Uber changed the way people use individual transportation and, for a while, aroused the ire of taxi drivers. Airbnb expanded its accommodation options and left the hotel industry startled. But, for the road bus segment, no threat loomed on the horizon. That until 2017, when a startup called Buser appeared in Brazil.
Suddenly, countless people realized that they could reach the main Brazilian cities by traveling on buses with quality equivalent to those offered on regular lines, but paying less and needing to resort to just one application.
The problem is that users travel in the middle of a crossfire. On the one hand are Buser and similar platforms that advocate a “collaborative charter” model. On the other, inspection bodies (such as ANTT) and traditional bus companies that accuse the new services of unfair competition.
What is the scope of this fight? To try to find out, I talked to Marcelo Abritta, co-founder and CEO of Buser, and Leticia Pineschi, advisor to Abrati, an association that brings together the largest interstate road transportation companies in Brazil.
The About page on the Buser website tells how the service was born. In 2016, Marcelo Abritta needed to organize a trip for 30 people from Minas Gerais to Arraial d’Ajuda (BA) for the celebration of his wedding. When chartering a vehicle for the group, he found that the costs were less than the total that would be spent if each person made the trip by bus line.
The episode served for Abritta to have the idea of creating a platform that would allow the formation of groups interested in traveling from one specific location to another and charter buses for that. Eight months later, Buser was making its first trip. It is an operating model that the startup calls collaborative chartering.
In fact, all buses that operate for Buser belong to charter companies. The startup itself does not own any vehicles, not even those that bear the service brand.
Whenever asked about it, the Buser defines itself as a technology platform that connects charter companies and passengers, not as a bus company.
This connection begins on the Buser website or application. The user makes a quick registration on the service and then only needs to search among the various available destinations. Each section offered corresponds to a group. If the group is confirmed, the trip will be made on the day and time scheduled by one of the accredited charter companies.
There is no bus ticket. The amount paid by each passenger corresponds to a portion of an apportionment. That is why, if there are not enough travelers to cover travel costs, the group may not be confirmed.
An unconfirmed group translates into an unplanned trip. But, for many users, the economy factor makes this risk worth taking: confirmed travel costs are up to 60% lower than regular ticket prices.
Unsurprisingly, the bus companies operating these lines did not like this one bit.
Abrati: Buser is clandestine service
THE Brazilian Association of Land Passenger Transport Companies (Abrati) represents over 70 road bus companies in Brazil. Among them are very well-known and traditional names, such as Águia Branca, Andorinha, Cometa, Garcia, Guanabara, Ouro e Prata and Progresso.
At the end of October 2020, the organization carried out an awareness campaign against clandestine transport, an old and chronic problem in Brazil – the accident that killed about 20 people in Minas Gerais on the last 4 was caused by an irregular bus.
To publicize the campaign, Abrati held a press conference on October 28. Inevitably, the issue of transportation applications was raised by journalists present. Eduardo Tude, president of the association, did not hesitate to classify Buser and the like as clandestine services.
But, if application services operate with charter companies, what is wrong with that? In an interview conducted two weeks later, Letícia Pineschi, Abrati’s adviser, explained to the Tecnoblog the positioning of the entity.
The executive pointed out that, as a platform for chartering buses, Buser’s original proposal is not bad, as it corresponds to a private service. The problem is when this type of operation intervenes in the public service, the modality offered via regular lines.
To provide public collective passenger transport, companies in the sector need to follow a series of obligations to guarantee universality, continuity and availability of service, explains Pineschi.
Among the obligations are compliance with schedules (buses depart even if they have few passengers), fleet maintenance, driver training, provision of support points (for rest of drivers and reserve buses) and free transportation for the needy elderly and young people ( Youth ID) under certain conditions (no benefit in services per app).
Within the rules of public service you embrace the entire population. The most favored, the least favored, those people whose only means of transportation from point A to B is public transport.
Another obligation of the companies that operate the public service is the so-called cross-subsidy. This means that the company can operate busier and more profitable stretches, but it must also take lines that are not very profitable (usually to serve small cities).
On this point, regular airlines complain that Buser and the like place vehicles only on profitable segments. According to Pineschi, this causes an imbalance in the public service, as bus companies lose demand on lines that are profitable and, even so, need to operate the deficit.
Is the price cheap?
The technological aspect of Buser is one of the attractions of the platform, but Marcelo Abritta, CEO of the company himself, recognizes that the price factor is the biggest draw: in comparison with the tickets of the traditional road services, trips on the platform can cost up to 60% less. But is this not reflected negatively in the quality of the service?
Buser embarkation and disembarkation points make it seem so. In the city of São Paulo, for example, the main place for passengers to leave and arrive is a parking lot next to the Tietê Bus Terminal, a point that is also used by other platforms in the industry, such 4bus.
Everything there is improvised. There are no restrooms, restaurants or convenience stores. The only comfort for passengers waiting to board is some seats painted in pink by Buser.
When asked about this, Abritta explained that the structures for loading and unloading are gradually improved. Also in São Paulo, shipments are also taking place at Shopping Eldorado, for example.
In Rio de Janeiro (RJ), customers get on and off buses in a parking lot next to the GNV Glória gas station, but another point is being prepared for this purpose.
The Buser CEO also points out that, although these locations may seem disadvantageous, they are well located and, therefore, many customers prefer to board from them than having to go to a station that is distant, such as Rodoviária do Rio ( formerly known as Rodoviária Novo Rio).
Another aspect that raises suspicion is that of the buses themselves. Most of the charter companies linked to Buser are small. So, are the vehicles offered by them reliable? Abritta guarantees that the fleet linked to Buser owes nothing to vehicles on the highway lines.
These companies have a lot of experience, they do that [transporte de passageiros] have been inspected for decades, respecting the safety standards that govern the charter and passenger sectors [em linhas], issue invoices, have insurance, professional drivers, anyway.
Buser’s CEO also ensures that no bus goes into operation on the platform without undergoing inspection and that, to reinforce road safety, the company hired a telemetry service that is already present in 90% of vehicles – the goal is to arrive in 100% coming soon.
Even a “fatigue camera” has been installed on buses to monitor drivers in real time.
If we notice that the driver is showing signs of fatigue, we have him pull over and send another driver.
Bus Seizures and Lawsuits
Despite these precautions, two problems have hampered Buser’s operations: numerous lawsuits and frequent seizures of vehicles linked to the platform, especially on dates close to holidays.
An example: on October 22, Buser used social networks to announce that, by determination of the 3rd Panel of the Federal Regional Court of the 4th Region, it could not operate in Santa Catarina and Paraná. For Judge Rogerio Favreto, Buser “did not obtain prior authorization for such activity, as it is an irregular charter service”.
According to Marcelo Abritta, Buser has already spent R $ 15 million on coming and going to the courts. Only recently did the startup offer trips to and from Paraná again. Santa Catarina has only a few routes served.
In São Paulo, the situation is more comfortable. On December 9, the São Paulo Court of Justice dismissed an appeal by the Union of Passenger Transport Companies of the State of São Paulo (Setpesp) that tried to stop Buser on charges of illegal passenger transport. There is still an appeal.
Vehicle seizures, on the other hand, are just as or more problematic, as they interrupt travel in progress. They are mainly promoted by National Land Transportation Agency (ANTT), an autarchy that, among other functions, regulates interstate and international road lines in Brazil.
ANTT is also responsible for inspection actions. In this sense, in July, the agency announced Operation Pascal, which aims to combat clandestine passenger transport in the country. Since then, seizures of buses connected to platforms such as Buser and 4bus have soared.
ANTT has reiterated that it does not inspect transport applications, but companies that do interstate passenger transport, whether they are partners of services like Buser or not.
But some actions have been marked by friction between agency inspectors and company representatives. In November, the ANTT Servers Association (ASEANTT) even published a disapproval note against what it classifies as Buser’s intimidation against the agency’s inspectors.
The company says it has only denounced agents who do not respect the judicial decisions favorable to the circulation of buses from companies linked to the platform. “They are always the same inspectors, in the same regions”, says Abritta.
Imbroglios are limited to ANTT. Application services also face the rigor of state agencies, such as the Transport Agency of the State of São Paulo (Artesp). To end what they consider to be persecution, representatives of Buser and 4bus promote protests and, at the beginning of the month, even met with President Jair Bolsonaro.
Eagle Flex and Wemobi: the reaction
It is difficult to predict the outcome of this plot. On the one hand are services that, supported by technology, promote a business model hitherto unprecedented in Brazil and well accepted by users. On the other are companies that, in order to operate bus lines, are really conditioned to follow a series of obligations that do not exist for the other party.
The duels in the courts should not end anytime soon, therefore. Because of this, some companies try to respond accordingly. Here are two examples: the giant White Eagle created the Eagle Flex; the JCA Group, responsible for companies such as Cometa, 1001, Catarinense and Expresso do Sul, created the Wemobi.
The two platforms resemble Buser’s performance model, with the difference that they only operate on the stretches where Águia Branca and JCA are authorized. Users buy tickets on the internet at reduced prices and, depending on the route, can get on or off at points other than the bus stations.
Letícia Pineschi, from Abrati, emphasizes that these services take advantage of the infrastructure (such as fleet and support points) that these companies maintain to operate regular lines, which brings more security to the user, and does not cannibalize the public service: the trips offered are complementary and do not replace bus departures.
We cannot expect each company to create a travel platform. But even without this type of service, Pineschi recalls that many companies offer seats with promotional prices for tickets purchased in advance, an approach that resembles the strategy of airlines.
In the end, what the user expects to find is just that, competition. But this competition must be healthy. We can only hope that the public authorities analyze the issue and make decisions with all the care that the subject deserves.