All aboard the Uber bus, as Sutton starts a 12-month TfL trial

A ‘demand-responsive’ bus service has come to south London, and TOM BOWELL, pictured left, got on board to put it to the test

Transport for London has recently begun a 12-month pilot of demand-responsive buses in Sutton.

Like Uber mini-cabs, or Lime e-bikes, the bus service is based around a smartphone app, although bus rides can be booked by phone via an operator.

TfL has teamed up with ViaVan, a leading ride-share operator in Europe and the United States, and Go-Ahead, the largest bus operator in London, to trial the viability of demand-responsive buses in London, and they are working with Sutton Council to ensure the service suits the needs of the borough.

The service is known as “GoSutton”, and operates across much of the borough, seven days a week from 6.30am until 9.30pm, using a fleet of eight low-emission Mercedes-Benz minibuses, run from Go-Ahead’s Sutton bus garage.

Each trip costs £3.50, with a £2 supplement for accompanying users, making it more expensive than the £1.50 regular bus fare, but much easier on the pocket than any taxi service. Freedom passes are also valid but must be registered. Users under-13 must be accompanied.

Cheaper than an Uber, more expensive than a bus, GoSutton is trialling its ‘responsive’ mini-buses for the next year

Due to the short-term nature of the pilot, the service has not been integrated into the main Oyster ticketing system.

When I popped out to test ride the service, I was lucky in having received a leaflet earlier in the day with a voucher code for two free rides.

After downloading the app, I logged my details and booked a ride – from Belmont Station to the Goat Pub in Hackbridge, a little less than four miles. I was told that I would have a four-minute wait for my ride, and an ETA at my destination of midday.

Bang on time, my minibus turned up, and I received a friendly first-name greeting upon boarding, and sat down in one of the comfortable seats ready to enjoy my trip, along with a nice “new bus smell”.

Meandering around some of Sutton’s residential streets, the ride was smooth and brisk, with me as the sole passenger for the entire trip. It is early days for the service, though, and as other people become aware of GoSutton buses’ existance, this may not always be the case.

We arrived at Hackbridge, slightly ahead of schedule, the journey having taken around 15 minutes. Throughout the ride, I was receiving frequent texts regarding my journey, and on arrival I even got a text to tell me we had got to the end of my journey and reminding me to pick up my belongings.

The areas of Sutton covered by the demand-responsive bus service, and the possible expansion area, which would take it closer to the Purley Way and Croydon tram stops

Overall, I was very impressed.

I have tried other demand-responsive services and had mixed experiences. This service however, was in a different league. The app was easy to use, the arrival quick, the pick-up point in a good location, the ride smooth and comfortable and the service from the driver and operator friendly and efficient.

Tom Bowell had a GoSutton minibus to himself for his four-mile journey

Demand-responsive buses could play a big part in reducing our obsession with environmentally damaging cars in outer London while improving connectivity for local areas. However, other issues around the financial strength and operational efficiency of these services will need to be addressed before they are sustainable.

Sutton has been chosen for the trial due to its high car usage, and low population density, which has made it difficult to serve using conventional public transport methods.

At present, the GoSutton pilot includes most of Sutton borough, with the exception of North Cheam and Worcester Park – while in a later phase it will be extended to include Beddington, Roundshaw and the Valley Park retail area off the Purley Way.

TfL have also since announced they will team up with bus operator RATP and German ride-share business MOIA to pilot a similar service in Ealing, a further test for the possibilities of demand-responsive buses.

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