Smart Solutions

Citizen Bus Scheme

A non-commercial on-demand shuttle service for rural communities.

Implemented inAmt Röbel-Müritz

Country : Germany

What’s the solution?

The Citizen-run Bus Service is an on-demand transport service, using voluntary local drivers and  operated by a non-profit association – called a citizens’ bus association - made up of local stakeholders, including local mayors, interested citizens, the district government, and the regional public transport operator.

The association purchases the required vehicles – typically including minibus or people-carrier size vehicles to cater for larger groups and also favouring electric vehicles where possible. The association also recruits local drivers, who make themselves available on a voluntary basis and live in the villages so that they can really serve spontaneously when called. Although under no obligation to be available at any given time, the volunteer drivers can still be rewarded financially through an honorary flat rate or sometimes employed in a ‘mini-job’ scheme.

Local people can book a journey using a telephone booking service or through an app. Journeys can be booked for door-to-door trips between any locations in the region as well as for making connections with the standard public transport network – particularly for onward travel to major cities. Many passengers are thus travelling intermodally, as they use both the on-demand service and the main public transport network for their journey.

People booking the journey do not have to pay. The costs are born by the citizen bus association. However, it is up to the users to give a voluntary donation for a ride, which some people tend to do.

The service can connect even the most remote villages to the public transport network, or between each other, enabling potentially isolated users to have improved access to good, services and social connections. This includes access to shops, leisure facilities and public services/administration – as well as with friends and relatives living in other villages.

What makes it smart?

This initiative is smart because:

  • it reduces the heavy dependence of the rural population on individually owned cars as the main means of transport and thus contributes to the ecological sustainability of passenger transport in the area by means of a shared economy approach,
  • it enables those who cannot easily use private transport to remain mobile in the face of an increasingly thinned-out public transport offer in the region, and thus contributes to the quality of life in villages that are not or only insufficiently connected to public transport,
  • it contributes to economic and social sustainability by helping villagers who cannot or do not want to use an own car to access services and goods available in the wider area and to maintain social contacts,
  • it strengthens social responsibility of the citizens by complementing the existing public transport system through a non-profit model of citizen-operated passenger transport.
  • it combines well established technology tools (telephone booking) with modern tools (smartphone app) to adequately cater for the communication needs of different service user groups.

How is the solution implemented?

  • Find out as precisely as possible what problems local people have in getting from one place to another, and how serious they consider these problems to be.
  • Join forces with others who see the current situation as a serious problem and jointly find a sustainable organisational structure enabling to work on these problems over a longer period. Think about how you can inspire as many people as possible for a longer-term commitment.
  • Jointly develop ideas on how a citizen-run transport service could be designed in response to locally prevailing conditions. Enable all those involved - let them be citizens, staff of the local administration or politicians - to acquire the necessary competences and skills to plan and implement a citizen-run transport scheme. If necessary, seek professional expertise and advise.
  • Seek funding to set up and maintain such a transport scheme over a longer period.
  • Develop a detailed implementation and business plan including all aspects that require consideration (vehicle purchase and maintenance, financial planning, legal/regulatory requirements, service operation by voluntary drivers / staff, communication with users, etc.)
  • Develop appropriate measures to promote the citizen-run voluntary transport scheme among the target groups and to motivate volunteers to support it on a permanent basis.

In what local context has it been applied?

The district of Röbel-Müritz is in the so called Elde area (the area of the headwaters of the Elde River)  in the south-west of the Mecklenburg Lake District in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Located about halfway between Berlin and the German Baltic coast, it covers an area of 570 km². A total of 18 smaller municipalities and the town of Röbel/Müritz belong to the district.

There are three public express bus lines serving the Elde-area and also two railway stations - one located in Waren and another one in Wittstock – allowing onward travel to large cities such as Rostock, Hamburg and Berlin. But these stations are not well connected to many of the villages in the region. In view of the low capacity utilisation of the public bus system, it is not economically feasible to provide all villages in the region with a public transport service beyond an existing school bus scheme.

Therefore, most residents rely on the private car as the main means of transport. Those who cannot easily use this means of transport, such as many older people not owning a car or younger people without a driving licence, are significantly limited in their mobility. This has a negative impact on the quality of life in the disconnected villages and, not least, makes them unattractive for young families with children to move in.

Commecrially offered taxis services are too expensive to rely on them on a more frequent basis and online ride-hailing apps are restricted in Germany.  In addition, the heavy reliance on private transport has negative environmental effects. A solution was sought on how to reduce the dependency on private transport despite an increasingly thinned out public transport offer.

Who was behind the implementation?

  • 10 mayors of the Röbel-Müritz district and beyond came together with the shared aim of revitalising public transport at the expense of motorised private transport.
  • The Competence Centre for Rural Mobility (KOMOB - Kompetenzzentrum Ländliche Mobilität) in Wismar, located about an hour away by train, played a leading role in the conception and implementation of the initiative. KOMOB is registered as a regular company, but with limited profit-making intentions.
  • A strong commitment of local communities and pro-bono support by individual villagers enabled a gradual learning and development process over several years.

What was the local journey?

  • In 2015, a declaration of intent was formally adopted by 10 mayors in the Elde-Spring region to join forces for developing practical transport solutions for their villages. The aim was to provide direct supply of public transport options to all participating villages (beyond the existing public school bus scheme), including access to two stations on the main railway network.
  • In initial discussions, it soon became clear that such an ambitious endeavour could not be put into practice without further expertise. Contacts were established with the Competence Centre for Rural Mobility (KOMOB).
  • After an initial phase of ad-hoc cooperation, the process of consultation and collaboration was systematically organized by KOMOB according to the living lab methodology (Reallabor-Methode). Through this process, an initial concept was developed of shuttle services co-designed and operated by local communities to connect individual villages with the existing public school transport system. Additional local solutions were also envisaged to account for different needs and available resources, such as bicycle parking spaces at bus stops and village buses or villages taxis driven by volunteers.
  • A steering group comprising of KOMOB, the participating mayors and interested citizens was set up. A partnership with the district government was also established. Meetings were held monthly. Implementation of the overall concept was planned over five years, with financing principally from the municipalities' own funds and from regional funds for the district's public transport system – supported by ad hoc project funding from state, federal and EU programmes.
  • KOMOB successfully applied for funding under different programmes, and new aspects were added to the overall design according to the requirements and opportunities available under the different funding calls. For example, the use of an electric vehicle was built into the overall concept in response to a call under green energy. Additional expertise was brought in under specific projects, e. g. for developing a business plan (covering vehicle purchase and maintenance, financial planning, legal/regulatory requirements, service operation by voluntary drivers, communication with users, etc.). However, the service development process relied heavily on local communities and individual villagers who participated on a pro bono basis.
  • Building on the initial momentum, a non-profit “Citizens’ Bus Association” (CBA) was founded, comprising of the mayors of the participating villages, interested citizens, the district government, and the public transport operator (MVVG). The CBA developed and operationalised the “ELLI” citizens transport scheme, having purchased used micro-vehicles, a used family van, a used minibus, and a new electric van. These are driven by locals who make themselves available on a voluntary basis and live in the villages so that they can really serve spontaneously when called. They are either rewarded through an honorary flat rate or employed in a so-called ‘mini-job’ scheme in accordance with national labour regulation. A web presence is maintained for informational purposes only.
  • A telephone line is operated for service bookings – also manned by volunteers. There is a single mobile number which can be called from Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 5pm in order to request a ride. Alternatively, requests can be submitted by email. Calls are routed to the volunteers.
  • An ‘area permit’ was obtained from the transport authority, granting a concession to the CBA for the operation of three transport lines to fixed stops of the local public transport operator (MVVG). Legally speaking, the volunteer transport service was thus formally integrated into the public transport system and only authorised the citizen association to pick up people at home and bring them to the next bus stop – a ‘last mile’ service. In return, the CBA was reimbursed for the real costs it incurred in operating the service - nothing more, so that the system remained non-for-profit-oriented according to public transport regulation - another precondition for being legally considered as a part of the public transport system.
  • In March 2018, the three CBA managed transport routes were opened. However, the formal integration of the volunteer on-demand buses into the public transport system placed high organisational demands on the CBA and the volunteer drivers, e. g. with regard to ticket management and the legal requirement to guarantee passenger transport in a defined area was also difficult to meet. Over time, it also became apparent that passengers increasingly disliked using the volunteer call buses merely as a shuttle service to cover the "last mile" between their home and the public transport provider's stops. More and more passengers wanted to use the volunteer service to get directly to their destination. In addition, the civic association came under financial pressure when one vehicle broke down.
  • In the end, it was decided to remove the legal integration of the service into the public transport system. Instead, the “ELLI” citizens transport service is now operated as a pure neighbourhood service outside the scope of the Passenger Transport Act. Although costs can no longer be reimbursed to the citizen association from the public transport budgets of the public administration, this allows for a more flexible handling of travel times and area coverage. Legally speaking, the voluntary service is no longer part of the public transport system. Due to the non-for profit-status obtained, the voluntary service does not need to comply with all the legal requirements on commercial transport services, which are highly regulated in Germany).
  • Due to the organisational detachment from the local public transport system the operation of the service is now dependent on private donations since incurred costs can no longer be reimbursed under the public transport ordinance. The district has announced partial funding, but this has not yet been formally agreed.
  • Nevertheless, the flexible, on-demand service has continued to grow. Recently, a mobile app was purchased to enable service booking for technology savvy users such a younger people.

What have been the main outputs & results?

  • Although the continued operation depends heavily on the commitment of the volunteer drivers, today, the “ELLI” citizens transport scheme is operated in 12 local communities throughout the Elde area. The shuttle service is available Tuesday to Friday from 09:00 to 18:00 excluding public holidays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, people can call a specific number and register their journey.
  • The system is managed by the citizens bus association, whose membership is made up of interested citizens and the mayors of the participating villages. Currently, the non-for-profit association has 56 members, including volunteer drivers.
  • There are currently around 7 drivers available.
  • The service makes regular mobility offers available and accessible to those who are unable to drive their own car for age, health, or material reasons and for whom the local public transport lines are not sufficient (too far away, too infrequent etc.).
  • The enhanced mobility offer applies to citizens in their capacity as consumers, but also in their capacity as users of public services, for example in the healthcare sector or in public administration. Overall, access to services and goods has been improved for people in underserved areas.
  • Since the service started to operate outside the public transport system as a door-to-door on-call transport scheme, passenger numbers have been steadily increasing. Approximately 150 rides a month are currently carried out, with seasonal fluctuations.
  • Up to now, the voluntarily operated on-call transport service has primarily been utilised by older people. As a next step, children and young people shall be increasingly targeted – something which should be facilitated by the newly developed mobile App.

What does it bring the village/community?

  • The availability of a mobility offer away from the few remaining public bus lines improves the quality of life in the affected villages by increasing access to a range of goods and services. This in turn increases their attractiveness as a place to live even if a private car is not available. In the medium term, this could counteract outward migration to areas closer to the city in the Elde region.
  • By increasing access to goods and services, including leisure activities, the service not only benefits local consumers, but can also benefit local shops, cafes and other businesses who can reach more customers. This can hope to create new opportunities in the area.
  • The opportunity to maintain or strengthen social contacts and community and citizen life is also increased, thereby reducing the risk of social exclusion in villages with poor or no public transport connections and increasing civic participation – for example in local elections or other community events.
  • Positive ecological effects can also be achieved, e.g., if families can do without buying a second or third car.

What’s needed

Financial resources

Main types of cost:
Financial needs:

Set up/Investment costs: EUR 82 000, covering:

• Personnel costs for experts involved in the service development process.

• Acquisition costs for vehicles.

• Set-up costs for telephone the booking services.

• Acquisition costs for a mobile app.

Ongoing costs: EUR 25 000 per year, including the investment /depreciation costs for the cars.

Funding received:
HiRegion project - funding from a national programme of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research67,000 €¾ staff position, 1 electric car
HubChain project – funding from a national programme of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy20,000 €Development of the app, some running costs
Donations20,000 €Additional running costs

Human resources

• Technical expertise on rural mobility issues.

• Knowledge in stakeholder engagement and consultation processes.

• Interested citizens and mayors of participating villages to manage and run the service – through a citizen bus association.

• Volunteer drivers.

• Volunteers to man the telephone booking service

Physical resources

• Vehicles: people carriers/family vans/minibuses etc.

What to do…

  • Start with a thorough problem analysis spelling out locally prevailing mobility problems and related impacts as precisely as possible.
  • Seek collaboration among citizens, politicians, relevant administrations, and existing public transport providers.
  • Make efforts to enable capacity building (relevant knowledge / skills) among citizens and other stakeholders involved so that decisions can indeed be jointly taken and supported by all parties.
  • Ensure that the necessary human and financial resources are available not only during the start-up phase but also for the long-term operation of the call transport service.

and not to do

  • Don’t assume that co-creation of ideas and joint decision making on equal footing among citizens, public administrations, politicians, and public transport providers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It requires carefully thought-through collaboration structures and engaged moderation.
  • Don’t take for granted that the originally assumed service demand patterns will be confirmed in every case in the everyday operation of the on-demand transport service. Be prepared to flexibly adapt the service to changing demand if necessary.

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