Demand-responsive transport (DRT) is a flexible service that adapts to the needs of specific user groups. “It is like a public transport UBER that can be ordered in an area with a sparse public transport service by using an app or by booking the service over the phone,” said Kerli Kirsimaa, author of the study by SEI Tallinn. “DRT should help to solve a fairly common situation with a transport company or a local government keeping a few buses in traffic in rural areas, but finding that they still run empty because there are too few users, or because the timetables are not suitable for passengers.”
In countries where DRT is well established, it has been primarily used for passengers with limited access to public transport or private vehicles. This includes more vulnerable passenger groups, such as the elderly or the disabled. “Today, however, DRT management is gaining more and more popularity as an alternative to conventional public transport. This is due to its cost-effectiveness and its ability to cover large areas, especially in rural areas,” commented Ahto Pahk, head of the Estonian Road Administration’s Public Transport Supervision Service. “All in all, DRT has great potential to facilitate the mobility of many different traveller groups.”
SEI Tallinn’s study concludes that DRT has been most successful in the Nordic countries, especially in Denmark, where the service has been developed over a 20-year period. Familiarity and experience with DRT vary widely in the region. In Estonia, for example, DRT is in its infancy. The first pilots are currently being tested by the Ministry of Social Affairs, on Saaremaa island, in Pärnu city and in South-Eastern Estonia, to connect social transport services with public transport. And, in Lithuania, the DRT concept is still relatively unknown due to a general lack of awareness among decision-makers and politicians in this field.
The study concludes that there is room for improving DRT development in all countries surveyed, especially regarding related data and software questions. These include, for example, the availability of data to potential service users, the cost of developing software for subscribing to DRT services, and issues related to data quality and data protection law, which often limit data use and hinder service development.
According to the study, procurement schemes, especially in the Nordic countries, can be obstacles to the development of DRT. For example, in Sweden and Norway, various transport services, such as patient transport or school buses, which can be serviced by DRT, require special permits. In Denmark, DRT service has to be procured separately from conventional public transport. In Estonia, on the other hand, there are no such restrictions; the contracting authority is free to request different vehicles in the procurement procedure on the basis of the same contract which may also address travel on different routes.
However, the development of the service in Estonia and Lithuania faces market-related barriers, such as overall costs and affordability for prospective users, competition between service providers, and limited access of private companies to the public transport market. In Estonia, the development of the service is also hindered by the fact that public transport is already offered free of charge in rural areas. This means that revenues for the development of DRT and for starting further pilot projects are scarce.
The development of DRT is also constrained by a fragmented regulatory framework, overly specific requirements for light vehicles, and a lack of awareness among decision-makers and politicians. This study seeks to fill this gap and guide policymakers on the topic of developing DRT services.
The RESPONSE project has been launched to research and develop demand-responsive transport (DRT) solutions in the Baltic Sea region. Transport companies from Norway and Sweden, universities from Denmark (Aalborg) and Sweden (Karlstad) and the city of Kaunas from Lithuania are participating in the project. The lead partner of the project funded by the Interreg Baltic Sea Region, is SEI Tallinn. The project will continue until mid-2021.