The rising role of the 'Community Driver'

Drivers of on-demand bus services, also labelled community drivers, have a very important role as ambassadors of the neighborhood. They are helpful to physically challenged commuters, responsible and trustworthy when caring for minors, and a key figure that brings a higher level of care to the dynamics of this new form of mobility.

Today we chat with Nicolás, an On-Demand Transport driver in the Can Barata neighborhood of Sant Cugat, Barcelona. Can Brarata was Shotl’s first DRT deployed operation and is still running today with high ridership numbers.

Working with transport operator Moventis, Nicolás (or “Nico” as his friends usually call him) was the first driver to join the Shotl project to test an innovative form of mobility. His charm and kindness have made him a favorite neighborhood driver and he has got to know many Shotl users personally.

Can you tell us how long you've been a bus driver, and how did you get the chance to test an On-Demand Transport operation?

Sure. I started back in 2015, driving for discretionary services: doing excursions, or going to touristic and popular places in or near Barcelona. Then, shortly after, I joined transport operator Moventis, and I was called for a new job, which at first I took as a bit of a joke when my boss explained it to me: they would give me a minibus and a tablet where I would get the pick up requests that users would make either via mobile phone or by calling directly to the Customer Support Center. I would also get instructions on the tablet that would direct me to the pick-up stops.

So, I started this job, thinking at first no one would pay a penny for that service. The route in Can Barata had never worked well and ridership numbers were very low. Then, little by little, things started to change. I recall the first year we started with 5 daily users. Then the second year we already had 20-30 users. By the fourth year there were 40-50. Now, we are in the fifth year of operations and we have about 50-60 daily users. We never go below 45 users. And that’s with a population of only 300 inhabitants. So the percentage is quite high.

Have you noticed any significant change in the neighborhood since you started driving with on-demand technology? How do residents use On-Demand?

First of all, neighbors have adapted very well to the service and I think they are very happy with it. Parents can rely on the bus and know their children will arrive at school on time every day.

Not only that, but there are also older people using the service. People in their 30s, 40s or 50s, who go to work in Barcelona, know they only need to request the trip and in just a matter of seconds they will get the precise time I’m going to pick them up. And as there is a connection with the railway station, with the same ticket people can get almost anywhere within the entire Barcelona area. It’s easy for them to do the math and see that for little more than an euro they can get almost anywhere, comfortably, without spending on fuel. The feedback I receive from the users is that the service is very economical and practical.

What’s more, all these people spread the word and have become the best advocates for On-Demand Transport. This has become somewhat of a “family” line: younger brothers and sisters start to use the service as they grow up, and also friends who hear about it. And, since it’s always the same driver on the bus, we are able to form a bond, which is a very positive thing. Everybody trusts that Nico is going to be there and I won’t let them down.

What kind of passenger uses On-Demand Transport? What kind of feedback do you receive?

When we started the line they were mainly young kids. Mostly from the age of 12 onwards, which is the age when parents begin to trust them to go alone. But now I also drive people who are 20 years old, 30, 40 or even older, who prefer to use public transport.

Recently, I even met an 86-year-old user who just downloaded the app a month ago and quickly learned how to use it. He goes every day to school to pick up his granddaughter so that his daughter can go to work without having to change shifts. This used to be a challenge for her, but now this elderly man tells me he takes some pressure off his daughter as she doesn’t have to rush to school anymore. He just requests a trip from the nearest stop to his home, with the confidence of knowing exactly when the bus is coming.

Experts often praise On-Demand Transport compared to traditional fixed-route-and-schedule routes. But, for you, as a first-hand connoisseur of DRT, is there any particular improvement or functionality that you would like to see implemented in the future?

When I joined the project, my company told me to worry about these details, that it was up to me to “humanize” the technology and make it work everyday better. I also talk often to users about it, but there is nothing I can think of, and they feel the same way. And, if ever there is something that doesn’t work quite as it should, the technical team finds a solution very quickly.

On-Demand is a very special service. It’s nothing like the typical bus that passes every hour. When you need a trip, or if you have an emergency, you make the request and there it is. What more can I say?

For the future? I am happy with the service as it is and users don’t ask me for anything different. If there is anything, I guess the technicians will surely identify and develop it, and I’ll be happy to test it.

Any personal or curious story that you want to tell us related to your experience as an On-Demand Transport driver?

Quite a few, indeed! For example, I was once driving to a stop to pick up a passenger, and once I got there suddenly he remembered he had forgotten his laptop at home. Since I had no other trip requests at the moment and therefore there was no rush, I told him to go and get the computer, that I would wait for him. That would be unthinkable on a regular bus line.

There are also sometimes some small mischiefs, especially with youngsters who have got to know me and have learned that if there are no other trips requests I will wait for them. Therefore they check the app and, if they see they are the only ones, they will take their time to get to the bus stop, but the moment they see a new request appear on screen, they’ll suddenly rush to be on time. When they get to the stop they apologize and say it won’t happen again, but I know they’ll do exactly the same the following day!

There are surely plenty of stories I could tell you!

And to finish: What 3 things would you take to a desert island?

Funny question! Well, I believe I would mostly be concerned about survival, so I would take a box of matches to be able to make a fire, an ax to make myself a shelter, and, finally, a machete for hunting. I wish I didn’t have to use it but I would need to eat.

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