When Meher moved from Cairo city into a residential suburb last winter, her first consideration – as a non-driver – was how she could go to work or shopping. With no direct bus service, the best way home was a $7 cab ride.
Until about a few years ago, that could mean riding around town while the bus picked up and dropped off other passengers before finally getting to her stop.
Now, Meher can book it on an app on her phone, and a minivan from the city’s on-demand transit service will pick her up at a nearby location and bring her to her destination.
“It’s given me a lot of freedom to go where I want,” she says.
In a city with a poor public transport system and traffic-clogged streets contributing to long commute times, on-demand public transit has been a lifeline for many like Meher.
You download an app, enter your card details, location, and destination, and a few seconds later, you’re informed whether there’s a minibus within a five- to 15-minute timescale that can pick you up a few yards from where you’re standing.
“It is affordable and convenient,” says Youssef Salem, Chief Financial Officer, Swvl. “On average, 80% cheaper than private transportation, and the walk to the station for the rider is minimal.”
And it’s close to 100% on-time pickups and drop-offs as it leverages proprietary mapping, routing, and ETA technologies, he adds.
Founded in Egypt in 2017, Swvl operates a digital platform that allows passengers to reserve and pay for rides with participating buses along fixed routes. It operates in ten cities in six countries and makes over 3 million monthly trips.
“Ridesharing apps could complement public-transit systems to make travel more seamless and fill gaps in transit service if necessary,” says Frans Hiemstra, Director, Regional General Manager of MEA at Uber.
Specifically designed for the Egyptian market, Uber Shuttle, first of its kind globally, integrates Uber technology into the existing minibus system, complementing existing city infrastructure.
“Since last year, the business has more than doubled in size,” adds Hiemstra.
On-demand public transit, called micro-transit, is becoming increasingly popular across the Middle East.
Big cities like Dubai and Cairo are experimenting with micro-transit.
In most cities, the public transport system was designed when downtown was king for employment. Now, big corporate parks are on the edge of town that the system didn’t even connect people to.
CONVENIENT AND FLEXIBLE
“On-demand public transport eliminates the need for fixed-route, fixed-schedule models. It gives commuters more freedom and convenience for travel, which is an advantage for those with no personal vehicle or limited access to other public or private transportation,” says Ahmad Bin Eisa Alserkal, Chairman of Alserkal Group and Chairman of United Trans, which operates an AI-driven, on-demand bus service in the UAE.
Since the service is app-based with no fixed bus stops, passengers can enjoy the convenience of getting picked up and dropped off with limited walking and waiting in the heat.
“In Dubai, for example, most of our passengers book their service a few minutes before their metro arrives at the station or while in the office or at home. It combines the convenience of an e-hailing service, but at a cheaper fare due to it being a shared service,” adds Alserkal.
Compared to ride-hailing, cost savings in bus-hailing are significant. An average cab ride costs up to $13 for a 10-kilometer ride. But bus on-demand fares are as low as $2.
In Egypt, Uber Shuttle introduced a subscription program to incentivize this mode of transport to make the service cost-effective. “In the current economic landscape, there is a growing need for affordable and reliable public transportation solutions,” says Hiemstra.
SUPPLEMENT EXISTING SERVICES
Bus on-demand can supplement existing fixed route services and act as first mile/last mile services to fixed transit solutions like the metro or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
Large, densely populated cities typically use regular fixed bus routes where people can walk a short distance to a designated stop. But that’s only possible in some areas.
In suburban areas, bus on-demand can reduce the requirements of fixed route services by offering on-demand shared rides only. “This would help public transport agencies save costs; it’s more convenient for the passengers and environmentally friendly,” says Alserkal.
In urban areas, bus on-demand services can be designed to address the mobility needs of passengers. “Most trips made in urban areas are for short distances. Imagine driving your car through 30 minutes of traffic for 5 kilometers and looking for parking. With more on-demand shared solutions, the reliance on private vehicles can be reduced, easing road congestion,” he adds.
Concurring, Salem says it allows the government to “reduce expenditure on large-scale transport infrastructure” as on-demand transit provides a parallel mass transit network.
These services can also be configured for corporate and campus shuttles and school buses. “It is safe as well. We fully track and identify all captains and riders on all trips.”
The opportunities for customization are endless. For example, Uber Shuttle has expanded to include tailored bus services for corporate entities in Cairo.
“Alternative public transportation is playing a critical role in improving urban planning and preserving the environment by cutting down congestion and parking footprints,” says Hiemstra.
In the case of United Trans, the AI algorithm helps predict user patterns and demand, ensuring the buses don’t run empty, thus reducing operational costs.
But like any other new initiative, there is always a hesitation to change. “The key is to understand the broader benefits such a service can bring to not only the public transport and infrastructural developments of the governments, but to the overall social and economic welfare of its people,” says Raed Abu Hijleh, Managing Director of United Trans.
Abu Hijleh says it’s working closely with Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ajman governments to deploy bus on-demand services in conjunction with their fixed route services.
With the UAE preparing to host COP 28 later this year, smart mobility solutions like this are spearheading the nation’s ambitions for a decarbonized future.
“Shifting passengers away from personal cars and back to public transit decreases congestion and reduces carbon emissions,” says AlSerkal.
While all this is good, there are challenges to running on-demand public transit services. Hiemstra says expanding to new areas and testing new routes can be challenging for on-demand public ridesharing services.
“Traditionally, something like an Uber Bus would require us to invest in actual buses and test them out, which can be time-consuming and expensive. To overcome this, we used existing products like UberX to gauge demand on specific routes, offering riders the UberX vehicle but pricing their trips at the shuttle rate. Once we identify enough demand and establish robust infrastructure, we fully launch a shuttle route,” he says.
According to Salem, it requires building strong proprietary technology and a large network of routes, which requires a significant initial investment. “But once that is in place, the returns are very attractive.”
“At the heart of solving any challenge like this is building locally — keeping market-specific challenges, infrastructure, regulations, and demand in mind,” adds Hiemstra.
Now, some cities use micro-transit to reach areas without transit or augment regular service. Some are replacing poorly performing bus routes with on-demand choices.
“If this forms part of the future of bus travel, bring it on – but don’t let it replace the lot,” says Meher.