Western Syd­ney pub­lic trans­port users are cur­rently tak­ing part in Aus­tralia’s largest-ever trial of real-time, de­mand-re­spon­sive bus ser­vices

Western Syd­ney pub­lic trans­port users are cur­rently play­ing the role of com­mut­ing guinea pigs in Aus­tralia’s largest-ever trial of real-time, de­mand-re­spon­sive bus ser­vices

ABC (Australia) - - CONTENTS - WORDs & PHO­TOS RICKY FRENCH

Pri­vately owned multi­na­tional pub­lic trans­port busi­ness Tran­sit Sys­tems has ac­quired de­mand-re­spon­sive tech­nol­ogy plat­form Bridj, which de­liv­ers the soft­ware be­hind the tech­nol­ogy. The soft­ware will an­a­lyse de­mand and pro­vide bus ser­vices based on that de­mand to a key Western Syd­ney em­ploy­ment precinct.

The trial started in late Novem­ber and will run for six months. Fol­low­ing the trial, Tran­sit Sys­tems hopes to make the new ser­vice per­ma­nent.

THE CON­CEPT

Five 16-seat Iveco Daily shut­tle buses will ser­vice the Wether­ill Park and Fair­field em­ploy­ment precincts us­ing routes and fre­quen­cies de­ter­mined by cus­tomer de­mand.

Cus­tomers will use the Bridj smart­phone app to re­quest a bus, book­ing a seat on the next ser­vice. Bridj’s big data an­a­lyt­ics soft­ware then uses al­go­rithms and real-time data to work out the best way to ser­vice cus­tomers’ re­quests through what Bridj calls dy­namic rout­ing and pas­sen­ger clus­ter­ing.

Pas­sen­gers with sim­i­lar travel re­quire­ments will be grouped to­gether, and pick-up and drop-off points may vary daily.

Af­ter re­quest­ing a ser­vice on the Bridj app, pas­sen­gers can track their ve­hi­cle’s lo­ca­tion, see where it will stop to pick them up, and re­ceive walk­ing di­rec­tions to their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion.

Max­i­mum walk­ing dis­tance will be five min­utes. Pas­sen­gers will re­ceive an alert when their stop is com­ing up, which will be as close as prac­ti­cal to their nom­i­nated des­ti­na­tion.

Hav­ing no fixed route means the bus is able to avoid con­ges­tion and tai­lor the route to the spe­cific des­ti­na­tions of the pas­sen­gers.

MEET­ING NEEDS

Cur­rently most of the 20,000 work­ers in the in­dus­trial es­tate drive to work us­ing pri­vate ve­hi­cles due to lack of pub­lic trans­port op­tions.

The near­est bus route is the T80 rapid tran­sit link which runs be­tween Par­ra­matta and Liver­pool.

The de­mand-re­spon­sive trial aims to con­nect the in­dus­trial es­tate with this high-fre­quency bus cor­ri­dor.

Tran­sit Sys­tems’ CEO Clint Feuer­herdt sees de­mand-re­spon­sive ser­vices such as this be­ing in­cor­po­rated into ex­ist­ing bus ser­vices, not run­ning as a stand­alone or com­pet­ing ser­vice.

“We’ve been op­er­at­ing in Western Syd­ney since 2013 and have a good un­der­stand­ing of the needs of that re­gion. We’re hop­ing this pulls peo­ple onto pub­lic trans­port and gets them out of their cars.”

Driv­ers have been re­cruited from Tran­sit Sys­tem’s ex­ist­ing work­force and will drive the new Ive­cos when re­quired by ros­ter.

It bridges the gap be­tween mass tran­sit and your car; it’s that mid­dle space

Ac­cord­ing to Feuer­herdt, the driv­ers have been fall­ing over each other to get be­hind the wheels. “The re­sponse from the driv­ers has been huge. The driver gets more in­for­ma­tion, more va­ri­ety in work. It’s stim­u­lat­ing and dif­fer­ent.”

With ride-shar­ing apps such as Uber be­com­ing in­creas­ingly main­stream, the in­tro­duc­tion of real-time smart­phone apps for pub­lic trans­port shows that com­pa­nies such as Tran­sit Sys­tems are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to keep pace with tech­nol­ogy, meet­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of cus­tomers who want to know ex­actly where their ride is and not have to fit into any pre­de­ter­mined timetable.

“It bridges the gap be­tween mass tran­sit and your car; it’s that mid­dle space,” Feuer­herdt says. “It’s like an Uber app, but it’s pub­lic trans­port.

“You still have to walk to the bus stop, you still have to catch the bus with other peo­ple, you still have to get off and walk. But it’s a far more con­ve­nient and tai­lored project.”

HOW IT WORKS

Much thought has gone into how the new sys­tem works in prac­tice dur­ing the trial pe­riod. Feuer­herdt says that run­ning the de­mand-re­spon­sive ser­vice along­side the T80 will give the best over­all ser­vice to peo­ple wish­ing to get to and from work at Wether­ill Park/Fair­field.

“The idea is you catch the T80, jump off at the sta­tion and book your seat on the Bridj ve­hi­cle, which will meet you at the T80 bus stop.

“Once ev­ery­body’s on, the soft­ware works out where ev­ery­one is go­ing and then cre­ates, through an al­go­rithm, a dy­namic drop-off se­quence that puts you as close as pos­si­ble to your work­place.”

As with all big data-based tech­nol­ogy, the ef­fi­ciency de­pends on the qual­ity of in­for­ma­tion pro­vided. The Bridj soft­ware used here may group the 16 pas­sen­gers into four drop-offs, which will be one of the many pre-des­ig­nated “safe places” for the ve­hi­cle to stop. Af­ter get­ting off at their stop, pas­sen­gers re­ceive turn by turn map di­rec­tions on the app to get them to their work­place, never more than five min­utes’ walk away.

When go­ing home, the sys­tem works in a sim­i­lar way.

“You might tell the app you’re fin­ish­ing at 5pm and you want to go back to the T80 bus stop. The app will give you op­tions of ser­vices com­ing through at that time and you’ll choose one. Each one will tell you how far you’ll need to walk.

“You’ll opt in to a ser­vice and it will give you walk­ing di­rec­tions. You’ll meet up with other peo­ple there who have also booked that.”

EF­FI­CIENCY GAINS

A com­mon prob­lem with tra­di­tional, sched­uled bus ser­vices is they can be in­ef­fi­cient due to the need to obey a timetable, re­gard­less of de­mand.

The sight of large buses driv­ing around empty in the mid­dle of the day in the hope that some­one may jump on is enough to make any mild­man­nered bus com­pany boss pull their hair out. In an area such as this Western Syd­ney em­ploy­ment hub, the costs of us­ing tra­di­tional buses would likely be pro­hib­i­tive. So lat­eral think­ing was re­quired.

“What we’re hop­ing to do through this trial is prove that you can put in place a very ef­fi­cient pub­lic trans­port link with the fre­quency of a high­fre­quency pub­lic trans­port net­work, but de­liver it with far fewer as­sets and far fewer hours,” Feuer­herdt says.

The irony is this trial may demon­strate that de­mand at cer­tain times of the day war­rants a reg­u­lar ser­vice, mean­ing the de­mand-re­spon­sive ser­vice could be con­verted to a reg­u­lar bus ser­vice. Again, it’s about in­cor­po­rat­ing the new sys­tem into the ex­ist­ing one, not run­ning sep­a­rate ser­vices and ex­pect­ing cus­tomers to choose.

The end re­sult should be an over­all ac­cu­rate pic­ture of de­mand. “Bridj tech­nol­ogy goes out into the world and looks at all third-party data,” Feuer­herdt says. “It com­bines that with its own data to build a pic­ture of pre­dicted de­mand. That al­lows us to put ve­hi­cles in the right spot at the right time.”

SPREAD­ING THE MES­SAGE

Feuer­herdt puts it sim­ply. “A lot of peo­ple are scared of pub­lic trans­port be­cause largely there’s a lack of in­for­ma­tion. They don’t know where the bus stop is, what bus they need to catch, how to get the bus to stop, where it’s go­ing, what route num­ber and where to get off. We ad­dress all those con­cerns with the Bridj app.”

The chal­lenge re­mains in con­vinc­ing peo­ple al­ready used to driv­ing their own car to in­stead catch four buses a day, two of which will be done us­ing a never-be­fore-tried app. To get the mes­sage out, Tran­sit Sys­tems has em­barked on a tar­geted mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy, in­clud­ing one-on-one con­sul­ta­tion with large em­ploy­ers in the in­dus­trial precinct, so they can pass on the mes­sage to their work­ers. An ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign is in place at T80 bus stops and on buses, in­for­ma­tion booths have been erected and the five Bridj buses at as mov­ing bill­boards. The trial is free for the first month, with a fixed fare of $3.10 per jour­ney be­ing charged af­ter that.

To judge the suc­cess of the trial, reg­u­lar sur­veys will be un­der­taken in con­junc­tion with Trans­port for NSW. The Bridj app will also col­lect cus­tomer feed­back, with rides be­ing rated and cus­tomers given the op­por­tu­nity to leave com­ments.

On­go­ing data col­lec­tion means that if cus­tomers try to use the app in an area out­side the des­ig­nated ser­vice zone, their re­quest will be recorded and used to plan ad­di­tional ser­vices in the fu­ture. It’s this fea­ture that Feuer­herdt says ex­em­pli­fies the dif­fer­ence be­tween tra­di­tional bus ser­vices and de­mand-re­spon­sive tech­nol­ogy. “Bridj al­lows de­mand to tell it where to go. We don’t make as­sump­tions. It caters to de­mand.”

THE FU­TURE

With so much dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion go­ing on the trans­port sphere, it’s un­der­stand­able that a ma­jor pub­lic trans­port provider would take a leap into the fu­ture and pro­vide a mod­ern al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional way of catch­ing a bus.

While this is the largest and most am­bi­tious trial to ever hap­pen in Aus­tralia, tri­als have al­ready taken place in Sin­ga­pore and the United States. Feuer­herdt says de­mand-re­spon­sive ser­vices in Bos­ton, Wash­ing­ton and Kan­sas have showed re­duced travel times rel­a­tive to other pub­lic tran­sit al­ter­na­tives. The dif­fer­ence from the Amer­i­can ser­vices is that it’s in­te­grated with the pub­lic trans­port net­work, rather than run­ning along­side to or in com­pe­ti­tion with it.

“The pro­gram that the NSW gov­ern­ment is rolling out is prob­a­bly the best and most com­pre­hen­sive that we’re aware of any­where in the world. We’re the only ones I know of who have been hired by gov­ern­ment.”

Time will tell if pas­sen­gers em­brace the new tech­nol­ogy in Western Syd­ney, but there is lit­tle doubt that pub­lic trans­port will need to rev­o­lu­tionise if it is to stay rel­e­vant into the fu­ture. This bold play from Tran­sit Sys­tems and Bridj may prove to be the first gi­ant leap for­ward.

Above: Tran­sit Sys­tems CEO Clint Feuer­herdt and Bridj gen­eral man­ager John Lang­ford-Ely Op­po­site page: A Tran­sit Sys­tems/Bridj trial ve­hi­cle

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Top and above: You still catch a bus with other peo­ple but the ser­vice is more cus­tomised and per­son­alised; The trial has at­tracted plenty of me­dia at­ten­tion

Ve­hi­cle track­ing, route map­ping and alerts are all fea­tures of the Bridj soft­ware; The rise in rideshar­ing ser­vices such as Uber has ar­guably fast-tracked the de­vel­op­ment of de­man­drespon­sive pub­lic trans­port Opp­po­site top and be­low:

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