Is Oxford’s Pick Me Up picking up?

Friday 5th October 2018

Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up is now over three months old so I thought it was time to see how it’s settling down after the introductory honeymoon.

My four criteria to judge these new ride share taxi-come-bus services are: waiting time for bus to arrive; direct or meandering route; solo ride or share with other pick ups/set downs; cost.

As I’ve observed previously, for the passenger the perfect experience would be: short wait; direct route; solo ride; cheap fare, while for the operator compromises on this perfection are essential for business success. The big question is how much compromise is necessary to make it viable without it becoming unattractive for the passenger?

Today’s experiences are just a snapshot and can hardly be regarded as considered research, but this is what happened….

Ride 1. I arrived Oxford station at 1120 and immediately booked a ride to John Radcliffe Hospital. Back came the offer of a pick up in 13 minutes from Frideswide Square just round the corner from the station. I was a bit surprised the major picking up point immediately outside the station wasn’t offered but it can be a congested area with terminating buses and a plethora of taxis so I wandered over to the nearby pick up point away from all that public transport hullabaloo ready for the pick up.

At 1136 (just slightly later than predicted) my Pick-Me-Up bus appeared but worryingly drove by and turned right into the station forecourt. I spotted a couple of passengers on board so guessed they were being dropped off and hotfooted it over to see.

It turned out the driver needed a pee-break so had parked up and a co-driver who was standing alongside welcomed me on board joining a mum and her two young children.

It also turned out a passenger had been dropped off at the station making my algorithm specified pick up location at Frideswide Square even more puzzling.

Our driver duly relieved reappeared after a few minutes and at 1140 we headed off towards the JRH. It turned out mum and offspring were also heading my way so top marks to Via’s algorithm for matching us up and taking advantage of this travel coincidence. I’d guess this added just 4-5 minutes to my journey to drop them off on London Road with a quick turnaround on a petrol station forecourt.

Just like my first ride with Pick-Me-Up in June there seems to be an aversion to enter the grounds of John Radcliffe Hospital where there’s a useful bus station area conveniently adjacent to the entrance to the hospital’s main building. Instead Via’s algorithm decided it was best to drop me off in a nearby street where there’s a short cut through a private road to the bus station area (assuming you know that – feigning ignorance, I was reassured by the on board co-driver it was a public right of way).

My short walks to both the pick up and set down points this morning were no problem for me but could have been extremely frustrating for someone with accessibility issues.

No grumbles about the cost of my journey which at £2.50 was only 20p more than if I’d got the standard bus, and would have got me to the hospital in the same journey time.

Ride 2. After some nourishment I booked another ride at 1234 from the JRH bus station to some way south along the Cowley Road.

A pick up in 7 minutes beat the Company target of ‘within ten minutes’ and what’s more was going to actually come and pick me up at the bus station in the hospital grounds. Yay!

Tracking progress of the bus coming towards me, it looked suspiciously like it was either dropping someone off or doing a pick up.

No matter, as the bus arrived pretty much as predicted at 1242 and sure enough a couple travelling together were already on board hopefully enjoying the detour through the hospital grounds and presumably they were also heading my way. Quite an extraordinary coincidence as I’d chosen Cowley Road as a destination completely at random!

We made good progress albeit along a traffic-calmed residential road with the usual humps and narrowed chicanes on part of the route ….

…. and I was dropped off at 1252 as predicted and another £2.50 charge. I’m not sure if my fellow riders were wanting to head south into Cowley but that’s the direction the bus continued in after it had dropped me off.

I nipped back to Oxford Station on a conventional bus and thought I’d try something a bit more adventurous – a ride to the Oxford Science Park in the south of the catchment area.

The algorithm wasn’t so keen on this idea though and stood me up.

Never mind, I thought. How about my favourite ride – another trip back to JRH?

Turned out that was just right for a minibus that was heading that way in only a minute; but strangely I’d need to sprint over to Frideswide Square again for the pick up!

I decided I’d turn that opportunity down, and tried again for a ride south – right to the extreme southern tip of the catchment area but no the algorithm wasn’t having any of that. It was towards JRH or no go.

So; once again I learnt these new fangled ride share schemes are inevitably a compromise between the passenger’s needs and the business model’s requirements. If a bus is going your way within a reasonable timeframe – you’re in luck. If not, it’s tough luck.

It’s good to see Pick Me Up carrying passengers but I’m yet to be convinced there’s a viable future; certainly at £2.50 a trip I reckon it’ll be impossible, but charge too much more and I’d think twice about paying that.

Roger French 5th October 2018

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