Zeelo: Safer public transport for a strong recovery in 2020

Sam Ryan, co-founder and CEO of Zeelo, shares with routeone details of measures to protect users of its services – and an action plan to help its operator partners make a strong recovery as the lockdown eases

In the pre-coronavirus COVID-19 world, Zeelo was a bus sharing company providing transport to locations heavily served by private cars.

Its mission to cover dedicated coach routes that encourage people to leave their car at home came through partnerships with local coach operators across the UK – and with most of these routes implemented as private services through companies or for schools, many quickly became redundant as workers began to set up offices at home and schools closed.

Co-founder and CEO of Zeelo says that experience has certainly sharpened his mind. But rather than focus on the losses that came from the pandemic, Zeelo recognised the small percentage of its clients which still had critical workers to transport, and how to adequately protect them. It began researching a way to adapt its existing technology to provide a safe mass transport solution to its remaining essential services.

“The biggest challenge during lockdown was that public transport was trying to adapt and become safe,” Sam explains. “It’s difficult adapting a network quickly to make it safe – plus, public transport capacity across the country was being reduced.

“We still had a fundamental need to transport critical workers, so adapted our booking technology to implement capacity management on each vehicle.”

Zeelo’s booking platform leads users through its website or a mobile app. Passengers must pre-book a seat and this way Zeelo has been able to implement onboard seating plans to enforce the two-metre social distancing rule.

“It’s both a job for technology, and for physical changes,” Sam adds. “We still block off seats to make sure social distancing is enforced.”

Further physical distancing is made possible through contactless ticketing, saving drivers further risks by scanning tickets. Centre door boarding has also been implemented where possible.

“Beyond the technology we have rolled out a number of agreed operational processes with our operator partners to make sure we create as safe an environment as possible,” Sam adds. “This includes the use of driver personal protective equipment and additional sanitisation of the vehicles.”

Discussions of further measures such as air filtration and temperature checks for passengers show how Zeelo is exploring every avenue to ensure safe services.

Zeelo partner Greys of Ely
Zeelo’s operator partners have been actively working to implement social distancing measures

Zeelo technology keeps passengers safe

From these changes Zeelo quickly realised it had in its hand an anonymised log of which passengers were travelling with other passengers and drivers. It essentially had a ready ability to contact trace, so that in the event that a passenger or driver presents with symptoms Zeelo is able to notify other users who have travelled with them that they have shared a vehicle with someone who now potentially has the virus.

“We’ve pressed forward with building out the technology to enable that contact tracing. We’re calling it the safe bus transport offering.

“We’ve picked up for a number of companies including our existing clients who see a need to provide safe transport for their staff.”

Zeelo has ensured adherence with GDPR in its contact tracing processes and key to protection of passengers is that the booking technology passes no personal information on. Anonymised information is sent via emails, SMS and push notifications to other users warning them that they may have had contact with the virus should a fellow passenger or driver present with symptoms.

The safe bus transport offering has proved successful during the lockdown, Sam says. He also believes it has produced a modest lifeline to keep some elements of Zeelo’s operator partners; fleets moving during what has been a difficult time. Next, he says, is how to support operators during the recovery phase.

Zeelo - contactless
Zeelo believes adoption of digital technology will be accelerated by coronavirus COVID-19

Plan for recovery

Zeelo continues to build its technology offering to monitor additional measures put in place through its driver app, which every driver of its partner operators are given and trained with. Additional checks implemented remind the driver to ensure surfaces are cleaned after every voyage and notices are placed inside and outside of vehicles to encourage social distancing.

The response from the company side and from essential workers has been positive. “We’re lucky in the sense we’ve been able to adapt quickly – the technology was turned around in 48 hours,” Sam explains. “And we work with such a great set of professional coach operators that were able to put additional measures in place to make this happen. We’re even more excited about the impact we could have in the next phase.”

Zeelo is taking the safe bus transport offering, including the technology and additional operational process, and working it into a three-point plan to support a recovery phase. Mistrust in shared transport will be one of the biggest barriers to overcome. “The biggest risk of the next phase is that everybody returns to private car use,” Sam says. “The three-point plan will support the public transport sector and the companies we serve, but will also serve coach operators in need of significant work.”

Stage one of the plan will see Zeelo continue to deploy dedicated commuter and safe school bus transport services. Where a company or educational establishment requires a dedicated private safe transport service Zeelo will use its partner coach operators to deliver them, just as it has been doing during lockdown.

The second stage, covered recently in routeone, is a realisation that in order for coach operators to safely reopen services, social distancing and contact tracing must be rolled out. Zeelo is offering it free to a number of operators to reopen services as quickly and as safely as possible. “As the schools start to reopen and corporate commuter routes resume, we hope that can be helpful to support those operators we work with already – and hopefully attract a new set of members of the industry.”

The initial response on that message has been equally positive, and at time of writing Zeelo says it has had well in excess of 20 mid to large size coach operators express their interest in using it. That number is increasing hour by hour, and if successful Zeelo will extend it further should operators want to use the software to make bus transport even safer.

Zeelo Marshalls
Zeelo’s recovery plan focuses on safe transport, adoption of technology and use of reserve coaches to support capacity crunch at peak time

Finally, Zeelo is beginning conversations with the Department for Transport as well as a number of public transport operators to tackle the issue of mistrust in shared transport use. Anticipating a crunch in peak time capacity on public transport Zeelo is looking into its safe bus transport solution software to be deployed on public bus services at peak times to enable social distancing and contact tracing. Zeelo will further support that capacity crunch by acting as a platform for local authorities and public bus operators to access excess coach capacity to reinforce their networks at peak times. “It’s crazy to me that we could have thousands of coaches sitting in yard across the country which could be put to good use supporting peak time services,” Sam says. “Through our operations platform we want to support coach operators as a conduit for public bus operators and LAs to access that capacity.”

Zeelo strongly believes the changes made to its software will last and support its operator partners in the long term. “We’re going to be living with this virus for quite some time, unfortunately,” Sam says, “and we in the mass transport space must think about measures for the long haul. This technology and the new operational measures will alleviate public mistrust.”

Shift to digital

A further opportunity lies in coronavirus COVID-19 acting as a catalyst for a shift towards digitisation. “We’ve been discussing it for some time, but this might be the habit changing event to force through that change,” Sam adds. “The client-facing experience for many operators remains offline. But if we move online, the experience we can provide passengers is better, the data we collect about our services’ performance is better, and we can create a more efficient and sustainable experience overall.

“We have to look at coronavirus COVID-19 as an opportunity – and those who try to adapt quickly could potentially do very well in the future.”

Of course, operational processes of coach and bus remain only one part of the solution. Wider societal changes – such as a focus on active mobility, better infrastructure to support public transport, cycling and walking are all necessary to curb future reliance on private car use, particularly as the message from government is now one to avoid public transport – a drastic change from the optimism of £5bn in funding announced earlier in the year.