On-demand urban mobility and real-time information
Real-time passenger information quick fire Q&A with Jarrold Ong of SWAT Mobility
Did you join our recent webinar PUBLIC TRANSIT: Get more passengers on board with real-time information? Not to worry if you missed it, you can watch it on-demand or catch the quick fire Q&A interviews with our panelists in a snappy 10 minute read.
In this blog we meet Jarrold Ong, CEO & Co-founder at SWAT Mobility in Singapore. SWAT is building next generation urban mobility solutions for the future smart cities with demand-responsive transport technology.
Thanks for joining us Jarrold, can you please introduce yourself?
We are a Singapore based mobility start-up backed by two of the largest public transport players providers in Singapore, SMRT and ComfortDelGro.
I have always been drawn to tech start-ups there is something magical about creating something from nothing. Five years ago we started to build SWAT, we believed that efficient transport is a fundamental right and our mission is to improve the way we commute, ease congestion and improve quality of live through the use of demand responsive ride-sharing technology.
You are in an incredibly exciting position can you tell us more about your journey so far?
We started 5 years ago when on-demand transport was new, especially in Asia. We launched and operated a consumer service against heavyweights like Uber and Grab. It was Asia’s first on-demand bus service and we had the tagline ‘Speed like taxi, price like bus’. We gathered important data and operational experience to develop the algorithms that today hold several world records in the most well-known industrial benchmarks in this space.
We then noticed that most travel is commuting and wanted to get closer to the source, so last year we started developing solutions for employee transport. We now work for the large corporates and industrial developers in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines to aggregate demand and improve commuting for employees. We are now looking at consolidating employees from different companies to further optimize services.
We are getting closer to extending our vision to other verticals such as non-emergency medical transport, schools and logistics. Ultimately, we want to aggregate demand across entire cities. It does not have to be passenger transport it could be a parcel. What is the best way to move these things efficiently?
Today we have operations in six countries, mainly in Asia where we see some of the worse congestion.
What does it take to make these services a reality?
The entire business model of on-demand mobility is founded upon passenger centricity, along with efficient transport and improved quality of life. There are four pillars to our solutions:
High capacity pooling: It is not just about pooling a few people into a taxi but dozens of people into big buses.
Dynamic routing: Systems able to adapt to different demand patterns and do not follow a fixed route.
Maximize occupancy rate and minimize vehicles used: Moving passengers as efficiently as possible.
Autonomous vehicle (AV) ready: The system is designed to work as AV, and we hope they become very ready soon.
High capacity pooling with dynamic routing that adapts to different demand patterns cannot work without real-time information. Ride hailing companies have raised the bar for commuters and they are now starting to have the same expectations for public transport.
How important is accurate passenger information in your world?
As you can imagine, a solution like ours cannot work without accurate real-time information.
We have invested considerable effort in achieving the optimal accuracy. This involves two parts: predicting what might happen in the future using historical data from various data sources together with the real-time situation like a tree falling or a traffic accident. It is quite hard to get these two things right, but our service depends on it.
For on-demand services there is no fixed schedule. The user is waiting on the roadside, if the vehicle does not turn up or is late, it would be detrimental to them using the service again. Even early is bad for us because we are trying to pull many people together on dynamic routes and if we are early to one stop it is a poor experience for people waiting in the vehicle.
Furthermore, people become less concerned about wait times when accurate ETA predictions are available. They can plan around the arrival times and decide to stay on at the office or go for a drink. This does not compute in their head as part of the overall journey.
How are you shaping multimodal journeys in your cities?
We have been looking at filling the gap in areas where ridership was low and therefore costly to provide service levels that meet commuter standards. When doing multimodal planning we need accurate ETA to ensure the hand off and transfer is seamless and pleasing for the user.
SWAT Mobility is seeing a lot of interest in journey planning for multimodal trips, but the industry is still figuring out how to share the data between different services, especially newer on-demand services that do not operate on fixed schedules. Real-time information is also vital for aligning demand between service providers.
Are on-demand services sustainable?
Most public transport is subsidized and very few make a profit, so the question today is ‘Is on-demand services more cost effective than other forms of public transport?’. It is still early days in terms of adoption, but we are very close to seeing some deployments become as cost effective as fixed bus routes. There is a lot more potential for it to far surpass this over the next few years.
What on-demand project outcomes can you share?
We talked earlier about the network effect and a 1-3 month adoption rate. We have been running some of these services for 6-12 months and still some people do not know about them, it is hard to reach out to the full population.
On the LTA project we learnt that service planning and awareness is extremely important for the success of these new services. It was definitely a challenge for us to get it right, but we were able to achieve some of the goals we set out to which were shorter journey times because you don’t need to stop at every stop and can take more direct routes.
If the road network is flexible, with different routes between A and B, then on-demand services can take the most efficient route which results in lower mileage. Also, buses wait at the terminal until the bookings come in and so there is less wastage in terms of empty buses driving around during off peak times when people do not need to travel (like fixed route). This was another good outcome of the project.
On-demand services were on the rise, what impact has COVID had?
There has been delays on some projects, but cities are now reopening. We have seen a surge in activity, and a top priority for governments is to review past assumptions because travel patterns have changed. Transport systems as they were may not be efficient anymore, and so how do they adapt?
We are seeing new opportunities and challenges. Our on-demand transport service with Toyota Mobility Foundation in Thailand and Philippines provides safe and convenient transport for frontline workers. We are looking at how they can reopen and get their staff to the office safely.
How do you think the return to ‘normal’ should be approached?
In Singapore, the government has said that it is not possible for public transport to operate at half capacity. The system cannot handle the volume at half capacity, and lower ridership equals lower fares which is not sustainable in the long run. The guidance now is for safe management instead of safe distancing. Everyone must wear a mask with other measures such as discouraging people to interact with each other.
However, in the meantime while ridership has not returned to pre-COVID levels, we have adjusted all services to operate at half capacity. We track occupancy levels due to the booking system we use. When we are planning and optimizing, we make sure that all passengers can sit a seat apart and I think we are going to see more emphasize on preventing overcrowing on public transport. People find it stressful and uncomfortable on overcrowded buses at the best of times, the pandemic has heightened this.
Real-time information systems will play an important role in telling passengers how full a vehicle is – it will be crucial in gaining back trust.
What do you see the future of on-demand mobility evolving?
I imagine a future where everyone finds the perfect convenience to price point. The perfect journey as a commuter with access to all that information is a dream for me.
Another vision is about efficiency gains and aggregating demand. If we could figure out where the supply and demand is, we can optimize to get everyone moving more efficiently. How many vehicles on the road are optimized?
I think this is a step in the right direction to solving some of the congestion problems in the mega cities in Asia, the congestion is unbelievable. COVID has slowed us down but we are seeing activity pick back up and return to normal.
I am excited to see where this will go. The trajectory we were are on is not sustainable and COVID is an opportunity for us to change. Some of those conversations have started and it is a very exciting space right now.
Back to the topic on hand, I believe that real-time information will enable all of this, it can bring us a more resilient and sustainable future.
A huge thank you to Jarrold for giving us a view into his world and for his valuable insight. Hear the full discussion, now available to watch here.