The Exeter City Futures challenge fund approach to making the Exeter area congestion-free is not for the faint-hearted.
Exeter City Futures (ECF) is a community interest company with a mission to make Exeter and the surrounding area sustainable for the future. Their first goals are to make the area congestion-free and energy-independent by 2025. Not much time then, so it’s good to see a concrete initiative coming forward.
ECF has just launched a specific challenge as part of the congestion-free goal. The website  states:
A group of employers based at Exeter Business Park have expressed a requirement for an alternative transport choice for commuting to their offices so they can reduce the number of private cars arriving at site.
We’re offering an amazing opportunity for an early stage start-up to develop and deploy a service that is as attractive and flexible as the private car and presents a viable and investable business model for growth.
Can employees travel to work via a responsive, on-demand minibus service? Can it take you from where you want, to where you want, when you want, all for the price of a bus fare?
Are you up for the challenge? If you have a concept that has potential to deliver a successful service, then apply now.
The website gives details of the support available to the selected concept, which is significant, including £15,000, a 17-seat minibus and lots of mentoring and access to data. The plan is that the concept is worked up into a saleable proposal (“incubated”), with the potential to scale up.
Now I’m far too relaxed to be pitching for this sort of thing myself, but it strikes me that the prescriptive nature of the invitation might be designed to attract only those who like a mission near-impossible (and why not?). In particular, why is a minibus service the preferred solution? It seems to rule out alternative packages such as a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS)  approach involving different transport modes and providers which could achieve the same goal, if the right partners could be found (though perhaps the idea of Stagecoach participating in a MaaS is a bridge too far ). Less elaborately, what about a simple behaviour-change model in which staff at the business park are charged for parking but receive a bus season ticket in return? OK, the half-hourly B bus doesn’t quite meet the “on-demand” requirement.
So, seen in that light, the minibus service outlined in the invitation is a worthwhile goal in its own right, however tough. If I were judging the final proposals – whether they’d been through the incubation route or submitted direct – I’d be looking for the following assurances:
- A business plan that makes use of smart technology to keep costs down and customer convenience up, so that the service offers a real alternative to the private car.
- A method of generating income that enables the operator to manage troughs in demand.
- An operating model that demonstrates reliability in the service, including the use of smart technology to maximise the efficient use of minibuses in line with customer requirements.
- Similarly, a model that demonstrates resilience: number of minibuses, responsibility for operating and maintaining the fleet.
- Non-exploitative employment conditions for staff and/or contractors.
- Regulatory issues identified and resolved, eg need to involve Traffic Commissioners, use of bus lanes.
- Potential to scale up so that large parts of the city would be covered by this transport model, which requires a good understanding of commuting and other travel patterns.
- Who other partners – customers and providers – in scaling up might be.
- Realistic assumptions about how many private cars could be taken off the road at each phase of expansion.
- And, as a prejudice of my own, the opportunity for developing a social enterprise rather than shareholder value business.
There’ll be other issues to resolve. It all sounds great fun, but also very hard work. Let’s hope the bright and savvy people out there will make a go of it. And congratulations to the Exeter City Futures team for generating the opportunity.
 For an explanation of MaaS, see http://maas-alliance.eu/
 That said, it’s encouraging to see Stagecoach South West moving in the right direction with the introduction of a smart phone app through which passengers can buy day tickets and just show them to the driver on the phone rather than scramble for cash (and delay the bus). Details at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/news/south-west/2017/january/mobile-ticketing-launched-across-stagecoach-south-west