After selling his fi rst ride-sharing app to a leading smart taxi company eight years ago, Sam Ryan couldn’t help but wonder why mass transit wasn’t meeting an obvious and growing demand for shared travel services across the world. Why shared taxis and not buses? Couldn’t the same routing technology for taxi apps also be used to modernise mass transit? Three years later, he was spurred by this thought to build Zeelo, a leading smart bus platform for corporate and school commutes. Gordon Feller caught up with the millennial superstar to understand his vision for the future of transport.


Over the last thirty years, technology has not only spurred the digital transformation of every industry, it has become our sixth sense – enhancing all aspects of our daily lives. Data and technology dictate the food we order and how it is produced, the music we listen to and how it is consumed, the art we create and how it can be owned – not to mention how we access information to places, to opportunities and, ultimately, to one another. In this same 30-year period, a new generation of technology entrepreneurs has emerged, determined to rethink existing systems and infrastructure to cater to this brave new world.

Despite vigorous debate around the possibilities of the metaverse, however, the global pandemic and its impact on our freedoms have arguably quashed predictions of a plugged-in virtual existence. In fact, for Sam Ryan, CEO and co-founder of the leading mass transit business Zeelo, we are far from a remote-only future.

Sam Ryan, cofounder and CEO of Zeelo.

“Despite the hype and debate around hybrid and remote-working, this is a luxury afforded only to those with desk-based jobs,” Ryan says. “It is not the reality of close to 90% of the population of a developed market. Frontline workers at hospitals, depots, logistics centres, warehouses and further down the value chain of delivery drivers cannot earn a living without being physically present on-site.” More to the point, continues Ryan, the new obsession with remote work is causing major problems for workers and employers alike. As he says, corporates across e-retail, food services, energy and construction are grappling with a shortage of skilled shift workers. These people, in turn, are needed more than ever in our instant, delivery-driven culture – but can’t actually get to where they’re needed.

In the UK, for example, close to 90% of frontline workers live in peri-urban towns with poor transport links. Peri-urban transport is designed to get people into the city centre as opposed to between towns, which is where most business parks and warehouses are located. Travelling to work on a linear trajectory, from one town to the next, is challenging with possible with commuters needing to commute into the city centre first – making a stop change and going back to a peri-urban town for work. This not only adds unnecessary time to what could be a faster journey – and wastes money for workers and their employers alike – it also inevitably adds to the planet’s carbon footprint.

Ready to ride

To put it another way, Ryan believes that providing access to opportunity is the key component of any successful and sustainable business. Enter Zeelo. The firm’s mass transit solution uses technology and AI to identify recruitment hotspots on a tailored basis. It designs shuttle services around techoptimised routes to gather passengers commuting in the fastest, safest, most reliable and greenest way possible. The cost of the service is taken on by the employer rather than the passenger, and ensures a regular service that serves as a job perk for frontline staff living far from their place of work.

“In the US, UK and South Africa where Zeelo has live operations, having a good job and good pay is about whether you can realistically get to your place of work on a daily basis, sometimes at irregular hours during the day,” says Ryan. “Shift work is not a nine-to-five slot. If you’re a nurse or warehouse worker, you might need to be at work late in the evening or before dawn in some cases. If you can’t afford a car and have no public transport that gets you there on time, you’re simply not going to be able to get to work.”

One of the biggest pain-points for organisations seeking skills-based shift workers is employee absenteeism, and this is largely due to travel constraints and distances. This is a simple problem to fix with smart buses and coaches, argues Ryan, and is perhaps the reason Zeelo has enjoyed over 1,000% revenue growth since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

But beyond these headline numbers, how does Zeelo work in practice? The company’s success arguably starts with ‘RINA’ – or Routing Intelligent Navigation Algorithm – a proprietary AI-powered software. This allows Zeelo to collect and input anonymised geographic data, helping it pinpoint underserved public transportation routes for employees. Routes and services are then fed into the firm’s live operations and booking platform, while IT bods feed rider and operational data back into RINA for further optimisation. This continuous stream of information helps RINA sustain itself indefinitely.

At the same time, Zeelo is able to use this captured data to determine ‘clusters’ of employees or students, best determining the optimal location of virtual bus stops. It also uses this data to assess the availability of local public transport, and plot a maximum distance a user would need to travel from their homes to their nearest stop. This, in turn, helps fix another flaw of traditional public transport. “What public sector mass transit solutions are doing wrong is trying to cater for everyone, rather than the everyman,” Ryan stresses. “There’s a difference. If you build a transport system designed to cater for every single person’s needs – from their daily commute to their grocery store errand – you will undoubtedly create a diluted service for all.” Certainly, this is reflected by the statistics. Since the 1970s, after all, studies have shown that at least 20% of bus stops are under-used, which in turn leads to half-deserted routes. Buses running empty is a major pain-point when it comes to securing funds to keep services running.

Public sector funding for mass transit is pressured not because of pay demands from drivers and bus operator networks, but rather because of the transport service model itself. The premise that a transport service needs to cater to all types of people, of all ages and backgrounds, is costly precisely because it requires hundreds of services per day per route – a problem Zeelo answers with gusto.

The road ahead

Despite Zeelo’s undoubted successes, could the powers-that-be not optimise public mass transit with the firm’s technology to advance the entire industry, rather than simply build private businesses? I ask Ryan how sustainable Zeelo’s own business model is – given it merely seems to fill a gap in efficiency not being catered for by the public sector.

“I think public policy on the question of transport should take a step back from the narrow lens of wanting to provide a mobility solution for all, and really examine the demographics,” he responds. “Many would argue that we should up-skill and increase the opportunity for white-collar education for a larger proportion of the population in developed markets in order to resolve the issue, but this is short-sighted. We will always need nurses, deliveries, construction, warehousing and sorting.”

Unsurprisingly in a world where climate emergency is the order of the day, meanwhile, Ryan is also laser-focused on sustainability. As he says, tech entrepreneurs have a responsibility not just to develop sustainable businesses tick-marking an ESG agenda – but to actively build sustainability into their business models.

“Sustainability is a mindset, not a process or outcome,” he argues. “A business or service is sustainable if it has a lasting impact on society and the ability to scale whether you’re in a bull or bear market. When you build that into your thinking, you naturally prioritise resource-efficient, environmentally conscious and impactful processes into the unit economics.”

That’s shadowed by more practical steps too. Zeelo currently offsets the carbon emissions of its private bus and shuttle services for over 200 organisations, averaging a saving of over 12,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. More broadly, the company has pledged to deliver net-zero bus services across the UK by 2030, and indeed already has electric buses on the road. This has been made possible through strategic partnerships with electric bus fleet and infrastructure providers, which offer electric vehicles and pop-up charging stations on a preferential finance agreement to Zeelo’s bus operator network. With relationships like that at its back, the metaverse has never felt more irrelevant.