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Ride-hailing technology could make public buses more efficient

Illustration of roads in the shape of a penrose triangle
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Technology used in ride-hailing and other new mobility services could be used to make public bus networks more environmentally friendly and convenient.

Why it matters: Public buses are frequently criticized as unreliable, inefficient and alternatively near-empty or so full that they skip stops, but electric buses with next generation technology and flexible routes could help address congestion and emissions.

What's happening: Public transit ridership is down across the U.S. due in part to new mobility services like ride-hailing and scooters.

What's needed: Many municipal bus services rely on manual surveys of passengers to assess user preferences and modify routes — an expensive and unreliable practice.

  • Instead, any and all available public transit ticket data could be analyzed to understand actual demand patterns and optimize routes.
  • Fleet optimization software could match supply and demand in real time, dispatching additional vehicles on particularly busy routes, or adding flexible routes at peak hours.
  • Contactless payment could also speed boarding times and keep buses on time.
  • The design of buses could be demand-responsive, too. In Strasbourg, France, the transit agency replaced a traditional bus line with modular electric shuttles that can add or remove cabins as demand shifts throughout the day.

But, but, but: Cities across the U.S. and world-wide are struggling with adopting electric buses.

  • In places that are moving ahead with electric buses — like Shenzhen, China, which boasts the world’s only all-electric bus network — the biggest obstacle was installing and paying for the massive charging infrastructure needed to run 16,000 e-buses.
  • TransitCenter found that the seven U.S cities which grew transit ridership last year did so by either expanding bus service or completely overhauling their bus systems to improve service.

The bottom line: Integrating advanced technology and deploying next-generation vehicles with upgrades that make them demand-responsive and environmentally friendly could make bus networks more efficient, more reliable, and more popular.

Raphael Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile, which has developed a fleet-management platform and whose clients include Strasbourg’s transit agency.