DaRT about in Dengie

Saturday 29th June 2019

IMG_2185.jpgBack in April I took a ride on the bus route formerly known as the ‘Wiltshire Wigglybus’ between Pewsey and Devizes – a traditional rural bus route combined with a Dial-a-Ride flexible option and wrote about it here. Yesterday I thought it might be interesting to sample a similar type of rural bus service branded as DaRT over in the Dengie peninsular in Essex.

(The small ‘a’ in DaRT comes from the Essex County Council website to indicate, I assume, the D, R and T stand for Demand Responsive Transport but I noticed the branding on the bus was DART rather than DaRT.)

The Dengie peninsular is the bit of Essex between the River Blackwater (to the north) and River Crouch (to the south) jutting out south east of Chelmsford. It’s a sparsely populated part of the County, which most people tend to avoid unless they’ve got business or leisure there, making it very challenging to provide attractive public transport. It’s a lovely part of the country, topologically rather flat but with an attractive tranquil air about the area.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.39.15.pngFortunately there is a train service operated by Abellio run Greater Anglia along the southern edge of the peninsular from Southminster which connects at Wickford with the Southend-on-Sea to Liverpool Street service in the off peak, albiet at an annoying off-peak forty minute frequency, although there are convenient through trains to London in the peaks. Bus services to the small communities across the peninsula are a mix of a traditional route operated by First Essex, school buses and two DaRT routes funded by Essex County Council.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.51.16.pngThe First Essex route is a traditional half hourly trunk service numbered 31 running between Chelmsford, Maldon, Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch (together with four minor route variations denoted as B, C, X and the Sunday 33).

Screen Shot 2019-06-29 at 05.49.54.pngDaRT 4 provides links between the small villages in the north east of Dengie such as Bradwell and Tillingham with Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch while DaRT 5 does the same for villages across the middle, eg Cold Norton, Latchingdon and Althorne.

The idea behind DaRT is like a shared minibus-come-taxi service. This is how the Essex County Council website explains it…

It’s mainly DaRT routes 1, 2 and 3 which operate in the rural area north of the County which run to a completely flexible route pattern (around Braintree and West Uttlesford) whereas on Dengie, DaRT 4 runs more like a traditional bus route with a fixed route and timetable while DaRT 5 has a fixed route but with no timetable. Both routes are operated by Ace Taxis using minibuses.

I was a bit put off by the “there must be sufficient volume of passengers with similar itineraries” clause in the ‘instructions’ wondering how you’re fixed for travel if there aren’t (sufficient volume) so decided to play it safe by trying out DaRT 4 and travelled to Tillingham yesterday (in the east of Dengie) on the Friday only shopping journey run between school trips by Fords Coaches of Althorne from Chelmsford.

This off-peak weekly shopping journey from Dengie alternates between a fortnightly route 3 from Tillingham and a fortnightly route 6 from Althorne and Burnham-on-Crouch and both return from the bus stops adjacent to Chelmsford Market at 13:30. I was impressed to see a good crowd of shoppers already waiting by 13:15.

IMG_2120.jpgBy 13:25 the bus had arrived and twenty-eight boarded ready for the journey home. Everyone just piled on the bus without showing any tickets or passes and I guess the transactions had all been sorted on the outward journey with it being a rarity for anyone to be making a single journey back to Tillingham on the return. I surprised the driver by not only explaining that’s what I was doing but also needed to pay rather than have a concessionary pass. A single for £4 seemed fairly good value.

IMG_2124.jpgIMG_2149.jpgIt was one of those chatty buses where everyone knew everyone and all wished each other fond farewells as they alighted at bus stops along the route. We left Chelmsford spot on time and were due to arrive in Tillingham at 14:45 so I wasn’t unduly worried that my connection on to the DaRT 4 minibus gave six minutes before that departed at 14:51 having begun its journey at Bradwell Waterside.

Route 3 also went via nearby Bradwell-on-Sea which was a delightful village with a lovely Bedford vintage bus on a wedding private hire outside the church…

IMG_2177.jpg… but I got concerned that by then with all the prolonged fond farewells we were six minutes behind schedule making for a tight connection in Tillingham just down the road. I kept an eye out for the DaRT minibus to come into view behind us and sure enough it appeared just as we entered the village of Tillingham….

IMG_2178.jpgI strategically placed myself downstairs by the driver and asked if he wouldn’t mind waving his hand out the cab window to indicate I needed the bus which was just as well as the body language of the minibus was definitely not to hang around looking for passengers…

IMG_2179.jpgLuckily the driver got the message and beckoned me to come back and board before he continued overtaking the double decker and within seconds we were on our way to Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch.

IMG_2180.jpgThe driver didn’t seem interested in wanting me to pay a fare and drove off straight away at some speed while chatting to the passenger on board returning home from his day’s fishing.

I’d rung the operator, Ace Taxis, earlier in the morning when in Chelmsford to book my journey as instructed but was told I needn’t do that as it’s just like a bus service. I guess with a fixed timetable …

….. and a standard sized 14 seat minibus …..

IMG_2181.jpg… that’s the case with this route although when we got to Southminster there was a bus and driver change ….

IMG_2183.jpgIMG_2186.jpg…to a smaller taxi-sized minibus with a self-opening door which I guess is more often used on the flexible booked DaRT 5 route ….

Our fisherman friend had got off at the bus change in Southminster so it was just me and the friendly new driver travelling on to Burnham-on-Crouch where we did a loop around a residential area and picked up a waiting passenger (Peter, who’s “on the bus committee”) before arriving at the station where I got off as they continued to the terminus at the Clock Tower, a little further on, before returning on the next journey back to Bradwell Waterside for one more return trip. It didn’t look to me that it was going to be busy.

So the DaRT idea left me a bit confused as to whether it’s a bus or a taxi; whether it’s fixed or flexible; whether it’s for passengers travelling singly or a minimum group required. But at least it’s providing rural transport in a difficult to serve sparsely populated area, and good on Essex for doing just that. I hope the sparse loadings were not typical.

Meanwhile the shoppers special route 3 (and 6) to Chelmsford obviously bring in useful income for Fords Coaches to supplement a school contract while also providing a useful service for around thirty people living in Dengie.

Roger French

Click for Leicester

Wednesday 1st May 2019

IMG_6344.jpgIt’s day three of Arriva’s latest Click venture introduced in Leicester on Monday, so I thought it was worth a trip to see how it’s panning out.

IMG_6210.jpgCorporates love to boast about being the first to do something; they salivate over ‘ground-breaking initiatives’ and associated hype reckoning it makes for a great PR story in the trade press. Only they think that of course; most readers just raises their eyes upwards, emoji style.

Sittingbourne was ArrivaClick’s DRT debut of course, so truly was a ‘first’; then came Liverpool which was cheekily promoted as the ‘first’ such DRT service in a city. When I pointed out Oxford Bus was up and running with their Pick-Me-Up service in a city the Click PR people countered their’s was the ‘first’ ‘Click’ in a city.

Now we have the ‘first’ Click to be funded by a Section 106 Agreement. This ‘ground breaking initiative’ has seen an organisation called Go Travel Solutions broker a deal between Arriva and Drummond Estate, the owners of a huge swathe of land on the western edge of Leicester on which developers have plans for a massive development of houses, two primary schools, a secondary school a “pioneering community centre” and employment park. The area is called New Lubbesthorpe; it’s south west of the Leicester Forest East service area west of the M1 as shown on the aerial view below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.08.46.pngThe Developer’s brochures are full of all the essential buzzwords: “Arriva Click …. part of Drummond Estate’s drive to provide a sustainable way to work, live, learn and play for those living in New Lubbesthorpe’.

The area will naturally have “vibrant urban amenities, and it is important we provide sustainable transport options”.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.07.45.pngGo Travel Solutions reckon Click “will deliver shorter end-to-end journey times” (it doesn’t say shorter than what) and explains “customers request an executive minibus from their pick-up point at a time they want and to a destination of their choosing”. That’s the hype that’s consistently pedalled with these “innovative digitalised DRT services” but as I consistently find, the reality never quite matches up.

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Take this morning for example. My train was due to arrive in Leicester at 1006, so knowing you can only pre-book Click journeys in half hour segments, I fiddled around with the App as I was leaving St Pancras at around 0900 to schedule a journey in the 1015-1045 slot from outside the station to take me to Barrett’s show house on the fledgling New Lubbesthorpe estate.

IMG_6205.jpgIt’s not entirely clear whether your journey is booked – sometimes I checked on the App, and it showed a “(1)” alongside “Next Journeys” but with no details given; other times I checked and the “(1)” had disappeared. I’ve learnt not to worry about these things, being retired it doesn’t matter whether I have to wait or not, but for someone intent on making an appointment, firstly a half hour’s window with no indication of a precise arrival time is pretty useless and secondly I’d want more definitive confirmation.

IMG_6295.jpgI left the station to find a mass of roadworks outside preventing any bus pick-ups and then received a text at 1010 advising my pick up was 12 minutes away.

IMG_E6365.jpgKen arrived at 1028. It’s an algorithm mystery of why he couldn’t have been dispatched by the software to pick me up at 1015 (the start of my half hour booked window slot) rather than the middle of it. All it had done was kept me waiting unnecessarily for twenty minutes – I could have been in a taxi and away instantly on arrival.

It wasn’t that Ken had been busy with other passengers; I was his very first pick up (ever) since he’d begun work at 0600 this morning! I’ve had a similar experience when using the journey schedule option in Sittingbourne.

IMG_6179.jpgWe had a right old kerfuffle with the pick up too; with Ken passing the App’s designated pick up point in Campbell Street just before the station, and instead headed down narrow Station Street (there he goes pictured above) which is a dead-end and necessitated much skillful manoeuvring to turn round and get going.

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IMG_6180.jpgIt turns out this was Ken’s first day on Click and I was his first passenger. He’s based at Arriva’s Hinckley garage and drives on the big bus rota but had been asked to help out on Click, also based at Hinckley, for today and he was already enjoying the contrast; not least being directed by a SatNav on a tablet rather than a duty card and timetable. Even more interesting was the SatNav’s habit of routing him the wrong way down one-way streets in the centre of Leicester!

IMG_6192.jpg There’s no expense spared when it comes to transport access to New Lubbesthorpe. A brand new access road has been built over the M1 (we’re approaching the flyover pictured below) ….

IMG_6190.jpg…. which Ken pointed out includes twenty-two road humps to slow you down ….

IMG_6194.jpg…. as you approach the area’s planned central node where the first primary school is under construction, and due to open in September.

IMG_6195.jpgIMG_6207.jpgI also spotted the main roundabout on the new access road was sporting a Click advert as we passed by. Nice thought.

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Arriva have no doubt been canny in costing a ‘bells and whistles’ Click service that’s funded by the Developers. Apparently there are five vehicles out on the road seven days a week from 0600 to 2300 necessitating a rota of fifteen drivers’ jobs.

With such extensive vehicle availability and few homes currently built and occupied it’s not surprising my journeys today were soon fulfilled with drivers allocated strategic parking spots throughout the Click operating area just waiting for a booking.

As I’ve commented previously, the problem with these DRT services is, the moment they become more popular with more bookings, the more the risk is waiting time for a vehicle to arrive will increase. The luxury of having drivers like Ken hanging around for four and a half hours waiting for me to turn up is not what can be called “a sustainable transport solution”.

I picked up a leaflet aimed at new residents giving details of some hefty financial inducements to give Arriva Click a try. There’s “£10 free credit” for every adult moving in as well as two redemptions of “£100 credit for just £10” (or “£50 for £5”) and a permanent offer of 5% off weekly tickets. I tried to sign up but unsurprisingly needed to declare plot numbers and other information I was unable to blag!

IMG_E6366.jpgWhen these freebies run out it will be interesting to see how many residents opt to pay the £4.50 a ride it cost me for my travels today. And, of course, there are no concessions for seniors (although New Lubbesthorpe looks as though its target market is a younger generation and families) … but there aren’t child rate prices on ArrivaClick either.

The journey from Leicester station to the edge of New Lubbesthorpe took half an hour but my arrival was about an hour after I’d got off the train what with all the waiting time and I’m not convinced the algorithm routed us along the most direct journey. At one point Ken mistakingly went past a slip road we needed and we almost ended up on the M69 before turning back.

IMG_6198.jpgOn arrival Ken and I (and probably the algorithm too – if algorithms have yet been invented to experience feelings) were both surprised to find a resident who’d booked a ride was waiting our arrival and ready to be whisked away. Ken had his second passenger of the day.

IMG_6206.jpgMeanwhile I took a walk around the development so far, which is very much in its early stages, and noticed that Barrett Homes (one of the house builders involved) has a smart show home and reception area with ample “Visitor Parking”. Old habits die hard.

IMG_6209.jpgIt was time for my next trip. Down to Narborough in the extreme south of Click’s area and the nearest station to New Lubbesthorpe (on the Cross Country hourly route from Leicester to Nuneaton and Birmingham).

IMG_E6208.jpgThe App told me Paul would arrive in 9 minutes which was just as well as the designated pick up point was a good 7 minute walk away from where I’d wandered to. Yet again destroying the myth that DRT picks you up at your desired pick up point; oh no it doesn’t; it’s at the algorithm’s desired pick up point.

IMG_6212.jpgI made it to the designated spot only to see Paul disappearing where I hadn’t expected – but he did a ‘back double’ and reappeared down another dead-end. He explained the SatNav doesn’t think it’s a dead-end but as a local, he knows better and thwarted the algorithm.

IMG_6214.jpgLike Ken, Paul was a very friendly, normally Arriva big bus, driver who’s helping out in Click’s early days and he was clearly enjoying the change. He’d already had a passenger on board this morning and had carried three during yesterday’s shift, so not bad going. It took us just 12 minutes to reach Narborough but still cost £4.50, as my half hour journey from Leicester had done.

IMG_6283.jpgI was just in time to catch a late running Cross Country train back into Leicester and decided to give up on trying to find where buses for the city centre were picking up during the roadworks hiatus and walked instead.

IMG_6311.jpgIMG_6301.jpgA quick visit to both St Margaret’s and Haymarket bus stations observing the contrasting attitudes to timetable provision between Arriva ……IMG_6309.jpg

IMG_6310.jpgIMG_6304.jpgIMG_6307.jpg…..(the very helpful Arriva man in the Travel Centre seems to have thwarted official policy of not printing timetables [to save the planet], aside from the 44/44A, by printing a few of each to hand out from behind the counter – the contrast with yesterday in the Lake District couldn’t be more marked) …. and First Leicester who were displaying a colourful selection of all their city routes…..

IMG_6326.jpgIMG_6325.jpg….. and I thought I’d catch a standard Arriva bus out to the Fosse Shopping Park adjacent to the M1 and full of retail sheds that are popular with browsers before they go home to buy online. Still, browsing is good business for bus companies, thankfully, and I’m sure residents of New Lubbesthorpe will be taking a Click to ride over there as it’s within the designated area.

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Route 50 operates to Fosse Shopping Park on its way to Narborough every 20 minutes and as luck would have it I was just eight or nine minutes from the 1305 departure. The bus arrived in good time and we loaded up with around twenty passengers and headed off, taking around 25 minutes for the journey. I’d bought a Plusbus which, with Railcard discount, cost just £2.30 – just half the price of a Click journey – and of course would give me unlimited journeys around Leicester all day (but not as far as New Lubbesthorpe or Narborough). The contrast with Click couldn’t be more stark.

IMG_6327.jpgArriving at Fosse I was impressed to order my third Click journey to take me back to the station and be given a pick up point just around the corner from where I’d got off the 50, and a pick up time just five minutes away.

IMG_6336.jpgExcept when I walked round the corner I realised I’d stumbled upon one of the designated waiting areas for Click vehicles to hang out with two languishing in the lay-by opposite Asda.

IMG_6338.jpgI ascertained Darren, my driver, was one of the two and we were soon away heading back to Leicester city centre for the station.

Darren had been with Arriva and it’s predecessors for nineteen years and had taken up the offer of transferring permanently over to Click duties. He’d been with the service since Monday and I was his thirteenth passenger. He had high hopes for Click’s success and thought it an ideal compromise between a standard bus and a taxi, with the fare priced accordingly.

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Encouragingly I heard much positivity about Click from all three drivers today; they all cited Liverpool as being a rip roaring success with various figures being banded about: “500 passengers a day” “26 buses now on the road” and even “100 buses on the road”.

(I made a mental note to head up to Liverpool again soon and check out this “too good to be true” positivity.)

IMG_6341.jpgThere’s no doubt in New Lubbesthorpe and its Drummond Estate owner, Arriva have found a willing partner with a strong business interest in handing a large sum of money over in return for an “innovative sustainable transport solution” to help achieve their development objectives.

To that extent this must be considered a success. Whether it will actually meet the transport needs of New Lubbesthorpe’s new residents without frustrating waits and uncertainty over pick up times as well as potentially indirect journeys once more passengers come on board, only time will tell. I reckon once hundreds more houses are built five buses over such a large operating area isn’t going to work, but perhaps there are plans for expansion and higher funding.

However, I couldn’t help reflecting that deploying five buses on a conventional limited stop service between Leicester city centre and New Lubbesthorpe serving the key attractions (Fosse, Hospital, sporting venues etc) with an hour’s round trip time therefore providing a 12 minute frequency would probably fit the bill for residents – but then that wouldn’t be a ‘groundbreaking initiative’ and hardly make for a trade press story. Just saying.

As I’ve commented before, these new DRT services are nothing new by the way – indeed I spotted a Dial-a-Ride bus laying over in St Margaret’s bus station!

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Roger French

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

I Didn’t Get Gett

Having been plagued for some weeks by marketing emails from the London black cab App organisation called Gett, I finally relented yesterday and headed up to London to use up the £10 credit (with an expiry of 31st August) they’d recently added to my account in a last ditch attempt to entice my return custom. It wasn’t as if I’d been much of a customer, having made one solitary journey back in October 2017 to try out the new peak hours only ride-sharing Black Bus 1 route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo they’d just introduced amid much fanfare with partners Citymapper who’d worked out there was latent demand on that corridor from the enquiries they’d been monitoring on their Journey Planner App.

I thought I’d replicate my Black Bus 1 journey and see if once again I’d be sharing the intimacy of a black cab with other riders for the bargain fare of £3. I’d not been able to do my usual trip research beforehand as all the Gett App would tell me was I’m in an unsupported area down in Sussex where I live. I’d had a look at the Gett website, but that hadn’t mentioned anything about Black Bus 1 either. So it wasn’t until I came out of Highbury & Islington station at 0842 I could sus out the travel options.

I trotted along to nearby Compton Terrace on the main road just south of the station where I’d waited before and sure enough having entered Waterloo as “where I want to go” at 0844 the Citymapper App listed a taxi icon among the options (as it had done before) showing an arrival in 5 minutes and with a journey time of 45 minutes (taking 50% longer than the tube options).

I clicked it, got an encouraging ‘Book & Go’ clickable icon over a map with reassuring reference to my Smart Ride not costing the expected £3 but would be a freebie at £0.

I clicked that only to be stumped by payment options of Apple Pay or “Add Credit Card”.

I decided to add my credit card details despite that £3 fare being reassuringly struck through and then received confirmation at 0845 it was “Using £3 from your credit” and the “Driver arrives in 16 min”.

As a bit of a novice at this game I had wrongly assumed with those messages I’d done all I needed to do. It turns out I hadn’t; and despite not wanting to use Apple Pay, I needed to find another icon to “pay’; even though I had a fare of £0.

But there was I thinking I was all good to go, especially when I rechecked at 0847, as within only those two minutes the screen had updated to “Driver arrives in 2 min” and what looked like a fellow passenger appeared alongside me also staring intently at her phone.

She confirmed she’d also booked a ride and within a minute an anonymously branded black Mercedes people carrier appeared.

The driver was a bit perplexed to find two of us, and establishing we weren’t a couple he confirmed I wasn’t booked with him and needed to wait for another driver.

Clicking back on the Citymapper App showed a wait for another driver of another 15 minutes so I decided to interrogate the Gett App instead; after all they were the people who’d gifted £10 credit to me and were so keen for my return custom. In fact it puzzled me how Citymapper knew I had credit as I’d had no communication from them.

The trouble was the Gett App, like the website made no mention of Black Bus 1, and I appeared to be booking a standard black cab to take me to Waterloo.

Even more consternation as there was no mention of my credit and instead wanted me to pay with my credit card; although it did make reference to me getting “£10 off this ride” with my “coupon”.

Not being a black cab user I feared for my bank balance for such a long journey if I went through with the transaction, but decided to give it a go, only to be told the expected arrival time of a driver was another 15 minute wait and with an expected arrival time in Waterloo not until 0953 which was 57 minutes away.

As by then it was 0856, this seemed a very long time away, so after a three minute cogitation, at 0859 I decided to abandon this smart ride-share gig altogether and instead plump for a traditional ride-share gig, the humble TfL red bus to take me to Waterloo.

Despite battling with some of London’s usual peak hour congestion, we arrived in Waterloo at 0941 comfortably ahead of Gett’s prediction had I used them, and it only cost me £1.50.

I still have no idea what the relationship is between Gett and Citymapper  and how my £10 credit appeared on Citymapper. It would seem Gett no longer run a BlackBus 1 for £3  and just run traditional black cabs but Citymapper contract an anonymous ride share company to do so instead but not marketed under that Black Bus 1 brand. The whole experience was confusing and I was reassured traditional bus, tube and train are still the modes of choice for me and I won’t be disrupted.

Roger French                           1st September 2018

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

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