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Alternatives to the car: models for local transport in the country

For rural people who rely on local public transport, the connections can be a nuisance. The operators are faced with a dilemma: Due to the limited supply, the buses are often barely occupied, but the demand is also not great enough to expand, as a spokesman for Regiobus Hannover explained. This is one of the reasons why new services are being tested in Lower Saxony: small Sprinter buses similar to Uber taxis, bookable via app, without fixed departure times and sometimes without stops.

The so-called Sprinti has been on the road in the Hanover region since June 2021. The 20 green vans will be tested in and around Wedemark as well as Sehnde and Springe. So far, the operating company Regiobus has been satisfied. In June 10,000 passengers were carried, in July and August 15,000, in September 17,000. Regiobus spokesman Tolga Otkun said the Sprinti was accepted unusually quickly for a public transport service.

The idea behind the concept: a more flexible offer in the morning and noon, between the large numbers of passengers in the morning and afternoon when the school and work commuters are on the way. For this purpose, users can book a Sprinti car via the app. This then stops at a maximum of 200 meters from the passenger. There are thousands of virtual stops for this in the communities. They are calculated based on the destinations and corresponding routes of the other passengers. In technical jargon, the concept is called “Ridepooling” because several people are gathered for one ride (“Ride”) (“Pool”). The prices for the journey are the same as in the regular bus. This is where the offer differs from private-sector competitors such as Uber or Volkswagen Moia, which are currently particularly geared towards Hamburg.

The offer is only an addition to the regular public transport, said Otkun. Booking a Sprinti car is therefore only possible if the planned trip cannot also be served by a regular bus. The offer is to be extended to other municipalities around Hanover in the future. First, however, teething problems have to be eliminated, said Otkun: “Sometimes the demand is too high and there are not enough places in the Sprinti. We are also working on a better link with the departure times of the S-Bahn.”

In Göttingen, researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Dynamics and Self-Organization have developed a similar concept. Ecobus also has the right not to take any passengers from the existing bus network. Before each booking, an analysis is therefore carried out to determine whether a bus is available, explained Ecobus mobility manager Michael Patscheke from the MPI. This is to prevent the traffic on the road from increasing unnecessarily. In densely populated metropolitan areas, ride pooling concepts are generally not useful and not necessary, said Patscheke.

The Göttingen researchers therefore initially tested their model in Bad Gandersheim (Northeim district) and in the Upper Harz Mountains and are now using it in the Leipzig area under the name Flexa. The experience there is so good that the operation has now been set up permanently and is to be expanded. “We have developed the algorithm to such an extent that the system can now also be commercially out-licensed at other locations,” said Patscheke. The researcher is convinced that the Ecobus model can mean that people in rural areas no longer need a car.

These local transport models are not entirely new. Taxi buses or shared call taxis have existed in cities or in the country for many years. However, there are concrete advantages over the known models, says Regiobus spokesman Otkun. On the one hand, ride pooling is not tied to fixed stops such as taxi buses. In addition, unlike shared taxis, which are often operated by private taxi companies, there are more seats and more vehicles available. After all, it is a specially purchased fleet of minibuses. Finally, the digital component is decisive: “The algorithm ensures high efficiency – short waiting times, fast connections, short distances.” According to Otkun, users and the environment would benefit from this.

A project in the Braunschweig area called Flexo is still in its infancy. It relies on a slightly modified concept with real, fixed stops instead of virtual stops. In addition to the 770 existing bus stops, the fleet is to head for 200 additional stops. In a first sub-area in the Gifhorn district, the operation of the 10 million euro project has been tested since September. Ten additional pilot areas will be added from December 12, 2021.

The corresponding app should be ready in early 2022 and 32 specially built minibuses in purple paint are expected to go into service in the first half of 2022. Other small vans are used temporarily because the actual vehicles could not be manufactured in time due to the lack of semiconductors.

In Braunschweig, too, the motto is not to take anything away from existing local transport. The flexo buses are therefore used as cross-connections between the rigid bus lines, with the start and destination stops always fixed, said Kristin Kunath, spokeswoman for the operator of the regional association for the greater Braunschweig area. Appropriate software should link the ad-hoc connections with the regular service and thus enable seamless transfers. A regular local transport ticket is required to ride in the barrier-free eight-seater.


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