In 2016 we launched the ShareLab Fund with a call for ideas that made use of collaborative digital platforms to create social impact. We selected eight pioneers who we’ve been working with closely over the last year and a half. Now the process is coming to a close and we’re starting to review the progress made and the lessons learnt. We’re going to be publishing updates as they come along and will wrap things up by collating our findings into a formal set of observations and recommendations.
The HappyCT project was selected for funding as community transport seemed just the kind of under-utilised resource that could be successfully unlocked through technology. Led by Ali Clabburn, founder of Liftshare, the UK's largest car-sharing platform, this was judged to be a great idea and backed by a highly credible team. The project focused on how they could use their expertise and SaaS (software as a service) platform to help make community transport more accessible for those in need, as well as enabling a more sustainable model for providers by filling empty seats.
Things didn't quite work out as planned but the experience and insight gained is invaluable.
Here, CEO Ali Clabburn [AC] and Project Manager Jules Staples [JS] share what they have achieved so far, their key learnings and next steps for the future.
AC: Liftshare is a mission-driven social enterprise with a belief that many of the world’s mobility problems can be solved through sharing. While our primary focus for the last 20 years has been on helping individuals share cars to work, we’ve also developed a number of award winning tools and services to support other modes of sustainable transport. Community transport was one area we’d not worked in before but it had many similarities with what we do.
Community transport (CT) forms an essential part of our mobility mix however it needs to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the marketplace in order to stay relevant and viable. The rapid pace of change in some areas of the mobility market over recent years has highlighted the massive latent demand for providing personalised, demand-based, affordable services.
Whilst there is so much to love about the community transport sector, it has been very slow at embracing new ways of working.
The rise of loneliness in the UK is linked to transport poverty; the inability for many people to get out and about and engage in conversation with others on a regular basis. Often this happens as people are isolated in rural areas with little access to transport, or find transport too expensive.
And the problem is increasing - according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, with over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over living alone, 17% of which are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% less than once a month. Community transport is run by amazing people across the UK, but many are reliant on volunteers and community groups. Hence, budgets are tight and providers work very separately on delivering a service, so individuals are not always aware of the range of services available to them.
We saw an opportunity to make a difference; to use the knowledge we had gained from 20 years at Liftshare to increase awareness of the community transport services available, whilst increasing occupancy levels (currently they run at less than 20% capacity) and utilisation of the vehicles themselves.
JS: We identified three main challenges that needed to be overcome:
We started with solving the technical challenge of surfacing CT services in online journey planners.
AC: While we did not manage to achieve all that we set out to do in the project, we did learn a lot and are keen to share our lessons with others.
The areas of lessons learnt fall into various categories. In particular, we learnt about:
During the project there was a shock announcement about new legislation that required CT operators to hold a public service vehicle (PSV) licence. This change prevents CTOs from operating services under less onerous Section 19 and Section 22 permits. There was concern across the market that the changes would add significant cost, paperwork and limitations on many CTOs – and many of these are small operations that simply did not have the resources, capability or desire to handle the changes. The shockwave from this announcement impacted the whole sector and we found that there was very little interest in focusing resources on new innovative solutions.
One surprising insight was that the nature of the funding regime, whereby funds were not guaranteed from one year to the next, meaning that operators were surprisingly nervous about promoting their services and driving up demand when they were not sure if they would have the funds to meet that demand in the future. Additional passengers appeared to be seen as bringing additional costs rather than bringing extra revenue.
Developing a service that enabled flexible CT services to appear in online journey planners has helped open up the possibility of including other flexible services such as taxis, work place transport, and school transport into online tools. This is potentially an exciting area for us to explore further. Many of the other lessons learned will be helpful in continuously improving how we undertake future projects.
When we estimated the time and resources needed we understood that there would be a margin of error due to the nature of working with a new service in a new market. We identified a number of potential risks but had not expected so many of them to be realised or for so many new ones to crop up. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have either limited the scope of the original plan or to have increased the budget to enable us to throw more resources at it.
JS: Now that we have the tool in place, we’re going to continue engaging with existing and new organisations where community transport is an important factor when it comes to travel within the community. Having completed user testing, we’ll also look to advise operators on how they can best engage with their target audience.
We’d also like to review the requirement to develop the Liftshare notification tool to let operators share seat availability with users so we can track and map capacity planning. This could then evolve into enabling users to use the Liftshare booking tool to book and pay for community transport seats online. The intention is to reach out to our wider local authority client base and explore how they could benefit from the software and website widget. Longer term, there’s the potential for all community transport providers to be on the platform, so we will be able to support those in need on a national basis.