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The LTA has announced a six-month trial of on-demand public bus services. Is this is the future of mobility, or just another disruptive idea poised for failure?

28 Aug 2018

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has announced that a six-month trial of on-demand public bus services will begin in December. The LTA awarded a contract worth $2.26 million to two companies, Via Transportation and Ministry of Movement. Via Transportation is presently operating in three U.S.A cities - New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Ministry of Movement is a homegrown start-up that builds on-demand bus technology. Via also licenses its on-demand transit technology to transport operators, and partners with cities and transit authorities globally. These include Arlington, U.S.A, Queenstown, New Zealand, and Newcastle, Australia. Additionally, partnerships with Berlin, Germany, as well as other American cities, are in the pipeline. 

During the trial, commuters will be able to request for pick-ups and drop-offs at any bus stop within an area through a mobile app. The trial will start with selected services with low travel demand during off-peak hours, with commuters able to request for a bus through a mobile app. During the trial period, regular buses will still be running on the routes selected, but at lower frequencies. 

Are on-demand bus services the future of public transport in Singapore, or is it just another disruptive technology poised for failure? Here's what you need to know.

The trial hopes to tap on the potential synergies that technology can provide, increasing efficiency and reducing cost
1. The future is all about leveraging technology

The vision of an on-demand bus network is a grand one - by optimising resources and leveraging technology, Via aims to offer seamless and convenient bus journeys by operating a real-time, dynamically routed bus service. The aim is to increase efficiency and reduce cost, whilst providing a wholistic and comprehensive service for commuters.

Of course, all this is based on leveraging technology - using Via's algorithm, to match and connect multiple passengers, allowing riders to share a dynamically-routed vehicle. If successful, such on-demand bus services could offer a similar convenience to private-hire vehicles, combined with the lower rates of public transportation. 

GrabShuttle presently already offers a ride-sharing service on mini-buses
2. Shuttles versus buses

It is important to differentiate between shuttles and public buses. Shuttles, such as vans and smaller capacity mini-buses, allow greater flexibility in terms of locations and routes, make up a bulk of Via's services in the U.S.A. However, such ride-sharing services are also already available in Singapore, such as GrabShuttle. 

Whether such services can be translated to the public bus network is the entire point of the trial. There are obvious challenges, as large public buses require greater ridership to fulfill capacity, but at the same time compromise maneouverability and speed compared to smaller vans and shuttles. 

Technology can help to better optimise bus scheduling, such as having more buses on the roads to meet higher demand
3. Yes, LTA should invest in exploring such services

Offering on-demand public bus services is certainly a platform worth investing in by the LTA. It purports to offer some combination of the on-demand convenience of private-hire services like Grab together with the capacity of direct point-to-point private charter buses, whilst leveraging on the economies of scale and network pervasiveness of Singapore's public transport system. Conceptually, it is certainly tantalising, especially from the transport operator's point of view. Consequently, commuters also stand to gain, with on-demand services at lower rates. 

However, we definitely need to manage our expectations on the viability and praticality of such on-demand public bus services. Just earlier this year in Newcastle, Australia, commuters has expressed frustration at the new on-demand bus service, where commuters have encountered services being cancelled last minute.

An on-demand service makes a lot of sense for longer, cross-island journeys
4. There are certainly practical applications of such services in Singapore

Where we foresee such on-demand services having greater utility is in effectuating cross-island journeys, such as those currently served by SBS' Special bus services, which include Nite Owl, Express Service, Chinatown Direct and City Direct. These lower-ridership services will certainly benefit from using technology to optimise routes and ridership. Additionally, such on-demand services could also be viable for people working in more faraway 'work districts' such as Changi Business Park, International Business Park and Tanjong Penjuru, for example.

Also, such services will tend to have greater demand during peak hours, and little demand during off-peak hours. By creating a dynamic route and schedule, an on-demand bus service will greatly optimise resources and reduce ineffective usage of buses. 

While there are clear benefits of an on-demand bus service, don't expect it to completely replace our current bus network
5. Don't expect it to be everywhere

In Singapore, due to the dense and compact nature of our island city, even with a successful trial and technology implementation, we don't expect such on-demand services to wholly replace the current system of fixed bus routes and schedules. This is especially for shorter routes, such as those within residential towns. 

Ultimately, even with a successful trial of on-demand public bus services, we expect the future of Singapore's public bus network to be some combination of the two. Regular, on-schedule and fixed route services will likely still ply the roads within and around housing districts, allowing commuters to hop-on and hop-off at bus stops. On-demand bus services will be useful in connecting farther areas of Singapore, utilising our expressway network and leveraging technology to create dynamic bus routes for commuters.
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