Flexible Bus Lines – A Hybrid Approach to DRT: TRANSPORT Smart Class, North of England 2024 Retrospective


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Today’s challenge in rural regions is to make public transport bus services the most efficient way to aggregate the largest number of people in the fewest number of trips possible with the existing fleet. These are the decisive factors for the success of a service. However, public transport resources are limited. How can you make your current resources in rural and peri-urban environments work in a more economically efficient manner but also improve the user experience at the same time?

Founded in Barcelona in 2020 and born out of an EUSPA funded project two years earlier, Nemi is a digital platform for managing demand responsive bus services. They design optimal mobility solutions connecting people and places in a smarter, more efficient and sustainable way. Already the market leader for on-demand transport in Spain, Nemi is expanding across Europe. In the UK their digital services are playing a key role, for example, in helping Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority and FACT Community Transport to provide a more efficient bus service for Wisbech and March, neighbouring towns in North Cambridgeshire which have become increasingly cut off with the disappearance of rail transport links.

Nemi joined us at TRANSPORT Smart Class, North of England 2024 to highlight how low density areas with significant public transport gaps can use a semi-flexible DRT approach to significantly improve the mobility of their inhabitants, dissolving transport deserts and connectivity issues in their tracks. Their unique hybrid approach to “flexibilising” fixed lines with on-demand stops or placing all, or parts of the route on demand at certain times of the day/days of the week was showcased using case studies from Nemi’s home region in north eastern Spain, and also further afield in the Northern hills of Madrid.

Accessibility and bridging the digital divide is another key success factor for the running of inclusive services in rural areas. Around this theme, Nemi showcased their WhatsApp Bot for trip reservations currently being piloted in Barcelona.

As co-speakers, Lisa Grace (CMO) and Abby Meuli (R&D Project Manager) “challenged the myth” that under performing fixed-line services benefit from being converted into DRT to show that a semi-flexible approach with limited resources can bring important efficiencies in terms of demand aggregation, enhanced user experience, passenger satisfaction and high social value.

Following their presentation and Q&A, Lisa and Abby went on to host deeper dive roundtable discussions with additional support from Giovanni Tokarski (Business Development UK).

Presentation highlights:

  • As an on-demand transport platform, passengers can book a service on Nemi’s app and then follow where the bus is in real time. The route is optimised to serve only the stops that are requested, thus saving on kilometres travelled and reducing emissions;
  • Nemi operate with three different platforms:
  • 1) Users benefit from app designed to be as accessible and user friendly as possible;
  • 2) Meanwhile, the bus driver can see which passengers they have to pick up and the route they need to take using the driver app;
  • 3) Finally, the back office platform allows the operator to access crucial passenger and vehicle data;
  • Public authorities and transport operators are enabled to optimise the services they provide. Services become more cost effective, operators gain access to improved data and passenger experience and safety is enhanced;
  • Public Transport in Rural Areas – Two scenarios:
  • 1) Fixed-line public transport in low-demand (rural and peri-urban) areas – An unattractive offer as very few schedules/departures, limited territorial coverage and long travel times. This has “knock-on effects” such as social exclusion and depressed socio-economic activity;
  • 2) DRT in low-demand (rural and peri-urban) areas – Philosophy of DRT is to make the offer more attractive, more flexible and look at optimising routes, shortening routes, reducing travel times, increasing coverage (can even pick up from villages not usually included in routes) and creating more schedules and departures. This can improve the service, grow demand, reduce operation deficit, build social inclusion, “restart” some rural areas and help socio-economic activity to thrive;
  • The DRT Spectrum:
  • Taxi – Offers maximum flexibility for user but, as a private trip, has limited power to aggregate;
  • Regular Bus/Mass Public Transport – Huge power to aggregate but not flexible as running on pre-established timetables and pre-established routes;
  • Full flex DRT and Semi flex DRT sit between!
  • Semi flex DRT (the Nemi model) – Based on fixed ops within a specific area but with routes “flexibilised” i.e. a fixed departure point with fixed stops but with the stops that the bus passes flexibilised. This approach looks to effectively optimise routes, whilst still maintaining the level of aggregation that is needed for cost efficiency. In Nemi’s experience, this tends to work in areas of mid-low demand and also in small zones “whereby that aggregation doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the other passengers who are reserving further down the line…it’s a mix, getting the balance”;

  • Touching on the Technology:
  • Now we have technology we can track everything and travel wherever and whenever we want. But is this necessary and do we really need so much technology?
  • “Technology for technology’s sake” could actually have a detrimental effect on the operational efficiency, cost efficiency and user experience. A more simplified approach may be the best way to provide reliability, especially if you have a very limited number of vehicles and drivers;
  • With a semi-rigid model real-time reservations can be accepted as long as they don’t impact reservations already made; this model is focused on pre-bookings –  Pre-booked services allow for better planning and operational efficiency of how we arrange a route;
  • A tool for providing and managing smart bus services – Digitising and flexibilising bus operator’s offering through:
  • The deployment of fully demand-responsive lines;
  • The hybridisation of regular lines by including request stops;
  • The hybridisation of regular lines by operating them on demand during off-peak hours;
  • Designed in partnership with a metropolitan transport authority and optimised for public transport, the hybrid element of Nemi’s solution would also include having a fixed route which is on-demand in the evenings or at certain times of the day or in a tourist area depending upon the tourist season;
  • Can Sunyer – Barcelona Case Study:
  • Located in a peri-urban area to the west of Barcelona, Can Sunyer is a small town which has a train station with a direct link into Barcelona. It is, however, a hilly/mountainous urbanisations with an older demographic;
  • Starting in January 2023, Nemi changed the route from a full flex model (operated by the previous provider) to semi-flex with no change in terms of pick up times and in terms of delays in waiting;
  • Achieved 69% App bookings, 27K Residents connected and 120 Passengers per day – Over 10 departure times, 12 passengers per hour aggregating in a 16 seater bus (Operator: Soler i Sauret): “The on-demand bus optimizes resources, adapts offer to demand, increases territorial and temporal coverage, and brings financial and environmental savings” (Neus Figueras, Metropolitan Area Barcelona);

  • Sierra Norte – Madrid Case Study: The northern hills of Madrid is an extremely rural area of 1,250 square kilometres. The average journey distance is 26km and the 40-50 hamlets and villages are not connected between each other. Public transport options for people are not feasible so the local authority passed the taxi service over to Nemi (Starting October 2022). It runs from 6am-midnight (Operator: Sierra Car);
  • Achieved 71% App bookings, 15K Residents connected, 154 Passengers per day – aggregating 8.5 people per hour: “With Nemi’s DDRT app we have been able to optimise an extensive fleet of vehicles to provide an on-demand taxi service to over 40 small villages across the northern hills of Madrid! A complex services…but the transition has been seamless!” (Eva Gallego, President, Mancomunidad de Servicios del Valle Norte del Lozoya – Madrid);
  • Prioritising Accessibility with Whatsapp Bot:
  • In September 2023, Nemi ran a pilot in Vila del Penedes (the home of Cava!). Located on the outskirts of Barcelona, it’s a town of 40,000 and 80% of public transport users are aged 65+;
  • Workshop revealed that 65-75 age group were fairly “au fait” with technology and downloading but those aged 75+ were resistant to downloading an app. However, both age ranges were comfortable using WhatsApp, so Nemi’s CTO came up with a WhatsApp Bot designed to help people book a service as easily and as quickly as possible in just a few messages;
  • Training sessions on how to use the app plus in-depth user interviews on the bus confirmed that those not comfortable with apps were comfortable using WhatsApp as their major form of communications;
  • As well as catering for people who might not be confident with digital technology, the WhatsApp Bot also works as a user friendly solution for one-time users such as tourists; It is designed to enhance, not replace – “providing more options for people rather than taking away the options they already have”;
  • “DRT’s future hangs on being able to manage pre-booked trips that encourage aggregation, benefit cost and operational efficiency and, contrary to popular belief, improve customer service” (Eloi Martin, Chief Technology Officer, Nemi).

If you satisfy our regular delegate qualification criteria but were unable to join us in Manchester on June 6th for the live in-person event at The Stoller Hall, CLICK HERE and complete the short “Download form” (located at the bottom of the post) to receive a unique link enabling free access to the presentation video recordings and slides (including the film footage and slides from Lisa and Abby’s initial presentation).

Those qualifying to receive the rich presentation content from this event include commissioning, procurement, trialling, partnering and policy leads, senior influencers, strategic decision makers, programme managers and planners from local authorities (e.g. city, borough, metropolitan, district and county councils); public transport operators; regional transport partnerships, sub-regional transport bodies, combined authorities, integrated transport authorities and passenger transport executives; highways authorities and road operators; government and supporting national transport agencies; non-governmental organisations; fleet operators, parking operators, prime contractors etc.

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TRANSPORT Smart Class, North of England 2024

On June 6th we will be casting a spotlight over the North of England, hosting our speakers discussions on how the latest digital innovations, strategies and best practices can help overcome the transport and mobility challenges faced by city-regions of the Northern Powerhouse and beyond.


   Manchester, UK

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