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Israeli startup aims to bid farewell to late, empty buses

Tel Aviv-based Operatti looks to build a ‘smart public transportation’ app that will send vehicles of just the right size to pick up travelers on set routes, on demand

Israelis wearing face mask for fear of the coronavirus are seen in public transport in Jerusalem on March 17, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israelis wearing face mask for fear of the coronavirus are seen in public transport in Jerusalem on March 17, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Public transportation is frequently criticized for its unreliability and inefficiency — and if problems exist inside crowded cities, they can get worse in suburban or rural areas.

Some areas have few passengers and transit lines may stretch without a stop for miles. For example, a bus route through the desert in Israel may pick up only a handful of passengers on a loop to and from a major urban center.

To address this problem, in 2019 Shaked Karby co-founded Operatti, a Tel Aviv-based startup focusing on “smart public transportation.” The idea is to create a public service that is both efficient and reliable, using data-driven capacity optimization.

Operatti’s Shaked Karby (Courtesy)

Karby, now the chief marketing officer, sees as a market failure the fact that buses often run empty on routes across hundreds of miles in Israel’s southern region on the off chance that there may be someone who needs a ride. This causes unnecessary air pollution, wastes public funds, and may lead to a potential shortage of buses and drivers where they are needed elsewhere.

The app developed by the startup enables passengers to reserve public transportation rides in advance along a predetermined route, and then dispatches the most efficient vehicle to pick them up according to the real-time capacity management system. If there are up to four passengers at any given location along a route, then the transport authority would send just a taxi to pick them up. More than a dozen people asking for rides on the route would be allocated a full-sized bus, while a minibus could handle numbers in between. Smaller vehicles to pick up fewer riders is more cost-efficient, Karby said in an interview.

The passengers thus can enjoy a more reliable service, without having buses run on routes where there is little or no demand.

Operatti’s partners in the venture would be ministries of transportation, local public transportation authorities and transportation operators, Karby said.
We don’t want to see any empty buses “going for hundreds of miles,” Karby said. “We just want to see the most efficient vehicle, the cheapest one and the most convenient to the passenger.”

Unlike other transportation services, such as Moovit, which shows public transportation users the best routes to their destination, Operatti is intended to manage the public transportation on behalf of the authorities, said Karby, not by changing the route but rather allocating the most efficient vehicle along that route, to optimize fuel, based on how many passengers are actually going to be collected.

Instead of focusing on urban areas, which Karby said have plenty of mobility solutions and unlimited demand, Operatti is focusing on streamlining the efficiency of public transportation in suburban and rural areas.

Right now, Operatti is collaborating with Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University on how to predict passenger behavior and how people move around in Israel’s suburban areas, collecting the data to help build the foundation of the app. The company is creating routes, and figuring out the public transportation operators that it will collaborate with.

The first pilot program is expected to launch in the Negev region next year, or possibly earlier, he said.

Trying to making the most of newly opened regional opportunities, Karby pitched his solution in Dubai to Khaled AbdulRahman Al Awadhi, director of transportation systems at Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Authority. Karby noted, however, that the pilot program would have to take shape in Israel before anything can happen in the Gulf.

Operatti also working on setting up a pilot in the Czech Republic, where Karby spent time studying a few years ago, in an opportunity that he hopes will help introduce him to the European market.

“Everywhere, we’re dealing with a similar problem about this issue,” Karby said of transportation efficiency. “I know this is happening in the US, in Australia, in Europe, in any other place that the country subsidizes public transportation, and I believe it’s happening almost everywhere.”

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