Interview with Barak Sas

This month we chat with Barak Sas, General Manager for UK&I DRT at Zeelo and respected voice on mobility-related issues. He is well known for sharing his thoughts about public transport and mobility in his newsletter “Moving People.”

In your opinion, what are the most important changes we have seen in mobility over the last years? Where do you think we are headed?

All over the world, we all have mobility in the palm of our hand. It is weird to think it wasn’t always like that, but it wasn’t. People needed to wait at a bus stop or train station until the bus/train came, or phone a taxi company. And that was basically it.

Today, when you mention that, peoples’ minds jump straight to Uber and cars or GETT and taxis, but it is much more than that. We have digitized public transport solutions (so you know where the bus is); planning tools like Optibus and Remix; transport planning apps like CityMapper and Moovit; and MaaS apps like SkedGo or Mobilii. Everything is much more connected. Whether it's a car or public transport, we’re all better connected.

And this connectivity allowed for new solutions to arise, entering the ‘empty spaces’ in transportation. Micromobility with a wide array of players offering first/last mile solutions; fixed route players, such as Zeelo, SWVL, Volt Lines, and many more, perfecting the mass transportation offer to businesses, schools, and passengers. And Digital Demand Responsive Transportation, DDRT, or microtransit as it is called in the US, offers more flexible public transport.

More products, more solutions, better connected with increased flexibility. I find that the most important change is in the role taken by public and shared transport, replacing the emergence of the private car in the 70s and its dominance up to roughly a decade ago.

What impact has the global pandemic had on mobility patterns worldwide? Will changes be implemented faster now there appears to be some recovery?

I’ll be banal and say we don’t really know yet… (laughing), I’m very interested to find out if eventually everybody returns to the office, as I suspect will happen. But, definitely, work-from-home has been the #1 impact. I won’t go into tourism in the pandemic and what it did to the flight industry and long-range trains and buses, but it had a huge effect.

From where I sit, the pandemic helped launch a new industry: smart shared mass transport, serving businesses and riders. The TaaS - transportation as a service - industry. SWVL and Careem in MENA; Zeelo, Volt Lines, and BusUp in Europe; Treepz, Rabbit and Little in Africa; Urbvan and Viapool in Central and South America; Chalo (Shuttl) in India; and many many more.

The pandemic gave us a unique moment—these companies developed smart tech solutions to improve mass transport, offering better solutions to businesses for their employees’ commute, or for people to escape poorly-conditioned, overcrowded buses in emerging markets. And the pandemic gave them, us, a boost. A combination of a better transport solution met changing pandemic needs and created a global industry.

I also think we’ll see increased adoption of DDRT. For a number of reasons: better connectivity and service; improved flexibility and efficiency; and, as a result, fewer emissions and congestion. The DDRT industry was one step ahead of fixed-route TaaS, but was hit hard during the pandemic, and now I’m sure it will bounce back. And I think that it is exciting, because of the opportunities to combine demand responsive and fixed-route solutions.

Why do you think local administrations and transport operators at times are reluctant to adopt new smart mobility technologies? How can they be convinced that DRT can be a valuable complement, rather than a threat, to the existing transportation network?

Government transport officers have a very important job—to make sure people have access to equitable transport. It’s a risk-averse mission, and that’s fine. It is up to us to prove to them that DDRT is a better solution—not for every transport use case—but for many. I think DDRT is important in both peri-urban and rural use cases. Wherever you find people using single-occupancy vehicles in large numbers, there is an opportunity.

There are two ways for us to convince them: one is showcasing our success stories. Shotl has many: seasonal transport in Rimini taking people to the beach instead of creating unneeded congestion; connecting Vallirana, a small secluded town, to a mobility hub using a demand-responsive and fixed-route solution according to demand levels; feeding train station from nearby neighborhoods in Japan. There are plenty of examples.

The other approach requires proactiveness but no risk from local authorities. Let us create a Service Design for you, let us show you what DDRT can do, and what the benefits are. We’re happy to do that because we trust that once we are able to demonstrate the benefits of DDRT, councils will understand.

As for operators, I think they should do more to digitize their solutions. It is a hard ask; there needs to be a budget associated with it, but I think it is needed. Some are doing it, most aren’t. I urge them to look at their fixed routes and analyze what is better with demand-responsive technology. Again, we can help with that.

It looks like demand-responsive transportation is slowly but steadily making its way into more and more cities. What are the lessons local administrations need to learn from smart city locations where DRT has already been implemented and that have spearheaded this change?

Back to basics: setting SMART goals and planning accordingly. SMART, for those who aren’t familiar, stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. DDRT goals should be SMART. I want people from town A to ride X times in Y months, and it is relevant because it fits my goal to reduce cars by Z%.

The planning part is where we as DDRT providers come in and see how that goal is attainable and discover the commercial and operational implications. How many vehicles are needed; how can it be integrated into public transport; should it be all DDRT or should we use fixed routes in peak times? I believe in building solid foundations.

The last bit is marketing. Local authorities have to invest in educating residents. Letting them know about the service and its benefits. We can help here too. I also think that branding DDRT as a unique solution is sometimes overdone. DDRT is a part of public transport, period.

Will demand-responsive mobility truly manage to reduce the number of private vehicles on our roads? Which other parallel actions will be necessary to achieve this goal of cleaner, more efficient, and attractive cities?

Clearly, the challenges that Swvl is tackling in emerging markets are radically different to the situation in Europe. While it’s a problem of system creation in emerging markets, it’s one of system optimization in developed markets. However, the underlying question is no different: How can we provide efficient, reliable, convenient and accessible mobility to as many people as possible?

Yes, but it is not a stand-alone solution. We need DDRT to be integrated into other elements of public transport—trains and buses—to really make the most of it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t specific use cases that can rely only on DDRT. There are, but the efficiencies of scale materialize when all the different parts of the system come together.

Also, there needs to be a clear-carrot-and-stick approach by government and local authorities. Taking people out of single-occupancy vehicles is hard; in many places, people are used to the comfortability of a car, and it is very comfortable, that is why it is so successful. The carrot is efficient public transport; DDRT can do that. The sticks need to be congestion charges, reduced parking space, etc.

And last but not least, what three things would you take to a desert island?

Well, I hope I never end up on one, I get very bored very quickly and I’ll probably end up pacing the island back and forth all day long. The most important things in life are family and friends, so I wish they could be there somehow, without having to exile them to a deserted island. My wife rightly says I’m a workaholic, so I guess I’ll need a solar charging laptop with magical WiFi so I could keep working, ignoring my family and friends in the process. Finally, every settlement needs an English pub with Guinness. Now I’m ready.

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