Is Demand Responsive Transport the Future?

Demand responsive transport (DRT) is seen by many as the future of public transport. It ensures that only services with demand operate on a daily basis via a demand response service which is different to how traditional bus services operate.

The current planning, contracting and operating models are simply not fit for purpose if we are to build a world where we utilise public transport to the highest levels of convenience and efficiency to meet the needs of future passengers.  This is opening up a whole world to digital demand responsive transport through the use of cutting-edge technology and apps found in transport software such as Road XS.

What is Demand Responsive Transport?

types of community transport services

Although the term demand responsive transport sounds extremely technical you don’t need to worry. All it means is that instead of booking your journeys long into the future, you are now just reducing the gap between booking a journey from say 48 hours in advance to 20 minutes or even less on the same day.

The route, times and service then respond to the demand on that day.

It means you are offering flexible routes and more of a demand service than static services seen with timetabled routes.

This type of route service means that now we can receive real-time updates on the journey we are choosing to take at a time we want to travel.

It is not something which is groundbreaking at its core. It’s really about the merging of traditional forms of transport such as taking a taxi or public bus and putting these two concepts together.

When you think about it, it makes sense and is definitely a more attractive service for passengers.

From a fixed route bus perspective, imagine the bus arriving at the bus stop only to find that there’s no one there. If you knew in advance you might be able to take a more direct route to the next stop on the trip, and in the process reduce fuel usage and your carbon footprint. From a passenger perspective, you get to travel when you need to and you can adapt your day around a more personalised service.

If you need an additional vehicle (or feeder service) your services will all link together.

Providing Access to Services

Demand responsive transport is an emerging technology in community transport, public transport and commercial service and aims and further widen social inclusivity and community connections.

It operates slightly differently from conventional services by providing flexible routes. This personalised level of transport service enables the ability to fully optimise your existing resources.

This includes your vehicles and drivers to ensure your increased passenger demand can be met. It also involves ensuring your staff are readily equipped with streamlined workflows and processes to work stress-free in order to deliver a real-time service. This can also help reduce driver costs as it keeps people on the road for longer and means your essential services keep running and with optimal routes, your fuel costs can be reduced too.

The potential for demand responsive transport services and responsive services is vast. Imagine not needing a car, simply renting your next seat in a demand responsive way. This could reduce congestion in the cities and towns at peak times in the future and ensure you’re not waiting around at the bus stop in the cold or rain. Demand responsive bus services also mean that you can link journeys together without needing to jump in a car or hail a cab. Enter your arrival time and this type of service takes care of the rest.

Due to the constraints placed upon public sector finances from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is now more emphasis than ever on ensuring transport efficiencies are met along with value for money both for the public and stakeholders of any transport service. This is why DRT is seen as a solution to replacing conventional bus services in the longer term when fixed-route services are not always efficient.

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Assisting Transport Operators

DRT is seen as the future as it can help reduce costs and adapt to passenger demands in real time. This is useful in rural communities in that it can provide flexible routes and better support integrated community transport services too.

With a dynamic service, for example, community transport operators can reduce their workload as a lot of the emphasis on booking journeys is placed back upon the passenger selecting a convenient time for them usually via an online booking. This can provide greater access to services and a more dynamic and efficient route too.

Flexible Bus Services

Running a demand responsive transport service ensures that only services with demand operate on a daily basis. If there is no demand, there is no need for the service to run in a particular area.

After all, what is the sense of operating a vehicle that just passes through an empty bus stop? DRT allows passengers to ride services which suit their personal requirements a little more like private vehicles or taxi services and provides flexible bus services to meet those demands (sometimes known as a flexible service).

The thought of responding this quickly to a passenger request can sometimes strike fear into any transport manager, but the reality is, that this is where technology plays its part. It reduces the burden and workload required to meet the needs of the passenger. It streamlines 80% of your services so you only have to focus on 20% of the passenger’s requests.

The technology is working on your behalf to generate flexible bus services and is doing the thinking for you. You are simply providing the information it needs to calculate the demand response service. This can support a commercial bus operator by increasing passenger footfall within designated transport zones and keeping essential services running that otherwise might be operating at a loss.

How do you do this you might ask? You simply support your service with intelligent demand responsive transport software such as Road XS. Transport software such as this uses time slots, GPS tracking and time slack to instantly calculate the next best route in a few mili seconds.

Demand Responsive Transport Innovations Have Led to Bus Registration Changes

In 2004, regulations in England and Wales were changed for bus service registration and bus-operating grants. These changes allowed for the registration of fully flexible pre-booked DRT services. An example of such a service is LinkUp, which only picks up passengers at ‘meeting points’ or virtual bus stops, but can drop them off at their desired destination.

The Greenwich Association of the Disabled previously developed a prototype service called GAD-About. It offered pre-booked door-to-door transport for its members. This service was inspired by the use of minibuses in church and youth clubs.

The Problem DRT Solves

bus usage statistics the need for demand repsonsive transport


In 2019/2020 the number of local bus passenger journeys fell by 238 million (5.5% to 4.07 billion years ending March 2020. Whilst some of this can be attributed to the first national lockdown bus companies reported that they were seeing declines across their services in the preceding weeks leading up to this.

Most bus journeys prior to 2020 still occurred in London. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores, 50% of the London bus network was often operating at full capacity. Even with demand-responsive transport factored in, this number is still forecast to rise post-pandemic and this is why so much focus is being placed on efficiency and assessing demand.

A rapid rise in demand moving forward into 2023 and beyond could also see a rise in the cost of energy, which is more expensive to maintain than the traditional diesel bus which currently supplies London with most of its bus services.

The introduction of fuel-efficient buses is also not keeping the same pace with the demand from the commercial car market with drivers seeing their cars increasingly equipped with hybrid capabilities and increasingly, fully electric vehicles already.

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london bus usage london demand responsive transport


The Demand Responsive Transport Solution

Though the future is largely uncertain, it’s clear that it’s time for a change in how we use and run our transport services moving forward.

Innovation is often labelled as expensive and often linked to start-ups, which can be seen as a roadblock in high-volume, low-profit projects that require traditional financial incentives.

However, the current planning, contracting and operating models are simply not fit for purpose if we are to build a world where we utilise public transport to the highest levels of convenience and efficiency.

Simply put, demand-responsive transport is better for passengers (which has been our primary focus from day one at Road XS), but that’s not all that demand responsive transport is good for. It is also better for:

  • The environment and taxpayers.
  • For cities more efficient land use increases space for housing and retail which then, in turn, becomes more accessible.
  • Reduces the financial burden on taxpayers.
  • Reduces congestion.
  • Reduces air pollution.
  • Reduces vehicle emissions.
  • Reduces road accidents.

How Demand Responsive Transport Works

Typically, demand responsive transport works as follows:

  • A passenger will enter a date and time they require a journey (which could be on the same day).
  • A local service will show up and suggest pickup times for the passenger (the more fleet vehicles available the more times on offer).
  • The passenger will be given a time window for pickup.
  • The passenger selects a time window and is confirmed on the journey.
  • The route is modified and updated without interfering too much with the existing passengers on the route.
  • The passenger is sent updates about their trip and the location of their vehicle.
  • The passenger is picked up within their time window and taken to their destination potentially dropping off and picking up other passengers on the route along the way.

Demand responsive transport is something of a hybrid of two existing transport systems. The vehicles used for such service are geared up for demand, meaning that they’re electric or fuel-efficient to run at certain times of the day to meet demands set by the passengers. The journey times are dictated by the number of people waiting at a particular stop, while some buses are set to only operate when needed for more specific time-driven scenarios, such as for medical appointments and require more time slack in their scheduling.

The simple premise to demand responsive transport is simple to understand. It is simply this, why run transport services when there is no demand?

Conventional bus routes are often designed with no consideration for time. Buses are often not scheduled for demand; they are on their own timetable. So, what is the point of a bus that only runs during rush hour if there is no demand? If you ever take the bus to work, you either get to your destination very early or by your return have to wait for an hour longer than if they had driven you to work. The structured timetabled approach just isn’t convenient enough for most to be cajoled from using their cars.

Demand Responsive Transport Technology

derbyshire on demand

Managing demand responsive transport services is complex. Too complex for anyone to do manually on a spreadsheet. There are just too many variables such as pickup points, arrival times, maximum transit times, delays, optimised routing, passenger loading times and more. All of this can be calculated in a moment with a demand responsive transport software such as Road XS.

Here’s a snapshot of the technology you’ll find in Road XS:

Time Windows and Passenger Loading Times

A time window changes the game. If you were getting a taxi such as via uber or a personalised service you’d request to be picked up on the dot at 10 am. That’s a given. Because there is only you. When you factor in 25 to 50 other passengers either on the same vehicle or on the same day, every working aspect needs to be taken into consideration for each of the passenger’s personalised needs.

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For this reason, we use time windows. Time windows are a ‘chunk’ of time that the vehicle will arrive by. This ensures that if one stop is running slightly late, the time can be made up at the next. It ensures passengers have a realistic time frame to be available and ready to go.

In Road XS we also calculate the passenger loading time within these time windows to keep the journey flowing. This is very similar to how deliveries work, you’ll receive a time window for your package delivery. However, people aren’t parcels so it’s important to treat people right and that’s something we’ve designed at Road XS.

Transit Time

Unlike a parcel, people can only stay in a vehicle for so long. A parcel can stay there all day not getting cold or hungry. For this reason, in Road XS you can set the max transit time for a passenger. This means that when they are on the vehicle for longer than their set time, the route accommodates this and will drop them off at their destination sooner. We calculate this for all passengers too so you don’t end up with one passenger on for 4 hours and others just on for 20, it’s all calculated to their needs.

Time Slack

Time slack is something we use to allow for the best possible route to be calculated. If time becomes too rigid the routes become too complex even for computers to fit in. Routes have to be realistic. You can’t get from London to York in 20 minutes so they have to be realistic. Our time slack technology sets the boundaries to what’s possible based on the locality of the service running. This means that you can tweak the system to meet your needs whether it’s local transport or national.

GPS Tracking

To be fully demand-responsive you need to know where your vehicles are. We include a driver portal which has GPS tracking built in. This means you can see on a map where your vehicles are in relation to the next stop. This allows your passengers to know where the vehicle is in the local vicinity so they can book their trip via the passenger portal. If it’s possible to do so, the route tracking software will then re-route. If not, it will suggest the best time for the pickup window so the passenger remains informed.


We’re in the middle of a massive shift in how we access public transport. Since the rise of smartphones, public transport services have been transformed from being a medium for the non-motorised to becoming a communal space for the use of all those on the move. Our environment is changing, not only due to climate change but also because of how technology is changing our lifestyles. This is making people more mobile and increasingly willing to choose an alternative form of transport if it’s the cheapest and best value for money. It is up to us, the public to demand that public transport becomes truly responsive to our mobility needs.

In this article we have covered:

  • What is demand responsive transport
  • The benefits of demand responsive transport
  • The technology driving demand responsive transport forwards
  • How it can replace conventional taxi services
  • How it can reduce the update of limited services
  • How it can support transport authorities
  • How DRT can provide flexible bus services
  • How DRT assists in keeping essential services running more efficiently
  • How driver costs can be reduced
  • How it could also fit into a wider national bus strategy

At Road XS we have spent the last few years building the only demand responsive transport software that meets the needs of the public, but also the needs of those with mobility and social requirements not covered by standard commercial services. We not only consider required arrival times but also capacity, loading times and more to personalise the services to the passengers using them.

Find out more about the future of transport with Road XS.



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This article was updated:

Apr 5, 2023 | Insights