The Sunday Times says

On-call buses must stay the course

The concept of an "on-demand, dynamically routed" bus mode is an exciting extension of ride-hailing apps. Set to be put on trial in the second half of next year by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), such customised bus services could result in shorter waiting times and lower running costs. Commuters will be drawn to the idea that, instead of being able to get off only at a bus stop along a fixed route, they can alight at any bus stop in the operating area.

Such customised bus services would straddle the line between public transport - buses and trains - and private transport: cars, and taxis and other on-demand services. They will offer commuters the convenience of flexibility associated with the latter, and the lower costs associated with any form of shared transport. This is one of the ways in which new transport options should be explored even as Singapore gears up to being a car-lite city.

However, there are several caveats if the scheme has to succeed. Obviously, the pricing formula has to be right: low enough for it to be attractive to passengers and realistic enough for operators to want to come in. The LTA is correct in targeting routes which have low demand during off-peak hours. There, the buses can serve commuters better by being on call. Yet, precisely because of the nature of these routes, the issue is what a viable fare formula should be.

A related issue is frequency. Services cannot be too frequent because that would drive up costs. However, they cannot be so infrequent as to appear to be but a token effort. The fear then would be that operators could use the scheme as an excuse to cut down services to marginal areas. In finding the right balance, the LTA would be helped by using data analytics and mobile application technology, but monitoring usage patterns during the trial period will provide key answers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'On-call buses must stay the course'. Print Edition | Subscribe