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MK Connect: The future of public transport or just a temporary measure in a pandemic?

by Kevin Mak | 8月 02, 2021

With the increase government spending related to the pandemic crisis, many local governments have had to cut public transport (mass transit) provision to both balance the books, but also to tailor investment to decreased demand.

In September 2020, Milton Keynes Council announced a £1.1 million ($1.5M) cut in bus services (serving 250,000 residents).  Like many local governments in the UK, it pays bus companies to operate on franchised routes.  Part of the £1.1 million cuts includes the termination of the Number 23 route and the reduction of the Number 7 service (to 9pm) that run close to my home. 

I chose to go the BrewLDN craft beer festival in London and that would preclude the use of my car.  With the lack of public bus running to the Milton Keynes Central station, to connect with the train to London, how would I reach my destination and how would I return home?  Instead of the prohibitive cost of hiring a taxi cab (approximately £10 / $14 each way), the answer lay in the MK Connect service, a publicly funded ride hailing service franchised out to Via, which continues to honour discounts for children and senior citizens.  Each journey costs £3.50 ($4.86) peak or £2.50 ($3.47) off-peak.

Like Uber and others, MK Connect is based on a smartphone application.  The user adds payment settings with one credit card account.  Locations can be set on the app, including your home and the destination, such as the railway station in question.  The app then calculates the availability of the nearest drivers, lets you know when it will pick you up and asks you to walk to the nearest “virtual bus stop” (approximately 50 meters away) to ensure the smooth flow of the vehicle to your pick-up, presumably to raise efficiency and reduce the time spent driving to the user’s home and to pick-up more passengers.  Ironically, my “virtual bus stop” is the actual bus stop that I would have taken, if the Number 23 bus route had not been discontinued.

The service was prompt and gives users the opportunity to see the real-time progress of the vehicle on a map.  The vehicles used in the service are conventionally-powered Mercedes Viano or Renault Trafic vans (with a fleet of electric vans coming soon), with a small MK Connect logo stuck on their sides.  Although Via has been franchised to operate the service, the app and the vehicles carry the MK Connect logo.  As with Uber, when the trip is completed, the app gives users the opportunity to tip the driver.  In keeping with the pandemic precautions, the user is advised to sanitise their hands and must wear a facial covering before boarding.  The issues I had encountered was the long wait going out in the morning and in identifying the licence plate of the vehicle picking me up returning home, with the driver apologising for this known technical glitch.

But what would the future hold for MK Connect?  On the one hand, it offers a more cost effective method of transporting citizens around a city, many of whom are not sharing the cost of a taxi between other users, and without the costly government outlay for a franchised bus route.  The vehicle I rode was not shared between different users, but the service said it does get shared with other users travelling in the same direction – but this could raise issues over the lack of volume to maintain the service.  Uber and taxi firms would claim that the more personalised service is unfairly competing against them on price, franchised to a competitor.  Either way, it could be argued that the service is only a temporary measure before the pandemic ends and demand for franchised bus services return, although the service said it is a result of “a long term change to the bus network.”

What are your thoughts?  Is this the future of public transport, especially if the vehicles were autonomously driven?
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