Although many city-dwelling Britons agree that access to reliable public transport is one of the best things about urban life, across the whole of the UK, 87% say they wouldn’t use buses, even if they were free.  Despite the environmental benefits, public transport – especially for long trips – just isn’t convenient or cost-effective enough. Start-up Zeelo hopes to disrupt the coach sector by providing cheap transport where and when people need it.
“Public transport is antiquated,” says Barney Williams, co-founder of Zeelo. “If you look at local bus routes, you have buses running every five minutes and they have no idea what demand will be like. We want to show how you can use data to predict when there will be demand.” 
Instead of sticking to a rigid timetable, Zeelo provides coaches only when demand necessitates. The company – backed by CoachHire.com and partnered with Rotala PLC, which operates the Wessex bus service in Bristol – uses big data from Google searches and third-party providers to list popular routes.  “Through data we can see which routes are going to be commercially viable, so we put those routes up at those times,” explains Williams. The company then advertises these routes to various audiences – from football fans going to an away game, to music fans heading to a festival, or university students travelling back to school. 
Public transport is antiquated. If you look at local bus routes, you have buses running every five minutes and they have no idea what demand will be likeBarney Williams, co-founder of Zeelo
The system may seem complex, but visitors to the Zeelo website are greeted with a familiar interface. “We sell per seat, [and] the booking flow is like a typical Trainline booking system. The front-end looks like we sell tickets, but on the back-end we are working with multiple coach operators to get a good price,” says Williams. 
Zeelo launched in Bristol in 2016, and currently has access to a network of over 20,000 vehicles. “Zeelo originally targeted students, but we've since split our service into two, and there will be a third,” says Williams. “Zeelo Uni is purely about getting students back to uni at the start and end of term. Zeelo Live provides coach seats to matches, gigs and live events. And we are planning to work with airports and airlines to monitor demand from various flights and [get people] back to their home town.”  Yet with 97% of Britons saying they wouldn’t switch to the bus on current public transport systems, convincing people to ditch the car may be a tough ask.  Can Zeelo help remove some of the negative stigma attached to coach travel?
Delays and crowded trains are common gripes about public transport
Alexander Lyubavin, Creative Commons (2014) ©
Over 550 National Express coaches run on Britain's roads every day, ferrying around 19 million passengers every year. But thanks to leaking AC, uncomfortable seats and restrictive timetables, long-distance bus and coach travel has gotten a bad reputation. Megabus, for instance, scores a measly 2.5 out of ten on Trustpilot, and according to one YouGov respondent, National Express “stops everywhere so it takes forever to get anywhere. A friend of mine who uses them regularly describes them as National Distress!”  Zeelo aims to offer a more luxurious trip and adheres to “executive coach standards,” says Williams. “They are comfortable, have Wi-Fi, air con, leather seats and room for luggage.” 
An uncomfortable ride isn’t the only factor preventing Britons from hopping on board; cost and convenience are issues too. “Public transport is far too costly for most, and people are more willing to invest in a reliable vehicle to keep them mobile,” says James Hind, founder of online car dealer Carwow. Mark Pearson, senior digital reviews editor at Autocar, adds: “At its core, personal transport offers families privacy and security, as well as adaptability. It goes where public transport cannot, and at times to suit the owner.”  By becoming more adaptive, public transport could be more appealing; 48% of people in the UK say they’d consider swapping to a bus service if it ran from near their home to their place of work.  One of Zeelo’s USPs is that it picks passengers up from where they’re based. “We don't necessarily pick up people from the centre of town. If they're students, we'll pick them up from the student areas, or if they're football fans, then we'll pick them up from the areas that they live,” Williams says. 
Personal transport offers families privacy and security, as well as adaptability. It goes where public transport cannot, and at times to suit the ownerMark Pearson, senior digital reviews editor at Autocar
Going direct is not only convenient, but it also means Zeelo can keep costs low. “A good example is if you take the journey from Bristol to Cambridge, which is a route that’s popular with students,” explains Williams. “Currently, for them to get home, they have to go into London via train or coach. And then they have to go across the Tube and get another train out to Cambridge, which takes about 4.5 hours and is pretty expensive. With us, we pool that demand and go directly from Bristol to Cambridge, which takes less time and costs less and means you don't have to lug your luggage around London.” 
Sn-ap is another start-up that similarly lets passengers choose their pick-up point and destination. Based in Nottingham and launched in October 2016, it markets itself as "akin to Airbnb because we match people who want to go places with coaches that otherwise wouldn't be used,” says CEO Thomas Ableman. Coaches only run when there’s enough demand, allowing you to book a preferred trip ‘that’s still building’ and a ‘confirmed back-up trip’ to ensure you make it to your destination. Currently focusing on routes from Nottingham to London, in the first two weeks more than 600 people used the service, with single tickets costing £3 to £4.50. 
Does Megabus deserve its bad rep?
Eddie, Creative Commons (2017) ©
Insights and opportunities
There are numerous negative associations around public transport; a 2013 survey showed that the main reason for avoiding buses was because travelling by car is easier and more convenient (cited by 46% of British respondents).  These niggles were voiced by regular commuters Canvas8 spoke to; “I dislike crowded buses and trains,” says Mary, 36, from London. “Everyone’s rammed on. It sometimes takes forever and you feel like you are paying for service, and so you should get it.” Simon, 42, from Manchester, hates the fact that they are “never normally on time. The bus I get comes once an hour, and it’s nearly always late. I find that more frustrating because it is quite expensive too.” 
Zeelo is looking to tackle pain points including overcrowding, inconvenient pick-up and drop-off points, and expensive tickets; ‘‘We’re cutting journey times by 40% and our service will be significantly more stress-free than the alternatives,” says co-founder Sam Ryan.  But focusing on the positive environmental impact of coach travel could also be prudent considering that coaches have the lowest carbon footprint of any motorised intercity transport, and each coach removes the need for 30 cars.  Climate change is viewed as the third most serious issue facing the world according to a YouGov poll of 17 nations, and 65% of British public support the new Clean Air Act. 
Zeelo’s use of big data means that the start-up straddles both the public transport and on-demand private taxi sectors. “We're a hybrid of National Express and Uber. Our direct service and our flexibility of supply means we can offer longer routes, but the way we pool demand and tailor routes for football fans or festival-goers means we're running a more tailored service for different communities,” says Williams. 
Our direct service and our flexibility of supply means we can offer longer routes, but the way we pool demand and tailor routes for football fans or festival-goers means we're running a more tailored service for different communitiesBarney Williams, co-founder of Zeelo
Michael Kodransky, global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, predicts public transport will become more tailored in 2017; “Historically, transport networks have been focused on going through a city or town centre. Going forwards, we’re seeing a movement to understand what people actually need and what they’re already doing locally, and responding to that, rather than forcing them into certain types of systems. More cities are doing route analyses and appreciating where the population clusters and job clusters are.” 
Although Zeelo currently operates long-distance journeys, could the model be applied to local bus routes? “We think it probably can,” says Williams. “We know that eight o’clock in the morning will be rush hour, so we can give that data to bus providers to ensure that efficiency is there, and not run every five minutes throughout the day, which a lot of bus companies still do.” Its aspirations to disrupt the sector appear to be working so far; a trial in Bristol scored the company a 9/10 Trustpilot rating, and its service will be rolling out across the UK in 2017. 
Jo Allison is Canvas8’s editor. Previously, she worked for retail trends consultancy GDR, where shopping was part of the job description. When she’s not getting her head around the quirks of human behaviour, she’s busy ‘researching’ the latest food or fitness fad.
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