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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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: