What the closing of Chariot shuttles means for our progress toward new mobility
Despite the shuttering of Ford's microtransit arm, efficient and on-demand shuttles are here to stay — they just have to find their path.
Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Nathaniel Giraitis, strategy director at Smart Design.
In 2014, Smart Design worked with Ford to explore the combination of shared ridership and on-demand travel. The international project, which included design research on four continents, resulted in a body of learning around what user experience and use cases would facilitate such “dynamic shuttle” services in the future.
These learnings were illustrated through the design of a conceptual vehicle and service prototype, which combined physical, digital, and service design elements. Well equipped with this knowledge, Ford made several moves in the shuttle space, including the acquisition of an existing dynamic shuttle service, Chariot, in 2016. Recently, Ford announced they are shutting down Chariot, leaving some to question the role such services might have in the future.
Dynamic shuttle services are now more important than ever, especially considering congestion attributed to the huge increase in single-passenger on-demand journeys. New York City, for example, has seen the number of ride-hail vehicles on the streets increase in one decade from 13,000 yellow cabs to over 100,000 vehicles with the addition of Uber, Lyft and others. Clearly, we need solutions that are more efficient than giving everyone in the city "your own personal driver."
But, as with any service that seeks to drive not only a change in behavior but also new business models, there are challenges.
The challenge at the 'economy' end of the transport spectrum
Logic would state that the fare for dynamic shuttles would land somewhere between the cost of riding by yourself (taxi) and riding with others (public transit) — but there are dangers with both this price ceiling and floor.
At the high end, Uber and Lyft have moved the goalposts; our research has shown that in many cities, Uber has undercut the cost of hailing a ride by nearly 50% from traditional taxis. This means dynamic shuttles must reduce their fee even lower, approaching those of public transit buses. Unfortunately, this price floor reference is false, because public buses by and large aren’t profit-generating businesses, they are subsidized by the city. The simple adage of “cheaper than a taxi but better than a bus” is easier said than done.
2017 saw a number of cities experimenting with supplementing their public services with “microtransit” pilots — a report from the Eno Center for Transportation assessed several pilots and provided some interesting lessons cities looking at this approach.
One of the takeaways from the Eno report urges cities to "be intentional and deliberate in identifying the problem they are looking to solve." The challenge of the aforementioned dense city centers that are suffering from an increase of single-passenger congestion is not the same challenge of the outer boroughs, which are attempting to solve the "first-mile" problem of expanding the catchment area of public transit arteries.
Dynamic shuttles may play a role in each of these scenarios, but the value proposition, operation, and business model of each must be catered to in these different scenarios.
A key learning from various pilots in micromobility is to maintain focus on a specific problem, rather than roll out blanket solutions. What specific scenarios would benefit from dynamic shared transport, while reducing the challenge of behavior change?
Common bonds: Finding camaraderie in shared destinations
When we conducted our initial exploration of the dynamic shuttle space back in 2014, one of our key insights was that passengers are far more open to sharing a ride with strangers when they had a shared destination or origin — particularly if that shared destination resulted in a sense of camaraderie or shared spirit among the passengers. A new service in the UK, Zeelo, is exploiting this opportunity, offering shared rides to sports fans visiting intercity stadiums, or work colleagues commuting to out-of-reach corporate parks.
To avoid the uphill battle of behavior change altogether, a logical approach is to look where similar behavior already exists and improve the experience. Our travels around the world revealed many "analog" versions of shuttle services — corporate shuttle buses in India, favela vans in Brazil, or even secondary school buses in the UK. What benefit could be had by introducing a digital service layer to such situations, resulting in an upgraded service?
In New York City, for example, what sort of public safety improvements could be had by digitizing the "jitney" dollar vans (in collaboration with the MTA)? Such an improvement would allow residents to hail a ride from the safety of their home rather than walk dark city streets to wait at an exposed public bus stop while increasing regulatory compliance and capturing taxes.
Regardless of the use case, a focus on the passenger experience and the pain points you are targeting to resolve is key to offering a compelling dynamic shuttle service. Aiming to release pressure from overcrowded transit systems? Emphasize a “guaranteed seat” to validate a premium offering. Looking to appeal to gridlocked commuters? Highlight the productivity (or relaxation) that might be reclaimed by being driven. Bringing the fans home after the big match? Offer instant replays on the monitor to allow people to relive the game as they are driven safely home. The bars set by driving yourself and existing transit systems are fairly low — the key to a successful shuttle is finding a clear proposition for your passengers.
So what does this mean for the dense urban use case for dynamic shuttles? It might mean that this space is better tackled through collaboration with — dare I say it — the public transit authorities. After all, their objective is the healthy and efficient circulation of a city (revenue-neutral solutions welcome) and so they may be best positioned to subsidize this category of transport.
With congestion from single-passenger solutions on the rise, city authorities may find the impulse to partner up, rather than solve the issue by themselves. In the future, we may find that "premium economy" shuttle services, sponsored by public authorities with digital service partners, are the only ones able to successfully undercut Uber and enable the balance between comfort and efficiency.
Without a window into the inner workings of Chariot in its final days, it’s hard to know to what extent they shared these considerations, but efficient, on-demand shuttles are here to stay — they just have to find their path.