Are App-A-Rides viable?

Followers of this blog, my twitter timeline and various magazine articles I’ve written will know I’m a bit of a sceptic about the current fashion for App-A-Ride, the modern day Dial-A-Ride and so called demand responsive services.

I just can’t see how the business model will ever deliver a profit. I must be missing something as hot on the heels of Oxford Bus launching Pick-Me-Up and Arriva announcing an expansion of their Click brand into Liverpool came National Express’s announcement last week of plans for something similar in the West Midlands.

Readers will know I’ve yet to actually share a ride with a fellow passenger other than on the Gett Black Bus 1 route (actually a Black Cab rather than a bus) in London one morning. My various Clicks, Slides, Chariots, My First Mile rides have all been Ride Solo rather than Ride Share …. until today.

In my continuing research to find the positive bottom-line secret of making App-A-Rides profitable I wandered back to Sittingbourne to have another try on Arriva’s Click; the first and original. My train was due into Sittingbourne station at 1114 and previous experience taught me to book a Click ride in advance to avoid a lengthy wait on arrival.

So I logged into the Click app to book my journey at 1015 soon after leaving Victoria. You’re given half hour time slots every 15 minutes as options so I booked 1115-1145 and hoped when the confirmation came it would be closer to 1115 than 1145 to minimise waiting.

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Not having received an update by 1108 I checked the App and was a little alarmed to find my booked slot had slipped to 1145-1215. If I’d not been a BusAndTrainUser I think I’d have cancelled and opted for a taxi waiting on the rank instead.

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But; almost as if the software knew, just as my train was pulling into Sittingbourne station I received a confirmation text that I’d be picked up … in 28 minutes at 1141. So much for minimising the wait.

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Just to add to the fun, as you can see from the rather operational explanatory wording (not sure what AC means!) it would be a spare minibus (maybe number 006 or maybe number 9?) and would pick me up a short walk away from the station in Park Road rather than outside – which, when I arrived, was obviously due to extensive roadworks immediately outside the station. But no mention in the text.

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Frustratingly my minibus passed by where I was waiting in Park Road at 1135 but going in the opposite direction which I later realised was to pick another passenger up heading in the same direction as me as by 1139 it had turned round and was heading back towards me!

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As I’d made my way from the station to the designated pick up point in Park Road I saw another minibus heading into the temporary bus stand obviously scheduled for a break but it did add further to the frustration of waiting to see this.

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Eventually driver Andy arrived with the other passenger on board at 1147 (33 minutes after I’d arrived by train despite pre-booking). He managed to park by a busy junction not helped by white-van parking at the designated spot, and kindly got out to open the manually operated door in this wheelchair accessible spare vehicle on hire.

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Fortunately my fellow passenger was alighting on the route to my destination (clever bit of algorithm) so we dropped her off without needing to make a detour. Interestingly she’s in the social/healthcare profession using Click to make home visits.

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My destination in Tunstall was out of bounds due to a road closure so Andy kindly dropped me as close as he could and then he was off.

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The App software isn’t able to indicate road closures so I didn’t risk booking my return from there so instead took a walk further into Sittingbourne’s suburbs to find another location.

Park Drive/Sterling Road looked a likely spot to book from with the usual unhelpful bus stop information. And a great shame too, as I found out after returning home, a bus on Chalkwell’s route 9 would have picked me up just 15 minutes later from this stop on one of its 5-7 journeys per day and taken me direct to the town centre.

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In the event I had better luck with my return booking. At 1202 a minibus was just 11 minutes away.

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And it turned out to be so. Driver Daniel was very friendly; been driving with Click for around a month and enjoying the change from running a newsagent.

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As we chatted away I detected we were actually heading south along Borden Lane towards Borden rather than north towards Sittingbourne’s town centre. ‘We’ve got another pick up’ Daniel explained. I’m thinking it’s just as well I’d not planned a tight connection for a train at the station.

We made the pick up in Borden and headed towards Tesco where the passenger wanted dropping off, not before he’d affirmed with Daniel the air conditioning wasn’t working as he bid us farewell.

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It wasn’t long before we arrived at my chosen town centre destination (a Pizza Hut car park!) probably about five minutes later due to the Borden deviation so not a huge inconvenience on what would have been a direct seven minute journey at most. But on the other hand more than a 50% increase in journey time was a bit of a downer.

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So for the first time I’ve shared a ride share, and twice, in one day, and to be honest it wasn’t painful. But notwithstanding this, I can’t see how Arriva made any money from either trip I made today. The outward journey cost me £3.75 for the 2.8 mile ride. It took around ten minutes. A bit pricey at £7.50 return (if I’d gone both ways); although you currently get £10 worth of Click credit for handing over £8.50 in advance. (Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up doesn’t require a deposit and just deducts what is currently a flat £2.50 fare from a pre-registered bank/credit card as each trip is made.)

My return trip today cost £2.50 being slightly shorter (as booked) at 1.7 miles although in the event the distance was greater due to the pick up.

There are of course no reduced prices for children or teenagers and no concessions are taken. It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in Liverpool’s much more price sensitive bus market when Click begins there in three weeks. It looks as though the requirement for credit will be waived: ‘click, pay and go’ as the tweet promotes.

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My experience today has not given me any further clues as to how this business model will succeed. It looks a sure fire money loser to me. Great to grab the headlines. Great to be seen to innovate. Great to be giving something different a go. But make a profit? No more likely than running rural buses which are being steadily withdrawn ironically as App-A-Rides are being introduced. Maybe, just maybe, they could have an application in rural areas as a halfway mode between a taxi and a bus, but someone is going to have to fund such a service and with local authorities strapped for cash and seniors expecting free travel, it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French      7th August 2018

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