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/ Reading: 7 min.

28. Jun 2023
/ Germany
PERSPECTIVES from Dennis Schöne
Two years ago, the city of Gronau in the Münsterland region completely switched its scheduled bus service to a tariff-integrated DRT concept. Since then, the so-called G(ronau)-Mobil has been operating 130 stops flexibly and after pre-booking, significantly more than its predecessor “StadtBus” (“city bus”). But how do the services catch on with the population and shouldn’t DRT services complement existing scheduled services, not replace them? We asked one of the facilitators of the G-Mobil: Dennis Schöne, who works in the traffic management of Regionalverkehr Münsterland GmbH, the service’s operator.

On June 1, 2023, the G-Mobil turned two. How is it going and what has happened in the last two years?

We are very satisfied with how the service is currently running and how it has developed. We started with a few hundred passengers per week and have been transporting around 1,600 passengers per week for a year now, sometimes over 1,700. According to a survey, many of today’s passengers used private cars before, but now largely do without them. The increase is also related to the fact that the service area has been greatly expanded after seven months. In the beginning, we served the previous operation area of the “StadtBus” with similar service hours. In January 2023, the area was expanded to include three central bus stops in the Epe district, the “BürgerBus” (“citizen bus”) is still responsible for the coverage of that area. In addition, we have extended the weekly operating hours by more than 50 percent and increased the use of vehicles. Recently, however, service hours were reduced a bit due to low demand.

In the last two years, we’ve learned that establishing a DRT service isn’t something that you plan up front and then it runs on its own. On the one hand, with such a new form of transport, there is a lack of experience to achieve the best possible result from the start. On the other hand, DRT is dynamic. This means that operations can be continuously optimised through the experience gained and through the feedback from drivers and passengers. In contrast to scheduled bus services, which cannot deviate greatly from the regular route and usually have to adhere to fixed schedules, we have repeatedly made minor adjustments to the G-Mobil over the course of time.

For example, based on customer feedback, we have subsequently set up several virtual stops and in some cases moved them to more suitable locations. There were minor changes in the use of vehicles or, as was the case recently, in the service hours, because the demand was not distributed as we were used to from the “StadtBus” due to the development of new customer groups. Passengers asked for the stops to be numbered on the signs and in the app and to be named and identified differently depending on which side of the street they are, so that non-users of the app can clearly identify them at any time.

These are all developments that would not have been necessary (and usually not possible) regular scheduled bus services. This makes DRT a lot more complex. At the same time, this new form of transport offers enormous potential to meet as many mobility needs as possible.

Usually, DRT services complement scheduled services, but in Gronau, the G-Mobil replaces the former “StadtBus”. Why did you decide to do this and would you do it again?

Yes, we would definitely do it again. This is shown by the fact that the politicians unanimously decided to establish the G-Mobil as a permanent urban transport service, despite the higher costs without the support of subsidies. Before the pandemic, around 1,100 passengers used the “StadtBus” every week and we were already able to achieve these numbers before the expansion of the service.

In fact, the pure numbers are not what makes the transport more attractive, but the significantly higher quality. Previously, it was only possible to reach certain parts of the city once every hour. If you wanted to go from west to east, for example, you had to change at the train station. Many passengers were forced to use the service, but always had to be prepared for a long journey and a change. With the G-Mobil, journeys within the entire city area are possible at any time, without changes and fixed departure times. Sometimes you have to be patient or plan your journey early to get a G-Mobil at your preferred time, but our passengers are happy to accept this relatively small obstacle.

From a conceptual point of view, we decided to operate the city as a whole right from the start. The eastern commercial area was previously not operated by the “StadtBus”. The situation has improved enormously for commuters. When it came to the use of vehicles, we have drawn on the experience of projects carried out by other transport companies. To be honest, we did not expect that the demand for the G-Mobil would suddenly be at its highest during the off-peak times of the “StadtBus”. Therefore, with the expansion of the area, we decided early on to operate five instead of the originally planned three vehicles during these times. This shows that we have been able to attract new customers to public transport with this new service.

In May 2021, the G-Mobil was featured in the daily news and thus became known beyond the city borders. Did this influence the use of the service?

In fact, the feature in the “Tagesthemen” (one of Germany’s main daily television news magazines) had no noticeable influence on the number of users of the G-Mobil. However, at that time there were probably hardly any citizens who did not know the product yet. Since the G-Mobil, along with the “BürgerBus”, makes up almost the entire public transport system in the city and the vehicles have eye-catching stickers on them, it is hardly possible not to know about them.

However, we had the impression that the feature ensured that the G-Mobil was better known cross-regional and created a positive perception. At the beginning, there were some voices, among others from experts, who were rather sceptical about the product. They could not picture the complete substitution of a scheduled bus service by a DRT service. I believe that the feature and other articles have greatly improved the perception and that we have been able to convince many sceptics of the concept.

The G-Mobil can now also be booked via web browser. Why was that important for the city of Gronau?

Web booking is not mandatory in Gronau, but it is a good addition to the existing booking methods. In addition to the app booking, we offer booking by phone call, which is used by about 10 percent of the passengers. The G-Mobil is used by many older people who do not have a smartphone, so alternative booking methods are unavoidable. With web booking, we offer passengers without smartphones but with internet access an easy way to book and manage journeys themselves without having to go the rather complicated and time-consuming route via the call centre. Unfortunately, we do not yet have any feedback on how high the percentage of web bookings actually is. However, we assume that we are offering at least a small percentage of our passengers a good alternative.

The G-Mobil has now been funded for two years by the “mobil.NRW Modellvorhaben innovativer ÖPNV im ländlichen Raum”. What will happen in the future?

The funding for the G-Mobil ends on December 31, 2023, so we have been considering for some time how we will continue in the future. Unlike supplementary services, which are common in many regions, as a primary public transport service, the G-Mobil has a completely different significance. A return to the old “StadtBus” model would not have been easy. We are all therefore especially pleased that the decision has recently been made to permanently establish the G-Mobil as the successor to the scheduled city bus after the funding expires. This is a great success and an important sign that DRT services can indeed be an important component of the mobility turn.

What we ourselves did not expect was that the decision-making was centered exclusively on the question of “how” and not “if”. None of the decision-makers considered the option of moving away from the DRT system. In the end, the G-Mobil will continue unchanged, with a potential expansion being discussed in the long term.

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