Rethinking the Bus

Sometimes those of us in the tech business can get fooled into thinking we’re the only business where any real experimentation and innovation can happen. Of course, we’d be wrong, but here’s a great example of how the most seemingly mundane and bureaucratic organization can innovate, and (we hope) improve life for their community (aka customers).

Yesterday, AC Transit (a bus company that serves Contra Costa and Alameda Counties east of San Francisco) announced some significant changes to their schedule. Among these were such unusual routes as a “senior citizen route” which (according to the news report I heard) stops at shopping malls, hospitals and nursing homes.

But the most interesting idea is the “Flex Bus.” This bus picks up riders at one of three locations in the city of Newark, and takes them to any (yes, any) bus stop they want anywhere in the city. According to an AC Transit spokesperson:

If you’re the only one on the bus when you board, the bus will drive off and take you straight to whereever you want to go with no stops.

I’m reasonably sure that this whole idea violates all of the traditional notions of efficiency in public transit. I’m also reasonable sure there was lots of opposition to the plan.

All of that because it’s innovative. It’s an attempt to bring a level of service and convenience to the community (riders, customers) that has never even been conceived in public transit. It gives everyone a whole new experience on the bus.

I don’t know nearly enough about public transit to tell if this might work. But I give AC Transit lots of credit for trying.

We in the tech industry love to experiment with new products, services and technologies to deliver better experiences to our customers. This reminds us that anyone, anywhere and in any business (agency, organization) can be just as innovative and can deliver just as unique a customer experience.

How innovative is your customer experience?

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Bus

  1. I’ve long thought that public transit ideas were at least 50 years behind what people want and need.

    If you ask the reasons why most of us prefer our cars, they’re pretty simple to enumerate:

    come and go when I want
    get directly from point A to B
    much faster
    don’t suffer the effects of weather
    no time wasted

    There might be others, but those are the biggies. And, they’re pretty obvious. I’ll bet most public transit officials use their cars to get to work for the same reasons.

    Yet, cars are extremely expensive and wasteful and polluting, and could be argued to increase the security threat to our country by creating dependency on foreign fuel sources (over 90% of which are located in unstable regions of the world). So, we also have compelling reasons to consider alternatives if they worked.

    So, I’ll give them credit for trying to do something different, but by the solution, they haven’t really addressed the problems (because they haven’t studied the problem from the outside-in), and continue to ghettoize the service (routes for seniors and po’ folks).

    For example, most traditional bus routes through suburban neighorhoods should be abandoned. Only arterial routes should be covered with large (and fast) vehicles, and collector vans could be used to get people to arterial transfer points. By themselves, these changes would increase utility and therefore ridership, which would increase frequency and address most of the objections. If you take or plan to take transit routinely, then bookings could be done over the internet which would enable optimization of route planning (the same minivan picks up the same 8 people at the same time at their house every day), which would increase ridership even more, making virtually all neighborhood routes custom. To satisfy random needs, you could still have one small pickup vehicle go through neighborhoods at set pickup points, but there is no longer a need for a 150 seat bus, since most regular riders (or those than can plan a day ahead) are already accounted and planned for. Within a downtown core, you could virtually eliminate routine use of private cars if the service was clean, fast and efficient, and I had a wait of no more than a couple of minutes, and this could easily be done by increasing the numbers using the system, which would increase the predictability and therefore plannability of service by eliminating most random spikes. Then, I’d be willing to leave my car at home, because it would be more efficient to step outside an office and hop onto a train or bus than it is to waste time finding and retrieving my car and paying for parking.

    Once off arterial routes, all drop offs should be custom — how ridiculous is it for the bus driver to go 3 houses past mine because that’s where the stop is, when I’m the only person still on the bus? (Was common when I used transit as a teenager).

    By designing a system to these constraints, I’ve eliminated almost every issue but privacy, but in so doing, I might actually have improved the enjoyment of getting from A to B by having a small group of travel mates who I get to know. And, I’d still have a car to handle exceptions.

    I think to really improve public transit, they need to think truly disruptively (and that includes pricing, which I didn’t mention), not put window dressing on the existing service by adding a seniors route. The biggest impediment to really fixing it is the fear that the economics won’t work, but that’s because within the current framework, and even with the changes you describe above, you haven’t changed ridership behavior.

    Now, I’m not saying that this is a plan, or that the ideas are perfectly thought out — far from it. I just wrote them out on the fly off the top of my head — but if implemented exactly as I’ve described, it would be light years ahead of the transit planning in any city that I know of. And, that’s what is so shameful about the current state of thinking and innovation. If I can do this in 5 or 10 minutes, surely those who are paid to do this for a living should be able to come up with a better vision for how public transit should work.

  2. Paul:

    Mostly I agree – and mostly I don’t know enough about public transit to really know how to solve the myriad problems than plague every public transit agency outside of New York City (maybe there’s an example to follow? Maybe).

    My thinking is that the best way to find the “right” solution – the solution that works best for now (situations change all the time, and so must solutions) is to experiment.

    One of the truths about any public or government agency is that experimentation with ways to deliver better service rarely if eve happens.

    This program shows a willingness to re-think, to break the traditional bounds, and to try something new.

    It may fail. But frankly, if I were running AC Transit (or any company for that matter, in any industry), I’d rather see a portfolio of spectacular failures with a good chance of getting to one great success (ask any VC how to do this), than trivial if any improvements over the status quo.

    So you’re probably right. But I still give them credit for trying something different.


  3. Actually, we had a similar service in the city I grew up in. It was a small, local-only bus that would take you anywhere you wanted to go for a small fee. All you had to do was call ahead to book the bus.

    I don’t know if they still have it, but it was a marvelous service. It definitely made my parents’ lives a lot easier when both my brother and I had activities all over town, and my parents had to work late!

    It’s definitely an interesting concept, and I hope it works out. This could be a good alternative for people who don’t want to take regular public transport, as well as reducing the amount of taxis on the road. Plus, if the mini-buses could be fitted with hybrid engines like many of the buses in London, it would be a far more energy efficient mode of transport for many short-trip commuters.

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