Demand Responsive Transport (DRT)
Beyond city networks, bus users generally prefer to board a 'through' service. There is a reluctance to transfer between vehicles in order to complete a single journey. Passengers do not believe in the concept of some higher authority constantly reviewing the state of the entire network and taking immediate action to safeguard the interests of all users within its purview. This lack of trust is a product of years of unfortunate experiences. Even on Lincolnshire’s InterConnect service - designed, operated, timetabled, marketed, branded and ticketed as a fully integrated service - the proportion of those actually interchanging is only 2–3%.
Demand Responsive Transport
Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), such as the Lincolnshire scheme, is typically more expensive to provide per passenger trip than conventional bus journeys, yet, paradoxically, it may achieve significant savings for transport authorities. This is because DRT services can take under their wing a whole range of statutory obligations to provide access to specialist health, education, or social services. Hence the term “total transport” as a description of such systems, which seek to integrate a multiplicity of services currently commissioned by a broad swathe of central and local government agencies under a variety of contracts, each negotiated separately with one of a number of available providers.
“Total transport” is said to facilitate the allocation and co-ordination of resources on a more efficient basis, resulting in services that are much more effective at meeting passenger needs, with no significant increase in budgetary requirements. Operating costs and charges to users may well be higher than for a conventional bus service, yet for passengers and for the commissioning authorities the total expense will invariably be lower than alternatives such as taxis or non-emergency ambulance provision.
Hidden savings through DRT
DRT also offers further cost savings that may not be immediately obvious. Services are often provided by small companies with expertise in minibus and/or taxicab operation. Their culture is sympathetic to zero-hours contracts and driver discretion, in ways that differ sharply from the uniform standards and employment conditions offered by mainstream operators. A fixed timetable service cannot hide delays and cancellations, whereas flexible service providers are not normally required to report on levels of unsatisfied demand. ‘Control’ is always free to decline a booking if it does not sit easily within an established pattern of use.
Surveying the Market for bus travel
In most parts of the UK there are two distinct operational platforms for local bus services. An unregulated market allows any operator to offer any service as long as and in so far as it conforms to legal requirements, such as due registration with the Traffic Commissioners. When and where the open market fails to produce any services, the appropriate local government authority is under a duty “to secure the provision of such public passenger transport services as the council consider it appropriate to secure to meet any public transport requirements within the county which would not in their view be met apart from any action taken by them for that purpose”. The duty to provide is subsumed within a discretionary power. Some authorities have taken blanket decisions that it would be inappropriate for them to secure any services under this provision.
Avoiding price fixing
The unregulated bus market is subject to competition legislation designed to prevent cartels from engaging in price fixing schemes. However, this may work against users if timetables become volatile and inter-availability is muted. Transport authorities have found it necessary to look for various workarounds to ensure co-ordination of services and delivery of multi-journey products.
What undergirds the Market?
Markets thrive on open competition. They function best when the consumer has access to a broad range of products, each of which matches or exceeds their baseline requirement, yet which together offer sufficient variation in pricing and fulfilment criteria as to offer a spectrum of genuine selectivity.
The Impact of Technology
Modern technology has the ability to compute and compare a vast range of options, continually updated in real time. This opens up a vast range of new possibilities for public transport, enabling users make travel arrangements “just in time” and at an individually favourable price/quality balance point. Those who are comfortable with smart devices and fluid personal scenarios will be pleased to enter this new world; others will fail to manage the encounter successfully unless offered more traditional forms of support such as telephone contact with a familiar voice.
Private Enterprise and Public Transport
There is scope for further analysis and ongoing debate concerning the manner in which private enterprise has been performing within the field of public transport. An industry that was largely in public hands at the end of the Second World War has been sliced both vertically and horizontally as part and parcel of its transfer into private ownership. This has engendered a huge raft of regulatory provisions, many of which involve arcane targets and artificial benchmarks. Too much energy is deployed in box ticking and in creative accounting. Some profits from UK government contracts and franchises appear deliberately re-directed to countries with lower rates of corporate taxation.
Concluding remarks concerning DRT
In Britain, DRT roll-out has historically been driven by the social exclusion agenda. This has led to some schemes that are cumbersome, expensive, bespoke and cost-heavy. Such operations are not driven by commercial objectives. It would appear that there are very few financially profitable DRT schemes operating in the UK.
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