides public transport in a less demanding way for subsidy.”

However, Hurwitz added that this will not be “some hipster bus service”. He continued: “We are doing things differently. We don’t want a ‘digital divide’ so you will be able to book the service through a call centre as well as through a smartphone app and we have to offer free travel to the holders of the [concessionary] Freedom Pass… We are advocating demand responsive buses as a means of meeting those aspirations of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy.”

TfL is currently consulting on the planned network in Sutton and Hurwitz anticipates Go-Ahead London and ViaVan will launch it “at some point in the Spring” with a fleet of of up to 10 minibuses. A further trial elsewhere could follow.

“There has been so much interest in this” he added. “But this is not the end of the red bus in London – I really believe we can complement it instead.”

Full coverage appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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