The Role of Demand Responsive Transport During and After COVID-19

by May 20, 2020Article

As the UK begins to move towards an exit from COVID-19 lockdown, provision of safe transport services will come very much to the fore.

The entire public transport industry has of course been turned upside down. Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) has been particularly impacted, given the largely ageing and/or vulnerable demographic of much of its ridership; and also due to fleets being repurposed as urgent delivery services.

However, while many of our DRT customers are still trying to deal with the difficulties associated with adapting to this unprecedented situation, we will all face a fresh set of challenges as demand for services begins to return.

Looking back: safety first

When COVID-19 first hit the UK there was, of course, a huge requirement to adapt DRT services. With elderly and vulnerable people most at risk, DRT operators had to react quickly to ensure social distancing could be observed.

We have been working closely with our customers through the past weeks to monitor and manage vehicle capacities (which can be particularly tricky in relation to transportation of mobility aids), as well as providing practical support in the form of webinars and how-to guides published on our Community Portal.

Adapting DRT

As the pandemic hit the UK and demand for regular services reduced, many of our customers repurposed their fleets to support their local communities. Transport for London’s Dial-a-Ride service was put to use delivering essential medical equipment to the Nightingale hospital; meals to regular customers in West London; and IT kit to staff transitioning to working from home. Single passenger journeys have been carried out wherever possible and the number of daily services has dropped dramatically from around 3,000 to just 200.

Conversely, some of our customers use DRT for non-social transport and have seen increasing requirements to transport workers to and from e-retailers’ remote warehouses, which have experienced huge demand over the past few weeks. Changes implemented included limiting vehicle capacities and ensuring drivers and passengers were kept well apart.

There have also been requirements to manage unusual processes in relation to the payment of transport providers. Some customers needed help with reducing payments to third party transport providers in-line with falling service levels. Meanwhile, others needed to pay providers early to alleviate cash flow problems and ensure continuity of future service, in compliance with government advice that authorities support the continuity of the supply chain.

Through all of these changes, authorities have understandably been incredibly stretched. With staff working from home, dealing with staff shortages, and team members required to cover other areas, it has become essential that they can do everything they need to do with as few clicks as possible.

Transport management and delivery have always been about efficiency. But in recent times it has felt more important than ever to make every second – and every journey – count.

Imagining the ‘new normal’

With the initial period of rapid, radical response seemingly now past, we have perhaps reached a more manageable stage of the transition, and are starting to help customers to look ahead. The difficulty here is that the implications are not yet fully understood in any form of transport – but perhaps especially so in DRT.

Given the demographic of most DRT passengers, and the recent assertion by the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty, that social distancing is likely to continue through 2020, it seems unlikely that DRT will return to its former state in the near future. The bulk of what previously constituted DRT journeys will likely not be happening to the same extent, or in the same ways.

Additionally, where DRT is required, it will likely have to adapt to a new mobility landscape. As this article by one of my Trapeze colleagues shows, we are already seeing similar developments with our global bus operator clients, who are finding that recovery from COVID-19 is requiring an entirely new approach to network design, and practical measures such as cleaning vehicles between routes.

Looking further ahead

For all these reasons, the future of mobility has never felt more unclear. And yet, perhaps there are reasons to feel optimistic.

The recent £167m government bus support package was vital to ensure key workers are able to travel to and from places of work through this pandemic. Nevertheless, the sight of almost entirely empty buses roaming the streets has been a reminder that ‘big buses’ may not be the most effective way of transporting relatively small numbers of people.

In effect, in the past few weeks we have seen something similar to the UK’s rural mobility issue played out on a national stage, with under-capacity buses transporting a minority who rely upon the service. This approach has, of course, served as a vital lifeline during a crisis, but as we emerge from COVID-19 we may find a renewed appetite for reconsidering how we approach mobility in areas with low or variable demand.

A mobility watershed?

While the UK transport sector hasn’t always been quick to embrace change, perhaps the present upheaval will prompt more radical thinking. With COVID-19 having significantly improved air quality across the globe, we are already seeing cities such as Milan envisaging a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to develop a more progressive approach to mobility.

Meanwhile, several of our local authority customers have expressed surprise at how quickly they were able to transition to working from home; while across the country we have seen mobilisation of huge projects that show that UK organisations can move quickly when there is a compelling reason to do so.

Perhaps we can, therefore, expect that when we have recovered from COVID-19 we will begin to seriously consider the roles of semi-fixed, ‘flex’ and DRT within the wider mobility mix. Big buses clearly remain vital mobility tools, but as the Isle of Man example shows, DRT can be more effective in areas with lower demand, both for authorities and the wider community.

At the moment nobody knows what the future will look like. However, it seems certain that we will need to use all of the tools at our disposal – in terms of modes, technology and expertise – to meet the requirements of a new world. Technology can certainly help us to pave the way, and this is a conversation we need to start having.

If you wish to discuss further or would like information regarding how Trapeze can help through the COVID-19 outbreak, please do get in touch.

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