Demand-Responsive Transit (DRT) has emerged as a game-changing concept within the realm of public transportation. With its flexible routing, shared rides, and pre-booking system, DRT offers a dynamic alternative to traditional fixed-route transit services. However, the term “DRT” encompasses various definitions and can be referred to by different names such as microtransit, on-demand transport, dial-a-ride, and more.
In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of DRT, examining its definition, historical roots, different types, and the reasons why it is becoming increasingly important in today’s transportation landscape.
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What Exactly is DRT?
DRT, short for Demand-Responsive Transport encompasses a wide range of transit options that do not adhere to fixed schedules or routes. However, even official bodies do not describe DRT in the same way. For instance, the Community Transport Association in the UK defines DRT as a “user-oriented form of passenger transport characterized by flexible routes and smaller vehicles operating in a shared-ride mode.” On the other hand, Grosso et al. describe it as “an intermediate form of transport between a bus and a taxi, covering a wide range of services from community transport to wider service networks.”
To better understand DRT, it is crucial to examine its core characteristics: flexible routing, shared rides, and pre-booking seats and understand the different DRT/Micro Transit business models.
The Different Types of DRT Services
Flexible Route & On-Demand: These services mirror ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft, picking up passengers from their doorstep and dropping them off directly at their desired destination. Such services require large fleets and driver pools to meet varying demands.
Fixed Route & On-Demand: These services offer limited detours and pickup times, providing a more predictable experience for passengers. While pickup times can be adjusted to accommodate passenger needs, the routes remain fixed, ensuring passengers reach their destinations without deviation.
Fixed Route & Fixed Schedule: Hybrid DRT services combine aspects of traditional bus services and demand-responsive transport. During peak hours, they operate like regular public transit with fixed routes and schedules. However, during off-peak hours, these services become on-demand, adjusting schedules and routes based on passenger demand.ixe
The History of Micro Transit/DRT
While the term “DRT” may be relatively new, the concept of demand-responsive transport has roots dating back several decades. In the early 20th century, informal and unlicensed minivans known as “jitneys” emerged as a form of transportation across various regions, particularly in the United States. The term “jitney” originated from the Louisiana Creole French word “jetnée,” meaning five cents or a nickel, which represented the fare charged for a ride.
Jitneys gained popularity during a time when personal car ownership was on the rise and served as an affordable alternative to electric trolley buses operated by utility companies. They offered flexibility, curbside pick-up and drop-off, and route adjustments based on passenger requests. However, as jitneys posed stiff competition to traditional public transportation, government agencies cracked down on these informal services, leading to their decline.
The concept of DRT persisted over the years, experiencing several revivals with advancements in technology. Today, DRT leverages digital applications to automate routing, booking, and payment processes, opening up new possibilities for efficient and flexible transportation.
Different DRT Business Models
DRT services exist along a spectrum between traditional fixed-route public transport and individual-focused taxi or ride-hailing services. By examining various DRT business models, we can better understand its role and impact in modern transportation systems.
Localized DRT: In this configuration, DRT services are implemented within specific neighborhoods or smaller regions. These services cater to the local population’s transportation needs, offering convenient and flexible rides within a defined area. Localized DRT can be particularly beneficial in areas with limited public transportation options, providing a viable alternative for residents.
Rural DRT: Rural areas often face unique transportation challenges due to lower population density and longer travel distances. Rural DRT services aim to address these challenges by offering flexible and on-demand transportation solutions to rural communities. By connecting remote areas with essential services and transportation hubs, rural DRT services enhance mobility and access to employment, education, healthcare, and other vital resources.
First-Mile/Last-Mile DRT: One of the significant limitations of traditional fixed-route transit systems is the challenge of connecting passengers from their origin or destination to the nearest transit stop. First-mile/last-mile DRT services bridge this gap by providing convenient transportation options for passengers to reach or depart from transit stations or hubs. By integrating with existing public transportation networks, first-mile/last-mile DRT services enhance connectivity and encourage greater usage of public transit.
The Benefits of MicroTransit/DRT Services
The rise of DRT is driven by several compelling benefits it offers to both passengers and transportation authorities:
Flexibility and Convenience: DRT allows passengers to request rides according to their preferred time and location, providing greater flexibility compared to fixed-route services. Passengers can book rides in advance or on-demand, resulting in a more convenient and personalized travel experience.
Cost Efficiency: DRT services optimize routes based on passenger demand, leading to reduced travel distances and improved vehicle occupancy. By efficiently utilizing resources, DRT can offer cost-effective transportation solutions while minimizing operational expenses.
Accessibility and Inclusivity: DRT plays a crucial role in improving accessibility for individuals with limited mobility, elderly populations, and those living in underserved areas. By offering door-to-door service and accommodating specific needs, DRT ensures that transportation is more inclusive and reaches a broader range of passengers.
Reduced Congestion and Emissions: By providing shared rides and optimizing routes, DRT contributes to reducing the number of private vehicles on the road. This, in turn, helps alleviate traffic congestion and decreases greenhouse gas emissions, promoting sustainable transportation practices.
Data-Driven Insights: DRT services generate valuable data regarding passenger demand, travel patterns, and preferences. Transportation authorities can leverage this data to make informed decisions, optimize service planning, and improve overall transit operations.
Challenges and Considerations
While DRT holds significant promise, it is not without its challenges and considerations:
Scalability: As demand for DRT grows, ensuring scalability becomes crucial. Expanding service coverage, managing increased passenger volumes, and maintaining adequate vehicle fleets and driver pools pose operational challenges that need to be addressed effectively.
Balancing Efficiency and Equity: DRT services should strive to balance efficiency with equity. While optimizing routes for cost-effectiveness is essential, it is equally important to ensure that the most vulnerable populations and underserved areas are not left behind.
Integration with Existing Systems: Seamless integration of DRT with existing public transportation networks is vital for providing a cohesive and interconnected transit experience. Coordination with fixed-route services, fare integration, and real-time data sharing enable passengers to navigate the entire transportation system effortlessly.
Technological Infrastructure: Successful implementation of DRT relies on robust technological infrastructure, including advanced routing algorithms, mobile applications for booking and tracking, and reliable communication systems.
Cost: Demand-Responsive Transport has been instrumental in creating a level of flexibility that fixed-route bus or metro networks will never achieve. So why would we not just turn them all into DRT services? It’s much more expensive. DRT services are, by their nature, designed for low passenger loads and longer trip distances and tend to have higher costs by this measure.
DRT best serves hard-to-reach places, off-peak times and for specific user groups with special needs. It is a natural expansion of public transport and should be funded the same way.
What policies matter for DRT/Micro Transit?
When it comes to microtransit, there are five areas of policy that can support/hinder its implementation.
- General transportation policies
These dictate the direction of development of transport systems in a given country. Having language generally around on-demand and shared mobility helps bringing DRT to a region, especially to suburban or rural areas.
- Health policies
Specifically centred around guidelines for underserved demographics (i.e seniors or people with special mobility needs). In a 2020 report, the EPRS (European Parliamentary Research Service) highlights that 58% of older adults live in suburban or rural areas. This means that if transportation and health policies go hand-in-hand, there is a much more likely case for the introduction of DRT services.
- Environmental policies
Focus on congestion relief, a reduction on personal vehicle ownership and GHG emission reduction are a good foundation. However, on its own they won’t shift people out of their personal vehicles.
- Corporate policies
Tying environmental policies with Corporate Sustainability policies for employers will have a much stronger impact on modeshift. Especially if they tackle or mandate the reduction of corporate fleets or have clear targets to reduce employees traveling with their personal vehicles (such as these different regulatory initiatives across Europe).
- Data policies
Focusing on dictating what data can be collected through on-demand transportation and how this can be used and by whom. Open data policies and requirement to incorporate standard data feeds help transit agencies to design integrated and efficient ecosystems of options (i.e a feeder network of DRT that connects to a Bus Rapid Transit system).
The Three Operational Aspects of Micro Transit Services
Transit demand is primarily influenced by sociodemographic factors, land use and urban planning characteristics, and the attractiveness and accessibility of alternative modes of transportation. Additionally, use cases, such as exercise and leisure activities, play a significant role in shaping demand. For example, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, while commuting trips decreased, trips for exercise and leisure increased, leading to a surge in demand for bikesharing. It is important for microtransit to consider these use cases alongside the other three operational areas. The patterns of demand can be categorized into two main types: many-to-many and many-to-one. Many-to-one services often act as feeder systems, addressing the first and last mile challenge.
Supply in microtransit encompasses various factors under the operator’s control, including fleet size, vehicle hours, number of stops, service area size, and the technology employed. The quality of service is assessed through metrics such as travel times, proximity to stops, and average waiting times. The road network and mobile infrastructure also significantly influence operations, particularly in lower-demand suburban and exurban areas where the road geometry can be irregular, limiting routing flexibility. Moreover, challenges can arise in areas with poor mobile data connectivity, necessitating the use of virtual flagstops.
Service quality in transportation is evaluated using dimensions such as tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. Traditional fixed-route transit systems can fix the supply offeren and absorb small increases in demand without significant degradation of service quality. However, on-demand services like microtransit may struggle to maintain service quality when faced with rapid increases in demand. Thus, an alternative approach involves fixing the desired service quality and determining the supply of service required to match it. Real-time customer feedback is more readily available in microtransit through apps, enabling immediate evaluation of service satisfaction. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is often used to gauge customer satisfaction, with scores above 0 considered good and scores above 50 considered excellent.
Integration with Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS)
Microtransit is just one component within the broader concept of Mobility-as-a-Service. MaaS involves integrating different on-demand transportation modes into a single ecosystem to provide a comprehensive alternative to car ownership. Integration occurs at multiple levels, including physical integration in mobility hubs, information integration to enable seamless navigation across modes, and the bundling of trip planning, booking, and fare payment in a single user interface. The ultimate goal is to create a resilient transportation ecosystem that can effectively compete with private car usage, even in suburban and rural areas.
By considering and addressing these operational areas, microtransit can contribute to building a more efficient, flexible, and customer-centric transportation system.
What makes DRT attractive to customers?
Demand-Responsive Transportation (DRT) has become increasingly popular among customers seeking personalized and convenient mobility solutions. Through comprehensive studies conducted by movmi, a shared mobility consultancy, several key features have emerged as the driving forces behind DRT’s attractiveness to customers.
One of the primary factors is convenience. Users value the fully digital experience that DRT offers, enabling them to handle all aspects of their journey through a simple mobile app. The elimination of paper timetables and the need for cash or card payments on buses contribute to a hassle-free experience. In fact, users express a preference for apps that encompass all trip-related tasks, such as booking, navigation, and confirmation.
Another crucial aspect is the availability of DRT. Customers desire control over their own schedules and appreciate the on-demand nature of these services. Unlike traditional fixed-route transit systems, DRT allows individuals to access transportation whenever and wherever they need it. This freedom to adjust the service according to demand fosters an addictive user experience and reinforces the shift away from personal car usage. Interviews with industry experts further emphasize the importance of providing flexibility to users while ensuring safety and simplicity.
Proximity of service also plays a significant role in attracting customers to DRT. If the service requires extensive travel to reach pickup points, users may resort to using their own vehicles instead. However, customers are generally willing to walk a short distance, typically between 300-500 meters, to access DRT services. This close proximity enhances convenience and encourages usage, particularly among physically able individuals. Feedback from surveys underscores the importance of having pickup and drop-off locations conveniently located near users.
These three factors, convenience, availability, and proximity, hold greater significance for customers than affordability. While customers still value value-for-money, they are willing to pay extra for the convenience provided by DRT services.
DRT as an Equitable Solution
Moreover, DRT demonstrates its ability to serve diverse customer profiles and address specific use cases that are often challenging for traditional shared mobility services. For instance, women have distinct mobility patterns and prioritize stitching together multiple smaller journeys. Microtransit/DRT caters to their needs by offering customizable on-demand services that address safety concerns and timing preferences.
Older adults and individuals with mobility issues also benefit greatly from DRT. Mobility becomes a critical determinant of their physical health and emotional well-being, enabling an independent and active lifestyle. DRT fills this essential role, particularly in rural areas, where it becomes increasingly attractive to an aging population.
Furthermore, employees, who often have reliable access to public transit during regular office hours, face challenges related to business parks or shift work. Microtransit/DRT provides a viable solution, ensuring convenient transportation options to and from work. By eliminating the stress associated with commuting, microtransit enhances employee productivity, well-being, and overall satisfaction. Employers can also contribute positively by reducing their carbon footprint and supporting recruitment and retention efforts.
What are the goals that DRT can help achieve?
Microtransit is a valuable solution for achieving various goals in transportation. It is particularly beneficial in areas where conventional transit systems face challenges, such as irregular network topology and limited ridership due to low population densities. While microtransit is commonly associated with rural communities and suburban areas, it has also been implemented successfully in higher-density environments.
Transit agencies have specific objectives they aim to address through microtransit:
- Building ridership: Introducing microtransit can act as a catalyst for increasing transit ridership, whether in a new municipality or expanding existing services. It provides a flexible solution for attracting more passengers. For example, the Go2 case study demonstrates how microtransit projects have successfully built ridership in various areas.
- First-mile/last-mile connections: Microtransit extends the reach of existing transit networks, reducing walking distances to stops and improving accessibility. It serves as a cost-effective alternative to expanding fixed-route services. Microtransit can also play a vital role in establishing feeder networks, connecting commuters to regional transit stations. However, careful planning is required to ensure it complements rather than cannibalizes higher-cost fixed routes, as demonstrated by the Arriva and TAD IDFM case studies.
- Creating inclusive public transit: Microtransit addresses use cases that traditional public transit struggles with, particularly in serving seniors and supporting aging in place. Its flexibility allows for direct connections between seniors’ complexes, shopping areas, and other major hubs. This enhances the overall inclusivity of public transit systems.
- Increased area coverage at a fixed cost: Microtransit offers operational cost efficiencies, making it a cost-effective option for providing transit services in suburban or rural areas while maintaining a comparable level of service frequency and reliability. The potential vehicle hours for a given coverage area are often cited as a key factor in piloting or implementing permanent microtransit services.
While running pilot projects is a common approach for implementing microtransit services, the goal of being innovative or testing new technology is not inherently beneficial. Unrealistic goal setting and residents’ reluctance to change their transportation behavior can lead to pilot projects falling short of expectations and being shut down. However, pilot projects still offer benefits, such as demonstrating the potential of a service, securing funding, and enabling continuous evaluation and adaptation for service improvements.
Successful MicroTransit/DRT Case Studies
In partnership with BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe), Via launched BerlKonig in September 2018, a digital, on-demand ridesharing service in the eastern inner-city area of Berlin. The service was launched with two main goals: to decrease congestion in the city due to a growing population, and to fill the service gaps in available transportation during late-evenings and weekends.
In March 2020, BerlKonig responded to the pandemic by pivoting their regular operations and exclusively providing free on-demand rides for healthcare workers during evening and late night hours for a duration of 4 weeks. According to Chris Snyder, CEO of Via, “Getting critical staff to work reliably and safely has never been more important. Digitally-enabled transport services like the BerlKönig can play a key role in allowing public transport to adapt to demand amidst rapidly changing situations.”
The service operated from 9:30pm to 5:30am in an expanded area included the S-Bahn ring and extending outwards to include additional hospitals.
Zeelo: Electric shuttle
Zeelo provides smart bus services for 110 companies and schools globally. Zeelo’s fully electric service with Ocado launched in November 2021, transporting employees to and from towns in the outskirts of Hatfield, UK to their head office locations.
Ocado Group is a British online supermarket and aims to become the UK’s most sustainable grocer. The all electric employee shuttle service is projected to save 16 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually along with providing valuable transportation links for their staff who live in areas that are underserved by public transportation.
The main offering of Bürgerbus is “citizen’s drive for other citizens” – a volunteer-based community transportation service that aims to fill public transportation gaps in rural areas . The program uses volunteers to drive mini buses, as well as handling other tasks related to the transport service. By building on the rural community spirit and engaging citizens who want to contribute to their community, the program is able to realise substantial savings in its operating costs.
The citizen’s bus has existed for almost 40 years in Germany, and has typically been a traditional scheduled, fixed-route bus service, but has included door-to-door Demand Responsive Transport in recent years. The on-demand “citizen bus” can be booked by phone or e-mail and must be booked in advance before a certain time so the buses can be routed and scheduled accordingly for the day. For example, same day bookings by email must be in by 12pm.
One of the challenges that this volunteer-based model experiences is inconsistencies in service – the extent of the on-demand service is subject to the available funding, volunteers available for the day, and local interest.
Since its inception in 1986, the program has successfully expanded to 350 Bürgerbus services. According to a national study from 2016, a Bürgerbus scheme can feasibly serve a population of at least 3000 persons inhabitants in a catchment area. Passenger numbers in most cases are between 300 and 2000 per month. However, in recent years the variety of schemes has grown, and the range is now considerably bigger. For example, the Burgerbus in Baden Württemberg also has a citizen call car, which is an alternative to the citizen bus if demand is too low, but can still supplement local public transport if necessary.
A social citizen transport service also exists, and is used for door-to-door transport for specific groups, such as seniors and those with special mobility needs.
Go2 and Go2 Direct
Go2 is a demand responsive bus service that offers bus stop to bus stop transport upon request. Go2 Direct is a private pre-bookable taxi service that offers door to door transport upon request. Also available for pre-booking.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Go Coach bus services experienced a huge decline in ridership and ultimately affected their revenue. To address this challenge, several Sevenoaks bus services were temporarily replaced by the new on-demand service, Go2, launched by Go Coach and ViaVan. Protecting bus services for key workers, such as National Health Service staff, and for those that have no choice other than bus, has been the key goal of operators and Kent County Council. Aside from travelling within Sevenoaks, additional links to various hospitals outside the town have been added to support hospital staff that rely on public transportation.
The Go2 demand responsive bus service allows riders to book a bus ride by entering their pick-up location and drop-off destination on the app. The Go2 app then provides a ride proposal that best fits the riders needs. In most cases, the bus arrives at the location that the rider has provided, but in some cases the rider may need to walk a short distance to the nearest bus stop.
Quibus is a night-time, on-demand transport solution in the City of Padua created by a multi-stakeholder collaborative effort between Padam Mobility, the municipality of Padua, the local transit agency Busitalia Veneto, and the University of Padua. With more than 210,000 residents, the city’s local public transportation falls short in catering to its bustling nightlife, with bus services ending at just 9pm. To address this issue, the Night Bus service was created in January 2019, with services running from 9pm to midnight or until 3am.. Although the service is open to all residents, the service was especially beneficial to university students by providing them with a safe and convenient way to travel to the city during the evening. The University is centrally located in the city and attracts over 60,000 students on campus. Users can book their trip through the app or website from one week in advance to just 5 minutes before their departure time. The on-demand service has a flexible route and schedule, with routes optimized by Padam’s algorithm.
Starting with just a fleet of 4 free-floating vehicles, the pilot experienced great success and has expanded its fleet and service to daytime on Sundays and during public holidays. As of February 2021, Quibus, was officially added as a complementary service to specifically cater to students, and the entire service took its name.