The pandemic has prompted some areas to quickly rethink their travel needs
Covid-19 started as a health emergency, but the consequences for almost all parts of society and sectors of the economy have been far reaching.
Transport is no exception. While there has been a rapid reduction in travel under lockdown, predictions of what the future holds are wide ranging, oscillating between projecting more people driving and surveys of car users predicting they will drive 20% less.
In a recent Smart Transport webinar (watch now), innovative services show how responding to the crisis has revealed demand in unexpected places and expedited new ways of doing things away from the city centres where future transport tends to be focused.
These three case studies and overview from CoMoUK demonstrate the impact and importance of innovation in enabling rural areas to respond to – and look beyond – the crisis.
Austin Blackburn: Go Coach Hire, Go Taxi, Sevenoaks, Kent
Austin Blackburn has been looking at how bus services need to change to meet the needs of people in Sevenoaks, Kent, for some time.
Had the Covid-19 crisis not developed, he would be busy launching an ambitious demand-responsive service blending bus, taxi and social care transport in the area.
The plans are for a fleet of new cleaner, greener and more secure buses.
These would be smaller vehicles which can easily navigate narrow roads.
They will be fitted with leather seats, air conditioning and USB charging – and will be fully accessible, with forward-facing seats, a wheelchair ramp and wheelchair spaces, making them suitable for mixed use.
The plan was to replace poorly used buses with a targeted service to link to commuter trains, a special educational needs school bus shift and a middle of the day door-to-door shared ride service for Age UK.
With the declaration of lockdown all plans went on hold. Bus passengers dropped by 90%, and the decision was taken to replace the entire existing bus network with a demand-responsive service operating over the roads previously served and taking in the local hospital trusts.
This was set up by three people working with technology partner Via Vans over the Easter holidays.
The emergency service comprises four demand-responsive buses operating between 6am and 6pm. People catch the bus by booking on the app or by phone.
“We’ve been telling people to catch a bus by going to a bus stop for the past 100 years. Overnight, we’re telling them to use an app,” says Blackburn.
Initial results are both fascinating and promising.
There have been 723 passenger journeys in two weeks and the service seems to be working well. It has met 99% of demand. It’s also increased vehicle utilisation from one person per vehicle per hour to 1.4-1.9 dependent on the day.
The other thing is that the flexible area means the system can show where passengers are travelling to and from in a way that wasn’t previously possible.
“From day one, we had people making journeys where they’d previously needed more than one bus,” says Blackburn.
“I thought it might take a while, but it was immediate. Now we can see where – if we go back to fixed line –the buses need to go.”
A further positive is service levels. The emergency bus has a an 11.6 minute pick-up time on services which were previously hourly, and people are walking no more than 81 metres to get the bus.
Darian Helm and Jerome Mayaud: Spare Labs
Spare Labs helps transport agencies create ‘microtransit’ solutions.
This is app-based on-demand transport – a bus/taxi blend sharing rides to fill gaps where it’s not economical to run fixed route buses.
Spare Labs uses data and algorithms to simplify planning and trip matching.
The lockdown conditions have made that more important.
Data is particularly useful in rural areas with lower demand is to enable services to be able to meet needs without excess empty seats.
Running vehicles over an area rather than on fixed routes decentralises the risk of systems collapsing if drivers become ill as it utilises a pool of non-specialised drivers rather than drivers trained to specific routes and timetables.
In addition, better data on users enables agencies to segment riders by risk profile and need (reducing social mixing), prioritise healthcare workers or move vulnerable people separately.
The app can include built-in contact tracing to understand the spread of virus.
A microtransit service along these lines was deployed in Lincoln, Nebraska, in just 48 hours, redeploying paratransit vehicles to provide transport for essential workers.
As lockdown is released it will be important to scale-up transport at the most efficient rate.
Spare Labs has created a tool to help transport authorities examine different scenarios as passenger numbers increase and work out the optimal combination of demand-responsive transport and fixed routes.
It looks at where ridership changes should trigger interventions to match demand with different combinations of flexible and fixed-route services.
Cargodale is a low carbon delivery service put together virtually overnight in a small Pennine town between Manchester and Leeds.
Todmorden wouldn’t normally be prioritised commercially for e-cargo bike last mile delivery.
However, the unique conditions of the lockdown and the desperate need for food and grocery deliveries created the ideal conditions for this sustainable transport experiment.
Under normal conditions, despite being semi-rural, the main valley roads have poor air quality.
There is also a high level of car dependency. Many roads are narrow and unmade, and traditional delivery vans are often too big for them.
Cargodale hired a Riese and Müller Packster 80 e-cargo bike, repurposed Esoterix/Q Routes and DriverNet software for deliveries and bike routing and collects data via a tracker. It delivers to local shops and the food bank.
Deliveries are straightforward and have proved that it’s possible to use an e-cargo bike even in this hilly and rural area.
The challenges are that it has required a big shift to digital operations for businesses that weren’t expecting to go online – using ShopAppy for ordering and WhatsApp for delivery requests.
The initial impacts are promising. Within the first month the service had made 211 deliveries, travelling 335 miles and avoiding 50kg of CO2 emissions (not counting journeys avoided by shoppers).
To become a fully commercial service will require more work on the business model.
However, this is a promising start.
Richard Dilks, CoMoUK
CoMoUK is a transport charity which researches and promotes bike shares, car clubs and ride-sharing. In common with most other transport, shared transport experienced a decline in use of 90%.
However, operators quickly responded with new offers for key workers – especially with bike share and car share enabling the use of inactive fleets.
There is a concern that Covid-19 may reduce the propensity to share and increase the required standards for cleanliness and separation between people.
There is little financial support for operators and the concern is that as we move from health crisis to climate crisis, the potential impact of radically reduced fleet sizes and reduced operators would undermine efforts to meet the challenge of decarbonisation.
The sector is looking to Government for support to enable the adoption of shared transport, using existing assets and maximising their utilisation.
During the crisis, bike share, peer-to-peer car clubs and liftshare have been aiding key worker journeys.
It’s important to build on this and develop long-term behaviour, by supporting clusters of sharing such as schools, business parks and other workplaces.
This could include using both ‘carrots’ to make lift share and public transport combinations mix much more useable (e.g. shuttle buses to station and cover for emergency journeys) and ‘sticks’ such as reduced parking.
Rural areas are often not as diffuse as they are assumed to be, and it’s possible to find concentrations of trips – and create infrastructure which will facilitate it.
CoMoUK would like to see support for mobility hubs in tourist hotspots and peri urban focal points such as business parks, new housing developments, park and ride, hospitals.
As we move forward we need to support the innovation we’ve seen during the crisis and help it grow.