Merlin Rehema: On-demand solutions to complement county public transport

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Merlin Rehema. Source: Private collection

It is high time to plan public transport based on people's needs and give new meaning to its role and nature. Now, when a recent National Audit Office report proposes weighing additional solutions next to regular bus lines in sparsely populated areas, is the time to think about transport on demand.

The nature of public transport needs to be modernized and adjust to new circumstances in terms of where people live, why they move about, as well as user expectations. Transport on demand does just that, proceeding from the need to get around, offering flexible solutions and considering people's wishes.

Just like Bolt and Uber operate based on demand in major cities, the same principle can be used in public transport by offering the possibility of having a public transport vehicle show up where and when needed, including in sparsely populated areas.

Public transport planning is based on existing passengers, while potential passengers who are not using public transport for various reasons today are not considered. How to get them to ride the bus? By offering a user-friendly service where convenience and optimal use of time help make it a sensible choice.

Curing poor mobility and success abroad

Transport on demand has been tested by many European countries, including the Nordics for a number of years. The goal is to help people be mobile, especially vulnerable social groups like the elderly, people with disabilities and schoolchildren, while not stopping there.

In Sauda in southern Norway, an on-demand line takes elderly people in the morning and students in the afternoon, offering a good alternative to the local government bus that comes once in a blue moon.

If a public transport vehicle can be called like a taxi but still costs as much as taking a regular bus, it will increase people's independence, freedom from private vehicles and user satisfaction. The result is a reduction in mobility impairment, which is one of the greatest advantages of transport on demand. It can also help boost passengers' quality of life.

Tests in Estonia

The first steps toward transport on demand have also been taken in Estonia where social transport services in rural areas are being tested by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Possibilities offered by on-demand transport are being developed in Estonia and other Baltic Sea states as part of the Response project spearheaded by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI Tallinn).

Transport on demand pilot projects are underway in Värmland, Sweden and the Sauda, Nesi ja Gjovik regions in Norway. The project is also seeing the development of a multimodal ticket system concept covering different modes of public transport and a model for forecasting the price of the service that would help put transport on demand into practice more successfully.

Because on-demand transport is based on local demand for services, systems of feedback and mobility patterns monitoring need to be put in place and timetables, routes and vehicles adjusted as necessary.

Should one pilot project fail, it should be seen as input for what needs to change for people to use the service. Public transport planning, including flexible solutions must be a constantly evolving or agile process. The National Audit Office's conclusion is another lesson to be learned and used to consider alternatives.

What next?

What should be done in a situation where traditional public transport is failing to serve its purpose?

I'm sure that being open to different solutions, which transport on demand is, goes a long way. SEI Tallinn studies have shown that the level of understanding and awareness of transport on demand as a service is an obstacle today. Integration of on-demand transport would also require changing the public transport system and a review of funding models.

For these planning decisions to be made based on facts and analysis, a tool being developed in the Response project will allow planners to model the cost and flexibility of on-demand solutions and compare the results to existing services. It is to be hoped that the tool will be used by decision-makers to reduce uncertainty in terms of financial impact or service quality.

Experience from other countries has shown that mixing different services and modest of mobility in a carefully considered way often produces the best results. Therefore, one solution with which to render county public transport more sustainable is partial use and integration of transport on demand.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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