A single to Singapore please: the rise in on-demand bus services

Discussion about future mobility tends to focus on the strategies of the major car manufacturers and the tech giants. But some of the most interesting developments are happening far from there...

Take on demand public bus services, where trials are taking place from cities as far apart as Helsinki, Chicago and Sydney.

In Singapore, for example, a trial is currently under way which enables bus passengers to request pick-ups and drop-offs at any bus stop in two areas of the city via a mobile app. The trial runs at off-peak times - between 11am to 3pm, and from 8pm onwards.

“It’s a new form of public transport - it’s like Uber Pool on steroids,” says Jarrold Ong, co-founder and CEO of SWAT, a local start-up whose technology is being used in the city centre area for this trial. The Singaporean Land Transport Authority (LTA) has awarded two contracts - one to SWAT and the other to Via Transportation - to evaluate the options.

As off-peak buses carry fewer passengers, the goal is to reduce costs by replacing them with on-demand services instead. At present, regular buses still run on the selected routes  but at lower frequencies. Passengers can use the SWAT app to order a ride immediately on a fixed fare basis. Fares are calculated on a distance-based pricing model. The aim, as the LTA puts it, is to "optimise limited resources while offering more seamless and convenient bus journeys for commuters in areas or during timings with low or unpredictable ridership."

Ong is very bullish about the long-term potential for the roll-out of on-demand bus services, not just in Singapore but in cities around the world. Once passengers understand that they can use an app which turns their bus service into something more flexible he argues, “then this could be a significant part of public transport provision.” In particular, it provides a “first mile, last mile” solution; where fixed route buses run on main trunk routes into which on-demand services provide flexible, cost-efficient feeder services. It also serves as a precursor to Singapore’s plan to deploy autonomous on-demand shuttle services in 2022.

Around the world, there is growing interest in such trials. SWAT is in active discussions with several transport authorities across the Asia-Pacific region about deploying its system.

The interest in on-demand bus services is not confined to public transport authorities.

Corporations with remote offices, or whose staff need to travel outside the main public transport hours, are also keen to use the system. “Their own solutions that they have been using up to now tend to be manual and old school,” says Ong, “but our technology and algorithms can increase the efficiency of their operations.”

He describes how one company had a bus fleet that collected its employees from nine stations with 50 buses. Using SWAT’s system, routes have been optimised and the service made cheaper and more convenient - bus use has been reduced by nearly 30 per cent while the number of pick-up points has increased to 300.

For both developers and tenants of industry and business parks, the potential for a single transport solution - rather than every company having its own shuttle buses - has obvious benefits.

But ask Jarrold Ong about the principal challenge for the adoption of on-demand bus services and it’s not the technology - but the consumer. “The passenger still has a long way to go in understanding this,” he says. “For one thing, there’s the social etiquette of having to be at your pick-up point on time.”