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Feature: The rise of the commuter bus network

03 January 2018 #Aftermarket #Bus and Coach #CV Sector #Features & Interviews #TNB News #Van

The meteoric rise of ride-hailing companies has turned the concept of urban transportation on its head, and scores of city travellers now look to an app, rather than their phone’s contact book or dial pad, when they’re planning a trip across town.

Passenger cars tend to be the ride-hailing medium of choice, but it’s also possible to book the likes of vans via the platforms for one-off journeys. Moves are afoot to apply the same formula to larger vehicles and extend the concept of ride hailing – or ride sharing – to minibuses.

Commuter bus services such as Chariot have already established themselves in the US. The company launched in San Francisco in 2014 and operates fleets of 14-seater Ford Transit vans in areas where the public transport system is lacking, the idea being that it’s cheaper and less congesting for multiple passengers to share one, large vehicle than using individual cars. Users can view routes and book places via a smartphone app, as well as campaign for new routes in areas they consider poorly served by the likes of buses and trains.

Josh Weisman, the company’s head of global expansion and sales, explains how it works: “You enter where you are and where you are going [into the app] and it will give you a number of different options, services and routes. Let’s say you walk three blocks to [a pre-determined] location, which will take you four minutes. You take the 7:55am Chariot, drive 20 minutes, get off, and that either helps connect you with another public transit operator or you’re at your work or wherever you need to be.

“The second option really comes down to if we’re not necessarily in your service area yet, which is where we created and established our crowd sourcing platform. If we do not have a route for you yet, you go to our website, enter your home address, enter in your work address and once we get enough demands in your area, we will be able to launch the service there.”

In addition to feedback from app users, the firm looks at various different forms of traffic and commuter data to work out where best to deploy its vehicles. “We try to see where the density is and where people are coming from [then] understand where some of the pain points are in a city when it comes to transportation and mobility,” says Weisman, who adds that the company also works with large businesses to establish routes that can capture decent numbers of employees.

“We call it the enterprise side of the business, where we work directly with employers and directly with the city to help create some of these routes that are really best defined for those cities. Not only do we look to understand where their employees are coming from, but we look at their data and say ‘this is the route that we should help create,’ whether that’s a long distance route [or a shorter one] connecting with rail services.”

Chariot currently operates in four US cities: New York, Austin, Seattle and its home base of San Francisco, but it intends to set up in London in 2018. The firm has applied for an operators’ licence from Transport for London and announced plans for six as-yet unspecified routes within the British capital.

Ford bought Chariot for an estimated £50 million in 2016 and the blue oval isn’t the only manufacturer with an interest in the commuter bus market, as the Volkswagen Group bought a $300 million stake in Uber-rival Gett, also in 2016.

Though Gett is predominantly a passenger car service, the VW Group has already signalled its intentions to develop a minibus-based ride-sharing service; it revealed the first official images of the Moia car in December 2017 – a six-seater electric vehicle designed specifically for ride sharing. Due for launch by the end of 2018, it features sliding side doors, is fitted with Wi-Fi, reading lights and USB ports and has a claimed range of 186 miles.

In a similar move, Mercedes-Benz Vans invested $50 million in ride-sharing firm Via in September 2017. Much like Chariot, Via specialises in “intelligent shared rides”, where passengers heading in the same direction can book a seat in a mutually convenient vehicle. It currently operates in New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. and has set plans in motion to launch in London.

Britain’s capital may be the next stop for manufacturer-backed ride-sharing services, but similar companies have already set up shop. Citymapper currently operates two routes in London, one of which is a night bus through the east end from 10pm-4am on Friday and Saturday nights. The second is a shared black cab commuter service, run in conjunction with Gett, which is available in the mornings and the evenings in Central London. As well as the two existing services, the company says its approach is “to study how people move through cities and suggest routes that complement [the] existing network”.

Such is the appetite for commuter bus services that, according to Weisman, some cities are actively asking the likes of Chariot to open for business on their patch. “It’s been very exciting to see, even in the last year or so, how many cities are banging on our door, wanting us to come and provide the service that [makes up for] the inefficiencies that they have.

“Think of the person that is a few miles away, or in a place where there’s a transit gap and they don’t have an option. They have to get in their car and they have to drive downtown by themselves; they park for $20, $30 – whatever it may be – and they’re having to waste that space. I [used to be] three miles away from our rail station; I worked 30 miles south of that and I drove the entire way because those three miles to the rail station took longer than the 30-mile train ride. When I think of getting out people out of cars [and into commuter bus services], that’s how I think we’re helping.”

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