An innovative bus service promises a trip from “A to B like a VIP” for £5, so long as you are prepared to travel only when enough other people want to do so.
Snap claims: “We are the world’s only travel service that gets better, the more popular it becomes.”
This “coach-firm-that-isn’t-a-coach firm” provides marginal journeys at marginal cost, chartering in spare capacity from local operators.
“The customer generally gets a better quality of service,” said the chief executive Thomas Ableman. “They get a coach and driver that do a lot of touring work, which scheduled coaches don’t.”
Snap provides for aggregated demand rather than predicted demand.
This it is at odds with the standard model for public transport in the UK and many other developed countries, where services are run regardless of take-up.
On the railways, the Department for Transport prescribes a level of service that train operators must provide; and rival coach firms such as Megabus and National Express publish a schedule and then try to sell enough seats to turn a profit.
These enterprises must run the service even if no-one is onboard. Besides the financial cost, the environmental damage is considerable.
Because Snap coaches run only when there is sufficient demand, it makes a relatively green form of travel, the bus, less harmful to the planet.
The start-up began with one pioneering route between London and Nottingham, with fares as low as £2 for 125 miles. The lowest fare has since increased to £5. The maximum is £17 – though, says Mr Ableman, this applies only on “a very busy day at a very busy – at such times, all other options are charging considerably more”.
In the first three months of 2019, Snap carried more than 500 passengers per day, on a network that connects London with Leicester, Nottingham, Bristol and Cardiff. It also runs from Oxford to Bristol and Birmingham.
The traveller’s experience relies on smartphones. Passengers register their interest in travelling on a particular route on a specific date.
Snap predicts demand from past form and will operate only services it is confident on filling. On the Cardiff-London route, for example, only weekend services are currently running.
Once a booking is confirmed, the passenger can track the bus by smartphone as it approaches the stop. Many of the stops are in parts of cities not normally served by long-distance transport, such as the Clifton area of Bristol and Toton, at one end of Nottingham’s tram service.
From the perspective of a medium-sized coach firm, Snap is an appealing prospect. Like so much in travel, the fixed costs are extremely high: a smart, new bus can cost a quarter of a million pounds, and excise duty and insurance add thousands to the bill, whether the vehicle covers one mile or 100,000 during the course of a year.
The bread-and-butter of many coach firms is contract work, whether for local authorities or private companies. Snap offers incremental revenue with very little risk.
As the operation expands, route planning is based on aggregating travellers’ data to “crowdsource” new pick-up points.
Mr Ableman says: “We want to show that coach travel can be the best way to be an inter-city journey rather than just another National Express or Megabus.”
The Snap chief executive says that the operation could even transform hitch-hiking – by providing a cut-price option if no ordinary lift is forthcoming.
“There’s no reason why a hitch-hiker couldn’t flag down a coach digitally.”