The Rise of Transport on Demand in Low-Density Areas

In the transport sector, ideas, experiments, and research studies have been around for a very long time, but their implementation has been particularly slow, especially in the case of “transport on demand” (TOD).

Number of new TOD services created between 1970 and 2005

N.B.: based on service launch dates.
Source: Castex Élodie, Le Transport à la demande (TAD) en France: de l’état des lieux à l’anticipation, Université d’Avignon et des pays de Vaucluse, doctoral thesis in geography, November 2007, p. 159.

Unlike taxis, transport on demand is a form of public transport (in France), and is therefore the responsibility of local authorities, whether the service is operated directly or subcontracted to specialist partners such as the private companies Keolis and Transdev. A TOD service is always triggered by a user placing a booking; the journey can be shared with other users, like a shared taxi, but can cover different sorts of services:

  • a door-to-door service for people with reduced mobility;
  • demand-led service lines, with predefined stops and routes, and with either fixed or variable/flexible timetables, often allowing users from suburban areas to connect with traditional urban public transport points;
  • zone-based TOD services that can adapt the journey (both the departure and arrival points) to the user’s needs, within a defined zone limited to one or two streets away from the service’s main route.

The service is subsidised by the public authorities and is much cheaper for the user than a private taxi or private hire services (such as Uber). A doctoral thesis on the subject identified 615 TOD services (operated directly or indirectly by local authorities) in France in 2005, 27% of which were dedicated to a target public, mostly for people with reduced mobility. This study’s census is almost exhaustive, since the author estimates that only 10 to 20 services could be missing. The other 452 services are so-called generalist TOD services, meaning that they are open to everyone, although they are mostly limited to a certain geographical area, which is very often one of low population density. This thesis, which is admittedly now fairly old (defended in 2007), is the only retrospective assessment of what existed in terms of TOD services between 1970 and 2005. Half of the TOD services surveyed had a city centre as their destination.

In 2005, just over 7,000 local authorities (covering 20% of towns and villages in mainland France) had the use of a TOD service, but only half of these were dedicated to target groups. The city of Paris held the record for the total number of services: of its five services, three were intended for people with reduced mobility, and two general services (mainly intended for shift workers) aimed to connect people with airport hubs at night and at weekends. Since then, advances in GPS technology and the increased computing power of algorithms have made it po...