‘Keeping it Clean’ with Barak Sas, Head of International Expansion for Zeelo
Barak Sas became Head of International Expansion for Zeelo after moving from Israel to the UK in 2019. He is an expert in strategy, operations and finance in the new (and traditional) mobility industry. He is an ex-consultant, an ex-drone pilot and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University. He is a husband to Alona, a father to Leah, aged 2 this week and a self proclaimed ‘bus expert’!
I had the pleasure of meeting Barak at the Transport Tech London virtual in April, where we found each other at the same ‘table’… a new experience for both of us! Barak was very passionate both about what he does, and Zeelo and the capabilities they have to make a huge impact!
Zeelo is a bus-sharing company, providing smart transportation services for commuting, school runs and leisure; bookable via a mobile app. They use data and technology to find and digitise fixed bus routes, targeting public transport deserts in order to connect people to places via sustainable transport.
Let’s find out what Barak has to say….
Where did your passion for mobility begin?
I started out with mobility by accident. I was a Business Consultant years ago, and worked on a project which dealt with bus importing. About 4 years after I finished the project and a year after I’d left the company, the client called to say the business plan had become a business! ‘How would you like to become our FP&A Director?’ My initial reaction was, oh my God, this is a bus company, surely it’ll be in a garage with loads of oil everywhere! Thankfully, I went anyway, it was in a lovely office, filled with lovely people and a month later it became my lovely office! Three years later… I helped establish the company to become the biggest bus importer in Israel!
I then moved into a subsidiary of this importer to build a new public transportation company in Israel. Following that I moved to launch a new bus importer as the second employee for Israel’s second largest transportation group. And then I realised ‘I’m a bus expert!’, which is certainly something I never thought I’d say about myself!
And how did you find yourself in London?
My wife and I were discussing reaching higher levels of professionalism and management in our careers. Israel is a small place and there is a limited scope of what you can do. She wanted to do an MBA, so I said ‘why don’t you do it abroad and I’ll continue with my professional life?’ So now she’s doing MBA at London Business School and I joined Zeelo, a bus sharing company … so low and behold, I’m still into buses :)
And to why London specifically… I loved it as a tourist and know there is tonnes to do, it’s an interesting city with lots of culture and it’s an amazingly diverse city, so we decided to live our lives and raise our daughter in UK.
What inspires you?
Mobility. New mobility is a solution for congestion, time waste and pollution caused by the private car. In the last decade the focus has switched from producing more cars to finding solutions for how people can mobilise themselves without owning a car which just sits there for most of the day and when it does move it pumps out pollution.
There are so many facets to mobility, micro mobility, sharing… I just care deeply about it and think it’s one of the ways to solve problems that cities, actually not just cities, are facing. Sometimes enabling people to commute to industrial parks allows for more employment opportunities, in fact there are lots of social elements to shared mobility, and all of it bundled together is why I love mobility!
Let’s talk Zeelo… I know you’re on a mission to replace private cars in commuting, can you share some insights into what this could look like?
Zeelo, is a bus-sharing company and there are a number of pain points which we address — we focus on commuting people at peak hours, in the peri-urban space (the outskirts of the city 10–50 km from the city centre).
There are lots of established players in the city centre, but the peri-urban space would be somewhere like a business park on the M1 or the Midlands and these are often not well connected.
The reason we do this is because people use cars to go back and forth to work in these places, purely because public transport isn’t there.
We use buses to solve this problem, and this is new and unique. No other players in the mobility space are using buses (18 seaters up to double-deckers). The more seats you have the more complicated it is to operate. One pickup and one drop off is fairly easy, a few is more tricky and when you get to lots, it’s very complicated! So we made a simpler solution to take commuters to their workplaces and children to school.
The pain points we tackle are employee retention and satisfaction — e.g. Ocado is a client located in Hertfordshire, and one of the ways they can now attract talent is to offer them a benefit and Zeelo is this benefit. A lot of places have car parking shortages and we solve that by taking cars off the road — a Zeelo bus takes 30 cars off the road! We are also the answer to CSR goals, a Zeelo bus can take 112 kg of CO2 emissions off the road per day.
Along the routes that we establish, we see a 70% uptake! To use JLR as an example, we launched our home to work plan which took the postcodes of all employees, put them into an algorithm with certain parameters (no employee should walk more than 5 minutes to a bus etc.) and made it commercially viable in terms of density of employees. Along the routes we generated there was a 70% uptake — 70% of people no longer drive to work and 44% of them said they would reconsider buying a car at all now they have this option!
How are you (and your global competitors) fighting the impacts on Covid-19 in mass transportation?
Every mobility company is faced with a problem that people are reluctant or unable to share transport at this time. So, we decided to develop a solution, initially for key workers and then later for everyone. Using both technology and services, the Zeelo solution has 2 parts; the technology in the algorithms, the apps, and the services where we come in we take control of the entire operational process. When Covid-19 hit we added Covid-19 features to the tech to cap numbers, introduce contract tracing and of course contactless payment and onboarding through the customer app. On the operational side we change a lot of procedures from sanitising buses, protective equipment and growing number or frequency of routes. This mix of technology and operations made buses ‘safe’ again and we were able to operate for those who need it most.
And how will you come out of it?
How we come out into the new normal is slightly unknown. We need to consider how we help public transportation. There will be severe issues with the reduction in people riding on public transport and a reluctance to entirely change transport infrastructure for something which is temporary.
We are aiming to support this through using a pre-booking element of our technology, along with working with coach operators to add more vehicles and working hand in hand with public transportation networks to manage the inevitable issues, particularly with peak time surges.
What is important to ensure that we have long-term fixes?
Innovation! Innovation is key; we work with a lot of innovation managers in the UK transport industry to ensure our solution helps to solve their problems. Municipalities are losing a lot of money on public transportation and need innovative solutions to deal with the next year and beyond. We feel confident that we are well placed to support
In the UK we have the technology ready and the track record of solving these problems, which have enabled our expansion into Europe, including a very exciting joint venture enabling us to offer our services in Italy.
Micro-mobility is set to boom in the coming months and years. I know you mentioned before the coming months being a ‘live social experiment in human (public) transportation’. What do you predict we will see?
I think the main concern when adopting scooters and other micro mobility solutions is ensuring the government consider safety of people. They are great for urban travel. I think they are necessary to allow people to stay away from public transportation inside dense urban spaces. As long as you’re able to ensure that safety precautions are in place, then I think they are a great solution.
That said, whilst they clearly help with urban movement, we have to remember that it does not appeal to many in society (older people, children, less able etc.) and that London’s winter poses a threat to the attractiveness of these solutions. Micro mobility is another tool in a set of transportation tools, but not a stand-alone solution for urban movement.
Having lived and worked in multiple places, what do you see as the key to society moving towards a more sustainable future?
We have to take some of the opportunities that Covid-19 presented to us in terms of consumption, how we commute. Life has changed dramatically — we will go back to normal levels but I think we should all continue what we have done with recycling, mobility, sharing, working from home more and considering CO2 levels. When it comes to these positive changes we must ensure that they are not all lost when things start to ‘return to normal’.
Thanks Barak, sounds like you’re doing pretty well in your unexpected career as a ‘bus expert’. I’m looking forward to watching yours and Zeelo’s success!