Demand-responsive transport returns to Milton Keynes - lessons for a bus industry in crisis?

Potter, Stephen; Valdez, Miguel; Enoch, Marcus and Cook, Matthew (2022). Demand-responsive transport returns to Milton Keynes - lessons for a bus industry in crisis? Town and Country Planning, 91(5) pp. 319–329.

Abstract

Conventional fixed route public transport increasingly struggles to serve 21st century patterns of dispersed travel demand. As such, outside of high-density urban areas, developing conventional public transport to reduce car use and cut transport energy use and CO2 emissions is problematic. Recently there has been renewed interest in Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) and related service offerings. The concept of DRT is far from new, but it has largely stalled amidst technological, regulatory, and economic barriers.

Significantly, the impetus for DRT is not now from the public sector but from technology-led companies that have already impacted upon taxi operations and have ambitions to develop their products and markets in mainstream public transport. Some more innovative city authorities have sought partnerships with these new digital technology operators. Added to such stimuli has been the pandemic creating uncertainty about how public transport use will change, coupled with city authorities seeking economic and social recovery amidst financial pressures on public transport support.

This paper reports results from an in-depth case study of one city’s radical shift towards replacing conventional bus routes with DRT. This is the partnership between the commercial digital technology company, Via, and Milton Keynes Council. From April 2021 a network of eleven subsidised bus routes were replaced by the 'MK Connect' DRT, with the bulk of the fleet comprising of electric vehicles. This represents the most widespread urban DRT application in the UK and by late 2021 MK Connect was serving a mixed urban/rural area of 300 km2 accommodating over 30,000 rides per month.

This paper draws on documentary evidence, operational data, a user survey and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, exploring the operational, business, user experience and policy aspects of the system and its development. Key public policy issues have been identified in the cost-effective use of DRT, the partners and expertise required, contract design and the practices and relationships needed between actors. These, together with user understandings and skills needed for DRT, indicate that the successful introduction of DRT in Milton Keynes contains lessons for a transformative development in public transport.

Although the specific context of the UK’s privatised bus structure has moulded the design of MK Connect, the lessons derived from this study relate to generic transition issues faced in the development of DRT. These include identifying how to rapidly achieve a viable level of demand, the restructuring of existing finances and service contract design, as well as issues concerning the interplay between bus and taxi regulatory structures. It is concluded that a full systems understanding, as explored in this study, is key to a low-carbon transition.

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