The Rural Mobility Fund Evaluation – Digital DRT and the connection with Community Transport
by Caroline Whitney
Director for England
In September I attended the Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) event to launch the monitoring and evaluation interim report on the Rural Mobility Fund pilot schemes, by The Department for Transport and the Bus Centre for Excellence. Along with attending the event, I was part of a panel discussion providing a CT perspective on challenges and issues going forward for the sector in relation to Digital DRT.
Reflections following the launch
The main takeaway from the project is clear: community benefits have been substantial. New transport initiatives have not only increased accessibility but also boosted passenger numbers.
However, reflecting on this, I wonder if we may have missed an opportunity during the initial project phase. Both Community Transport organisations and local authorities have been offering similar services for years, just not in a digital format. The transition to digital Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) could have been smoother if we’d taken the time to learn from these traditional models. Specifically, better collaboration might have helped local authorities who struggled with estimating demand, scheduling, and determining the number of required vehicles. Existing community transport providers likely already have insights into these challenges.
Licensing and legislation challenges
One prominent theme echoing from this event and other discussions is the issue of legislation, specifically the framework facilitating non-commercial services. Challenges involving the application process for Section 22 permits were raised during the session. What was clear was that there was a lack of understanding of the ability to deliver DRT services within a Section 19 permit. This discussion highlighted a continued and clear need for reviewing and improving the legislation and guidance that exists, as many remain unsure about its effectiveness. There is also uncertainty surrounding small vehicle regulations, making it challenging to determine what can be delivered within those parameters. Therefore, there are ongoing actions necessary to enhance and shape this legal framework and improve knowledge within this area.
The importance of perceptions
An issue that community transport grapples with consistently is the perceptions of who the service is for, addressing and changing these perceptions and stereotypes is crucial. Many still associate these services exclusively with older individuals or people with disabilities, overlooking the broader demographic they can serve. This was something that many pilots raised, and this perception needs to change and include a strong message that these services are accessible for everyone. We also need to ensure we have a shared understanding of terminology, for example these services are described as “accessible” for many this means ensuring physical access and strengthens the perceptions it is for older people or those with a disability, but in this context it is about making the service available to all individuals in areas where public transport options are limited, unsuitable or simply do not exist.
The need for changing perceptions also extends to policymakers and providers. There is a misconception that many in the community transport sector rely solely on volunteers and lack professional skills. Some may believe that the sector is resistant to change, which is not universally true. While some providers don’t want to extend their current role in the transport system, others are eager to be part of future solutions and expand their services. Policymakers should recognise the knowledge and skills present in the sector to facilitate progress and innovation.
Many individuals are increasingly recognising the significance of community transport and its potential role in the DRT market. This sentiment was strongly emphasised during the event, where we heard enthusiastic support from participants in the room. It was encouraging to hear Mr. Richard Holden MP emphasise in his speech that the future of DRT is a collective effort, involving multiple stakeholders, and we all need to contribute to its success.
The value of digital DRT services
The value of these services was a key topic. It was emphasised that cost should not be the sole criterion for evaluating these services, instead, we need to find better ways to articulate the social, environmental, and economic impact that these services have on their users. I shared and highlighted the role of the community transport focused social value toolkit, which is currently under review by Ealing Community Transport. There is the potential this can be used as a tool not just for community transport but for all accessible transport services. This will allow us to establish baselines and collectively demonstrate the social, environmental, and economic impact of these services.
The importance of personal connections
Lastly, there was a discussion about the importance of the driver in transport. There was collective agreement that personal interaction and social engagement during the journey are crucial. The individuals providing these interactions are instrumental in reducing social isolation and loneliness among passengers. Even in a potential future with driverless vehicles, the presence of a supportive individual on board, assisting with boarding and disembarking and providing companionship, remains vital.
What was clear from the discussion was there was still room for discussions about the role of CT in the digital Demand-Responsive Transport landscape. Outside of this event I have had conversations with CT providers about Digital DRT and the place that community transport has. There is a need for the sector to engage in more substantive discussions about the role it envisions playing in the digital DRT space. It also involves the sector deciding whether to embrace the designation of being a DRT service and understanding what that entails.
A discussion took place about the future of Digital DRT. The Department for Transport is actively exploring how to integrate these digital services into the broader transport system. It is important for community transport to have a clear and defined role within the broader transport system, as currently it often operates independently of the design of public transport services.
A current and ongoing priority for CTA and myself involves collaborating with the Department of Transport to clarify how non-digital elements, like door-to-door transport or flexible ride services, fit into the transport system. This also involves defining the long-term role of community transport providers within this space.
My final thought and comment on the day was that while we are confident that community transport will persist, the fate of digital DRT remains uncertain.
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