A Pick Me Up for Oxford

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Well done Oxford Bus. I’m all for innovation and trying new things. And it’s time someone had a real go at beating UBER at their own loss making game of undermining the taxi trade. So I’m pleased to see Phil Southall and his Oxford Bus team joining in the fun and games with a brand new demand responsive minibus service across a large eastern arc of the city. It launched on Monday 25th June 2018.

I wrote in the May 2018 Buses magazine about the financial futility of these new ride-sharing app-based demand-responsive small-bus-come-big-taxi operations, but that doesn’t mean I’m against companies trying out the idea. I just hope they’re doing so with their bank accounts wide open. And my big plea is for honest assessments of the results so we can all learn. Cut the PR hype and those unbelievable ridership figures banded about at conferences and in the trade press. They simply don’t add up.

I can only base my judgement on my own travel experiences. I’ve tried them all: Arriva’s Click in Sittingbourne, RATP Dev’s Slide in Bristol, McGills Connect&Go in Wemyss Bay, Ford Motor Company’s Chariot in London, and just the other week First Bus with CityFox taxis launched MyFirstMile in Bristol and now with Oxford Bus and their new PickMeUp we have Arriva announcing a soon to launch second Click for Liverpool.

Pointedly on every ride I’ve been the only passenger picked up. It’s been a delightful personal taxi ride but in a much-more-costly-to-operate small bus. On some trips I’ve had to wait far longer than convenient for the bus to arrive; rarely has it come in an impressively quick time (read on for yesterday’s wow factor in Oxford). I’ve paid introductory promotional fares which are amazingly cheap. I’ve paid eye watering post promotional prices which seem no cheaper than standard taxi rates and far more than standard bus fares.

The problem with these operations in a nutshell is this. If they become popular with lots of passengers, as they must for commercial success, it means necessarily a longer wait for me and my journey becoming unattractively protracted with route deviations for pick ups/drop offs. If I’m paying taxi style fares, I’ll soon get cheesed off and opt for the bespoke personal service a taxi provides. On the other hand if, as all my experiences to date have been, I’m the only passenger, then it’s just not viable to be running 17 seater minibuses and certainly not if the fares are closer to bus type rates.

The wait for a taxi or bus can be critical especially for those personal journeys that can’t be planned well in advance. Most towns (where these DRT schemes are trialling) have lots of taxis zipping around but only a handful of minibuses. Bus companies can’t afford to have expensive to operate vehicles waiting on street corners just in case I launch the app. Yet, I don’t want to have to wait too long before I’m picked up. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. It may be early days, but I see no evidence from Clicking, Sliding and Charioting that the business model is working. Whatever that model is.

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Pleasingly yesterday’s first day experiences in Oxford were the best yet. After a false start where the usual block message from software company, Via, appeared – I’ve had the same trouble three times on Click in Sittingbourne – alleging all the seats have been taken as it’s so busy – complete tosh of course – once again, as Phil admitted, teething problems meant a driver’s iPad had been inadvertently logged off, but a message of this kind, knowing to be false does nothing for the credibility of the system. Via need to be a touch more honest and just say: “we can’t get a vehicle to you at the moment”.

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Having sorted this teething problem out, a PickMeUp bus arrived twenty minutes later. Had it not been for the introductory promotional fare of £2.50; had I not been trialling the new service, I’d have taken one of the many taxis queuing outside the station for my journey. However, Ryan the driver was superb. Smartly attired and very friendly. It was a lovely ride.

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A 17 seat brand new minibus all to myself – just as well as the Mercedes Sprinters are notorious for their cramped legroom and awkward wheel arches. They really are of questionable suitability for carrying passengers.

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Full marks to PickMeUp for my second journey. I’d made it to John Radcliffe Hospital and summoned up a ride across to Blackbird Leys – a journey for which there’s no convenient direct bus. Impressively within four minutes I was boarding Marion’s bus. It was a good job I was alert to spot the Satnav on the app wasn’t bringing the bus into the Hospital’s bus station where I was waiting and luckily I was agile enough to make the quick two-three minute dash to the adjacent residential road for the pick up (I spotted a cut through rather than track the circuitous dotted line recommended on the map). Had I been less physically able, or not so alert that would have been a problem. But four minutes was my most impressively short wait yet for a DRT style bus as was the precise expected and confirmed twenty minutes for the journey across to Blackbird Leys. And all for £2.50. A true bargain and totally in the spirit of these loss making ride-sharing innovative ventures!

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Good luck Phil with this project. I reckon of all the trials this one has the best chance of success. How about a touch of integration with Oxford’s high profile big buses? Maybe some joined up ticketing and fare offers so that it truly is an integrated transport option for those wanting to give up driving cars around the city? I reckon that really would be a compelling offer. Enough to send UBER packing perhaps.

Roger French      26th June 2018

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