Transport is an area in perennial evolution. We are witnessing a wide range of innovative ideas being put to practice to solve problems related to mass transit, traffic optimisation, reducing its environmental impact, and above all, looking after the needs and interests of the users.
On the one hand, we are witnessing a revolution in personal vehicles with a sharp rise in the availability of autonomous driving aids and a wide variety of more sustainable engines. Still, the lacklustre speed of urban planning has significantly increased congestion in built-up areas. This has forced eco-conscious young professionals to ditch the concept of a privately owned vehicle in favour of electric scooters and, yes, even public transport.
The exodus from urban areas
Public transport has become – once again! – convenient for moving from point A to point B. However, the corona pandemic has substantially hindered its growth prospects over the past two years. Public transport isn’t always available when needed or accessible from the desired location, reducing the comfort of opting for mass transit instead of a readily available personal car. The exodus of professionals leaving urban areas to take up residence in the tranquillity of the countryside has also been on the rise, somewhat altering the rules of the game for plotting mass transit schedules and routes.
Catching the bus from home to run errands in the city and returning at the earliest convenience can be a planning exercise in some regions. Local governments constantly need to understand the demands of the district’s commuters and find the optimal solutions for the perfect compromise. This is where demand-responsive transport aims to ensure that all stakeholder interests are looked after and dealt with appropriately by matching supply with demand efficiently.
Demand-responsive transport (DRT) is hardly new, as many countries have practiced this for years. The idea of mixing social transport with mass transit and all other available public transport has been taken one step further in Estonia, as the country the size of Holland and with only 1.3 million residents has areas where population density may hover around 7-8 people per square kilometre.
Three case studies of Estonian mobility companies
Known for its passion for e-solutions in every walk of life and its knack for innovation, Estonia has already produced several companies that offer DRT administration as an IT service. This article provides an overview of three case studies of Estonian businesses offering intelligent transport solutions designed to solve commuting issues in smaller communities. The defining edge of Estonian smart solutions has always been the user-centric approach to the task at hand.
Integrating payment solutions for social transport
Ridango is an international solution provider for public transport focusing on automated fare collection, payment, and real-time passenger information systems. Since its inception in 2009, Ridango has become the most proven account-based ticketing provider globally, knowing exactly where the future of ticketing will be.
Ridango set out to add social and demand-responsive functionality to the existing public transport ticketing system by creating new web- and app-based customer interfaces and developing route automation and task planning. The project was launched first in Pärnu county in mid-2021 and has already served over 1600 customers on 2200 journeys in October. The integrated payment system allows for multiple payment options for using the service, including regional travel cards, bank cards, cash, or even monthly invoices. The customers can order their transport via a web interface, e-mail, or phone up a dispatcher.
As the local municipalities provide paratransit services, their aim is obviously to increase efficiency to avoid careless spending of public funds. Rather than having to implement a separate account system for public and paratransit, the systems are integrated into one. This approach gives them a better overview of actual demand and specific cost numbers. Passengers are interested in improved quality of life and the service’s ease. And the reduction in empty or inefficient rides positively impacts transport sustainability.
Argo Verk, Ridango’s Sales Manager, believes that this user-centric IT solution can solve commuter issues in areas of reduced population density.
Accessibility by demand is the future of commuter transport
Modern Mobility is developing digital and dynamic mobility systems to create a mobility ecosystem for communities. As a Mobility-as-a-Service provider, Modern Mobility aims to combine the first and last miles of social transport journeys. As essential services for paratransport users tend to be provided in larger community centres, their objective is to offer mobility for everyone because public transport networks may not be optimal for all users. The overall goal of DRT is to use one vehicle to serve many passenger segments, ranging from the elderly and school students to commuters and tourists.”
Pirko Konsa from Modern Mobility says demand-responsive transport is crucial for regional competitiveness.
Modern Mobility’s software is currently used in Estonia’s second-largest city, Tartu. Their application can handle the breadth of the complete service – from accepting the orders via a dispatcher or the app to checking on resource availability to task management and route planning. All payments are handled through the app with the help of a credit card or a payment link. The client needs to enter the place of pickup, destination, date, and time. There is no specific route, just a system-generated trajectory ensuring everyone is looked after according to their demands.
The application is particularly beneficial for the transport provider, i.e., the local municipality or its authorised partner. It gives the perfect overview of transport usage and helps plan routes and pick-ups based on actual demand.
Toyota provided the cars
Modern Mobility is also managing a pilot project on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia, where a county-designated transport operator is acting as the local partner. Toyota provided the cars for the duration of the pilot project, but all other costs incurred were covered by the local government. Currently, the focus is on two streams of service – paratransit and commuter traffic between the Sõrve peninsula and the regional capital of Kuressaare.
Konsa is convinced that DRT will be a competitor for public transport in the long run, as there is little sense in maintaining a bus network of 70-seater vehicles in very scarcely populated areas. “Accessibility will be the defining keyword for everyone in the future – demands will change, but updating the routes to meet demand in real-time will be a challenge. There’ll be a new route plan every day, but certain routines will still be covered. The underlying idea is to consider all the different needs while reacting promptly to changes,” states Konsa.
The startup’s value prop to the world is to offer a cost-efficient and flexible transport solution where rides can be booked virtually in real-time. Modern Mobility aims to keep the booking time as close to the actual departure time as possible to synchronise DRT with public transport schedules eventually.
How to solve the last-mile service conundrum in smaller communities?
Auve Tech stands for AUtonomous VEhicle TECHnology and was born out of a joint venture between Silberauto and TalTech (Tallinn University of Technology). In the current context, they are the actual last-mile service providers, as their autonomous shuttles operate for up to 8 hours on one charge, and their safe speed makes them ideal for serving the last mile in smaller urban communities.
Auve Tech does not aim to design and manufacture autonomous vehicles for the highways and main roads, focusing instead on solving shortcomings where current solutions do not favour giving up private cars and offering an extension for public transportation. “We focus on areas where urban planning is leaning heavily in favour of private vehicles, and public transport connectivity isn’t sufficient for getting passengers to the doorsteps of their destinations,” explains Auve Tech COO Mari-Ly Klaats.
A car-free zone
Auve Tech recently engaged in a pilot project at the Ülemiste tech city near Tallinn Airport. The goal was to try out different possibilities for converting the urban hub into a car-free zone. The setting was ideal for a micromobility try-out, as the community holds hundreds (if not thousands) of eco-conscious tech firms in various office buildings scattered across a vast area while connected to all other modes of transport around the perimeter – including air, rail, bus, etc. Auve Tech’s autonomous shuttle was attached to a DRT demand app, allowing the campus residents to travel effortlessly from one area to the carpark or the canteens area.
Mari-Ly Klaats says that their autonomous bus acts as an integrator supporting the public transit network, connecting the passengers with central transit hubs from confined areas such as resorts, airports, zoos, campuses, etc.
These autonomous buses have already seen their fair share of action beyond Estonia. Auve Tech’s buses have been tested in Finland and Poland, for example – altogether in ten different countries. In Finland, the buses served the Vuosaari peninsula near Helsinki, connecting the peninsula’s tip with the public transport stop along the main road. The trial in Gdansk in Poland proved to be particularly popular at a local cemetery, transporting the elderly between the main gates and the graves of their loved ones.
Auve Tech’s primary advantage over similar competitors lies in the speed and complexity of the development process, as everything from design to manufacturing is handled in-house. “We have no aspirations of stepping on Google’s toes any time soon, but we take immense pride in the quality of our workmanship and the flexibility of our innovative thinking,” concludes Klaats.
Commuter transport needs urgent and smart solutions to tackle the climate crisis
Maarja Rannama, the CEO of smart mobility collaboration network ITS Estonia, says that mobility is still one of the few remaining sectors where CO2 emissions are increasing instead of decreasing.
“This is why we need rapid changes in how people move around – and be smart about it. The only way to achieve designated climate targets is by making every new commuter mobility solution as comfortable and fast as using a private car,” says Rannama. “Regardless of their age, location, or health condition, every person should be given the freedom to move around conveniently without having to own a personal vehicle.”