The future of bus travel is on-demand

While the public bus has not moved in a century, change is coming in the form of small, efficient, and reliable on-demand services.



Public buses have been a fixture in public transport for more than a century. Like them or not, the fact is that they have not changed the essential way they operate in much of that time. They’re a system run on set timetables and routes — basically functioning on the idea that it’s there if you need it. 

In the not-too-distant past, before we had ride-sharing apps and smartphones, the ‘just in case’ approach was entirely necessary — it was the only practical option. That’s the fundamental thing about bus services – they have been built on the idea of predictability. All they really need to do to have been classed as providing a good service is running on time per the timetable the bus operator prescribed. In the absence of any other option, passengers were ‘happy’.

But just because we might be used to something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing we’re used to is the best or most efficient way of doing it. 


Passengers can potentially put in a request for a trip from point A to B at a specific time, and bus operators can analyse the demand for travel, and provide the buses as needed.


Contrary to the notions that bus travel is more environmentally sound, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics stated that the average city bus consumes 20 percent more energy per passenger than the average car does. Low bus loads means buses use roughly as much energy per passenger per kilometre as the average SUV does.

Per the 2016 National Transit Database, the average urban transit bus (including commuter buses and rapid transit buses) will carry an average of just 11 people, despite having an average capacity to carry 39 seated passengers. This ‘empty bus’ situation is symptomatic of an outdated model. 

Ask anyone who regularly catches a bus and they’ll probably tell you that buses are usually either one of two things: severely overcrowded, or almost empty.

So, any efficiencies buses deliver when they are running at full capacity are nullified if they’re empty at other times. 

Smartphones and smartphone apps means that the old model is no longer the only option. Phones can be used to make travel requests —Uber and Lyft being cases in point. Booking transport with their phones is much easier and more popular now than it was in the past, and with complex machine learning algorithms becoming skilled at calculating the best routes for vehicles looking to service the demand for trips, this is a match made in heaven.


Buses Just-in-Time

Because of technological advances, the conditions are ripe for a more agile and personalised approach to running bus services. The public bus system can now connect supply with demand.

Passengers can potentially put in a request for a trip from point A to B at a specific time, and bus operators can analyse the demand for travel, and provide the buses as needed.

As an emerging model, this can ensure that a passenger’s needs are met by buses at the right location, at the right time. This is good value for money for the passengers, even if the fare does in fact rise.

The on-demand bus models mean:

  • More personalised travel experiences — passengers want them, from the location of their choice.
  • No more overcrowding – on-demand buses stop taking passengers when they’re full.
  • No more ‘three buses at once’ – each passenger is allocated a spot on a specific bus.
  • Increased passenger confidence, as fixed pickup and drop-off times allow them to plan trips effectively.

The ability to track the live location of the bus as it approaches will also improve the experience.


Benefits for transport providers

There’s a very real case to be made for the on-demand model for buses. For public transport bodies, there’s value to be found in the model in the ability to make the network more efficient — essentially, moving more passengers with less funding. Other potential benefits of on-demand buses include:

  • Less damage to our roads, as the buses are smaller
  • The ability to service some areas previously inaccessible or commercially unviable on fixed routes
  • Real-time data on the use of buses, mobility demand, and trip outcomes
  • Instant feedback from passengers to help improve services.

An on-demand bus model will also bring significant value for money for transport operators themselves, whether public or private. They will achieve better use of their assets, and more passenger use for the distance travelled. Operation costs will be reduced, as buses will no longer be running without passengers, and revenue will increase as new passengers are attracted by this efficient new service model.


Out with the old?

So, is it a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’? Not quite. Nothing will replace the efficiency of an express bus service or BRT, running regular, high volume, fixed routes in high-demand corridors.

The on-demand bus model can, however, complement existing public transport by providing an excellent way to transport passengers to mass transit hubs from the outer suburbs. Additionally, on-demand buses offer more efficiency for moving people in areas with lower passenger numbers, during off-peak times, for those with accessibility requirements and in remote communities.

The volume of smartphones out there, and their related technologies have led to a shift in the way the traveling public expect services. Services driven by fixed timetables were previously the norm, but are now slowly becoming the exception, with on-demand emerging as a dominant way of the future.

An on-demand bus network could unlock significant benefits for passengers, operators, and society as a whole. 

Importantly, this nascent transport mode could also attract people away from their cars and deliver a positive environmental outcome. Leading transport operators recognise the possibilities of technology and beginning to adapt their delivery models.


Liftango is a corporate carpool and demand-responsive technology company that believes the future liveability of our cities and regional centres will be determined by the actions taken by organisations today. By providing innovative technology to solve parking and congestion problems Liftango can help minimise staff commuter costs and deliver a sustainable approach to reducing emissions.

We provide organisations including Qantas, University of Newcastle, Monash University, Woolworths and NIB Insurance unique solutions to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the congestion caused by single-occupancy vehicles.

To find out more about specific project contexts in which the Liftango On-Demand bus technology is yielding benefits to passengers, operators and public transport authorities, please reach out to arrange a tech demo on our website.






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