Skip to content

4 successful transit leaders share how to write a great RFP.

Impactful technology-powered transit services start with great RFPs. We asked 4 transit leaders how they approached researching, writing, and evaluating their latest RFPs.

Elspeth Green •
How-to-write-RFP-Thumbnail-1030x670

To the public, the launch of a new transit service is where the fanfare begins. Cities and agencies have held press conferences, ribbon cuttings, hosted U.S. Representatives and Senators — and even held a ride-along with the Grinch. But as transit professionals know all too well, the process of planning, funding, and operating any new service starts months, if not years in advance. And one of the most difficult of these pre-launch steps happens with very little fanfare at all: procurement. 

As a long-term public sector partner, Via has responded to a lot of RFPs (and RFIs, and RFQs, and RFTs). We want to celebrate great RFPs, because we’ve seen how they can set a city or transit agency on the path to a successful service, with goals and vendor expectations laid out clearly for all to follow. But we’ve also seen how a weaker RFP — one that’s disorganized, or over-prescriptive, or under-prescriptive — can seriously impact the quality of vendor responses or ability to deliver a successful service. For example, a recent NCDOT report about on-demand microtransit in North Carolina recounted a local transit agency that selected the lowest-bidding vendor only to later realize they could not complete the full project scope. 

Procurement is especially challenging for newer types of software and services: tech-powered microtransit, technology-driven upgrades to more traditional paratransit or dial-a-ride services, or cutting-edge transit planning and scheduling software. Technology evolves quickly in this space, meaning that even an experienced agency may struggle to determine what information to request from proposers. How should you weigh proposer experience against total cost? How much flexibility should you give proposers to offer alternative solutions that still meet your goals? What kinds of supporting and advisory services do you need from proposers to ensure success and foster lasting partnership?

We want to help. So we talked to four of our current partners who put out great microtransit RFPs, and asked them how they did it. For each phase of the process, and each section of an RFP, our partners had terrific insights — and a few cautionary tales. You’ll hear from:

  • Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development at Capital Area Transit System (CATS), who led the procurement for Lynx by CATS in Baker, Louisiana.
  • Katherine Conrad, Executive Director at NEORide, who led collective procurements for on-demand and transit planning software on behalf of NEORide members.
  • Grant Sparks, Director of Statewide Transit Programs at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), who led a joint procurement for on-demand software with rural Virginia transit agencies.
  • Brian Bauerle, Vice President at Camden Community Partnership (CCP), who led the procurement for Camden Loop in Camden, New Jersey.

We hope you can use this guide as an on-hand resource as you discuss, write, and review your next RFP. Please share with your collaborators: procurement specialists, consultants, or any other key stakeholders. And of course reach out if you want to discuss more — we love talking RFPs. 

Read the whole thing, or skip to the sections that are most relevant to you. Here's a handy table of contents to help you navigate:

Before the RFP

Launching a brand new kind of transit, or looking to re-think an existing program for future success? The procurement authors we spoke with all agreed: it’s critical to seek out great models, both of actual live services and the RFPs that made them happen. Some additionally worked with consultants or local researchers to help define transit needs and service goals, though typically not to assist with the drafting of the RFP itself.

before divider 1

Intelligence gathering.

Takeaway: Read as many RFPs as you can for comparable services, but don’t stop there. Visit these comparable services, and talk to the organizations running them to learn how the RFP influenced the program’s outcomes and what they wished they had done differently. Leverage local university or consulting resources to conduct studies of the local transit environment. But especially if you’re new to the type of software and services you’re procuring, stay open to the possibility of novel proposals that meet your organization’s needs.

“Poke around and see how others have done it. You have to reach out to other people, you can’t operate in a vacuum.” — Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development, Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

“The most important thing for us was to have a service provider who were the experts. I did not want us to be prescriptive in what we said we truly wanted, because maybe that wasn’t the best service that would be offered… I wanted to create a box of what we wanted, but let our RFP responders tell us how to meet our goals within that box.” — Brian Bauerle, Vice President, Camden Community Partnership

The Camden Community Partnership (CCP), a nonprofit focusing on community and workforce development in Camden, New Jersey, had never before launched a transit service. But as CCP Vice President Brian Bauerle and his team sought to connect residents with employment opportunities, they quickly realized that transit access was a critical component. Many households had no access to a private car, and relied on elaborate multi-leg journeys by bus and train to access jobs, as well as basic services like groceries and healthcare. 

Brian set out to pilot a new type of service in Camden: a flexible, shared shuttle service that would connect residents to fixed-route transit, bringing them closer to jobs in Camden and beyond. So he looked to nearby communities for inspiration, taking a trip up to Jersey City to check out Via’s long standing microtransit service. He also collected a number of sample RFPs — Jersey City’s among them — to start figuring out how to translate what he saw in Jersey City to a procurement that made sense for Camden.

CCP also worked with a team of researchers from Rowan University to conduct a study of the first- and last-mile challenges in Camden. Demographic investigation, community focus groups, and extensive surveying all helped Brian and his team identify the travel demand that was most critical to serve, and establish provisional zone maps and other exhibits to be included in CCP’s eventual RFP. 

Want to get started reading RFPs? The CATS, and NEORide procurement documents are available online for your perusal. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

before divider 1

Project scoping.

Takeaway: Aligning on project scope early, and avoiding scope creep, is critical for developing a strong RFP. First, and most importantly, what are your goals? What resources does your agency have available, and what do you need from your vendor? Is your proposed service zone feasible within your budget? Have you identified all the stakeholders  — riders, drivers, planners schedulers, dispatchers — who will interact with the service? Is your project duration long enough to gather meaningful data to inform future planning? 

“The thing with transit is, if you try something and it fails, people’s memories are long. People remember the failures, so your service needs to be structured correctly… When we’re launching a project, the assumption from the get-go — if we’ve done our research properly, if we’ve talked to people in the area and the stakeholders — is that the project will be successful.” — Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development, Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

At Capital Area Transit System (CATS), Director of Planning and Program Development Cheri Soileau knew from experience that setting a realistic project scope was a critical stage of her agency’s microtransit procurement. In a previous role, she had worked on a demand-responsive transit project that failed in part because the service tried to do everything at once: serve too large a zone, serve too many riders, serve too many points of interest outside the defined zone. And she knew that people have a long memory for project failure: launching a new service, and getting it wrong, can doom any future attempts to refine and improve the service. 

CATS was looking into new options to augment service in North Baton Rouge as well as in Baker, a suburb which had seen bus route reductions in 2019. Cheri’s team considered a number of points of interest in the area — Southern University, the airport, a petrochemical plant, a hospital  — and made tough decisions around which would capture demand and improve service efficiency, and which might stretch the service too thin. Cheri and her colleague, planner Brandon Songy, worked with consultants to clarify what ended up as two distinct service zones, gaining confidence from their consultants’ conclusion that Baker in particular was an ideal location for microtransit. 

Cheri’s team also took a hard look at CATS resources that would be available for the project, and decided that managing drivers and vehicles for the new service would be beyond the agency’s capacity. They decided to issue an RFP for “turnkey” microtransit service, on the lookout for a single vendor who could provide not only technology, but an operational solution for driver, vehicle, and customer management that was seamlessly and efficiently integrated with that technology. 

Finally, Cheri was especially conscious of project duration. Her team ultimately decided to put out an RFP for a 12-month contract with 2 option years — a significant change from a 6-month pilot that had been discussed previously. Cheri was wary of such a short-term project: how could her team possibly gather enough data in that time period to make informed decisions about the future of the service? Many agencies opt for an even longer initial contract (2+ years) to allow for a longer period of assessment and even more robust data collection. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

before divider 1

Researching vendors.

Through the intelligence-gathering and scoping processes, most cities and transit agencies start to get a sense of the kinds of vendors available for their projects. But the partners we spoke with noted that getting to know individual vendors pre-RFP can help greatly with procurement design and drafting.

Levels of engagement varied from online research and casual phone calls to formal presentations — and even getting hands-on with different vendors’ technologies by downloading rider booking apps. These investigations can help inspire specific elements of the scope, suggest what kinds of standardized information should be requested from vendors, and benchmark industry standards around costs. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

 

 

Building the RFP

 

Once a procurement team has done their research and scoped their project, it’s time to put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard). Hardly any city or transit agency starts from scratch with drafting: in addition to including standard contract clauses, FTA provisions, and other legal boilerplate, most organizations will use the models they gathered while researching as a base for editing and refinement. Katherine Conrad, the Executive Director of the NEORide Council of Governments, told us that her team had recently purchased the OpenGov software suite to help them build RFPs out of templates and publicly-available RFPs. 

Though successful RFPs may vary somewhat in structure, they typically contain:

  • An introduction section summarizing the organization’s background and current services, the challenges that have inspired the new procurement, and how the proposed new service fits in with broader goals.
  • A requirements and expectations section describing the transit service or software being procured. 
  • An information about the proposer section requesting details on the company history, comparable contracts and references, and proposed project staff.  
  • An evaluation criteria section, specifying the relative weight of each proposal element, including cost.

Our partners had tips and tricks for each section: read on to learn more!

TaaS Funding Headers (9)

The introduction: agency background, challenges, goals, and stakeholders

Takeaway: Tailor the information provided to the specific problem your new service is designed to solve. Who will use it, and for what? What parts of your region are you interested in serving, and why? How will your new service interact with existing transit in the region? Do you have a plan to fund it, or are you looking for a vendor that can also  help identify and secure funding?

Every service is different — and so the context potential vendors need to develop an informed proposal will vary from RFP to RFP. Each partner we spoke with took a slightly different approach to providing information on background, challenges, goals, and stakeholders, but each was well-suited to the ask being made of potential vendors:

  • For NEORide’s transit planning software procurement, Katherine and her team identified the set of member agencies whose interest in new software had prompted the procurement. The RFP then provides a quick summary of key planning-related stats for each agency: number of vehicles managed, number of employees who need to use the software, and types of services offered. 
  • In their microtransit RFP, CCP provided a detailed account of the service’s connection to their economic development goals, as well as results from Rowan’s First- and Last-Mile study that highlighted the need for additional transit options. Because CCP requested that vendors propose zones and other elements of service design, they also provided a set of maps highlighting demographic information, points of interest in and outside of the city, and prime commercial and business corridors in the city. 
  • Though Cheri’s team at CATS had determined service zones in collaboration with their consultants, they still offered a list of “key destinations” that were expected to drive demand. CATS was also explicit about the goals of the service: to help riders connect to CATS broader fixed-route system, and to facilitate mobility within the City of Baker. 

Less common, though extremely impactful, is for cities and agencies to provide information on the budget available for the service. Knowing an organization’s budget — even an estimate —  in advance helps vendors evaluate at a high level whether their solution can realistically be deployed, and ensures that all proposals received are for viable services. And if the stated budget is tight, a vendor is motivated to propose creative measures to improve cost-effectiveness.

Similarly, understanding whether a budget is drawn from capital or operating expenses (or from federal funding or competitive grants with particular terms and conditions) can help a vendor develop a pricing proposal that is most advantageous to the procuring organization. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

TaaS Funding Headers (9)

Solution requirements: balancing features and outcomes.

Takeaway: It’s vital to set clear expectations about non-negotiable elements of service and the vendor relationship. But it’s just as important to keep requirements — and particularly software requirements — more focused on desired outcomes rather than specific features, to ensure that vendors bring their best and most creative solutions to the problems you’re trying to solve. 

“You’re managing people’s expectations… We try to be as specific as we can so it’s very clear what we’re asking for, especially when it comes down to things like National Transit Database (NTD) reporting, so that there are no surprises.” — Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development, Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

“[After writing sections of the RFP,] We’d meet internally and ask, ‘what are the unintended consequences of this piece.’ And if we thought something was too prescriptive or too narrow, we tried to find a way that we could compare apples to apples on a response, but also give vendors some flexibility.” — Brian Bauerle, Vice President, Camden Community Partnership

“Our Executive Director is pro-innovation and technology, data, performance metrics, all of that, so she’s baked that into our philosophy of doing everything. We knew that we wanted some good performance metrics and things of that nature. Typically with all the projects we do, we do some sort of ‘lessons learned’ report; we don’t want to do a project and then it’s done and nobody even remembers it happened.” — Grant Sparks, Director of Statewide Transit Programs, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)

Each partner we spoke with emphasized the importance of balancing clear expectations — as Cheri from CATS put it, you can’t just say “I think we’d like a zone here” — while leaving room for vendors to propose solutions they may not have anticipated. Though CATS wanted to be very clear and specific about vendor and service expectations (NTD reporting was non-negotiable, as was the cadence of vendor meetings), their requirements on software were more “user-focused” than concerned with defining specific features. 

Brian from CCP placed even greater emphasis on vendor flexibility, within a framework that still permitted apples-to-apples comparisons. “I know my own biases,” he explained. And having never launched a transit service before — let alone a tech-powered one — he was cautious that he and his team didn’t inadvertently limit proposer’s responses. Though Brian thought microtransit was the right solution for Camden, he made sure to include language clarifying that any “equivalent service” that met CCP’s goals would be considered. 

When Grant Sparks, of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), helped design a joint software procurement with two Virginia transit agencies, he focused on defining key performance indicators related to service efficiency, customer experience, and service accessibility. Cost-per-trip, rider ratings, and overall bookings would all play significant roles in how DRPT’s partner agencies evaluated their services, and DRPT intended to create in-depth case studies to provide models for other agencies around Virginia. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

TaaS Funding Headers (9)

Proposer information: getting to know your vendor.

Takeaway: Ask for standardized information from each vendor that will allow your team to assess their overall level of experience, financial position of the company, their track record of providing comparable services, and the strength of their project teams. For some procurements, live interviews and client references can also play a significant role in evaluating a potential vendor’s capability to provide your desired services. And although your procurement is seeking a solution to a specific (and timely) need, it can be useful to get a sense of potential vendors’ views of your transit network as a whole. Do they have a point of view on how solving your present challenge will impact the other parts of the transit system?  

“We were looking for a provider that had the experience, the expertise, and a track record of providing a service. Identifying that was #1.” — Brian Bauerle, Vice President, Camden Community Partnership

“[With our chosen vendor,] when we went to the Board for approval, we could list who was using [the vendor’s] service, and it was across the United States. So that was helpful internally for us.” — Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development, Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

“When we do interviews, we’re really looking for vendors to show us how the product really functions, not just stats, but being able to show how it can be utilized. We always like it when vendors can bring in specific examples relevant to our transit agencies.” — Katherine Conrad, Executive Director, NEORide

As a result of the information-gathering phase, many organizations will have a sense of the vendors providing the kinds of services or software they want to procure. But requesting standardized proposer information in your RFP is still critical; as Cheri from CATS puts it, her agency was specific in what it asked because she “didn’t want the marketing sell.” At the RFP stage, you are empowered to ask the questions you need to be able to compare vendors on an apples-to-apples basis. 

Above all else, the partners we spoke with emphasized the importance of a potential vendor’s track record. Not only did robust experience help back up a vendor’s claims with regard to the success of their product and services, it also smoothed the path to Board or other high-level stakeholder approval. Look for vendors with experience running services similar to yours — but also vendors with experience managing services that are diverse in terms of rider profile, geography, and use case. Depth of experience suggests a project team that will get up to speed quickly; breadth of experience suggests a team that is nimble and armed with creative solutions from a wide base of problem-solving.

Not every partner we spoke with conducted vendor interviews, but all reserved the right to do so. Katherine from NEORide emphasized that the vendor interview grants an option to see the product in action — and critically, tell if a vendor “falls apart” when pressed to deliver more than statistics or case studies. 

And though every partner asked vendors to demonstrate their experience through case studies of existing clients, only some decided to actually call these clients for references. As Brian from CCP explained, “[When calling references,] we’re really looking for red flags” rather than new information about the vendor.

↑ Back to table of contents.

TaaS Funding Headers (9)

Evaluation criteria: defining best value.

Takeaway: Cost is critical to evaluating proposals — but so is ensuring that vendors can actually deliver the services required. And while total contract price is the most common way to assess comparative costs, other metrics — such as estimated cost per trip, or estimated cost per vehicle hour — can provide an important window into the scalability and sustainability of your service long-term. Importantly, RFPs should be clear about precisely what should be priced: how many active vehicles do you expect? What support services should be included in an hourly rate? 

“Price is always near the top [in terms of evaluation factors], but there have been many instances in which we’ve viewed the low bid and decided that their technical requirements didn’t meet what we wanted. So we have enough technical weight [in the scoring] so that type of vendor doesn’t end up being the top selection.” — Katherine Conrad, Executive Director, NEORide

“[We went with an RFP rather than a more simple “Invitation to Bid” (ITB)] because the RFP gave us flexibility to look at the credentials of a vendor rather than just low-bid.” — Cheri Solieau, Director of Planning and Program Development, Capital Area Transit System (CATS)

“[Our partner agencies] were really interested in seeing if they could do microtransit in a rural setting at a lower cost per revenue-hour and lower cost per passenger… And that’s what was really driving this: costs were going up and they wanted to find a way to provide better service at a cheaper price.” — Grant Sparks, Director of Statewide Transit Programs, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)

Across the board, our partners agreed that total cost, while important — especially when funding comes from specific grants or budget line items — needed to be weighed against vendor experience and technical qualifications as part of a holistic evaluation. Indeed, many spoke from past experience, having conducted procurement processes where the lowest bidding vendor was clearly unable to complete the desired scope. Though we’ve seen cost weighted anywhere from 10% to 60% of a vendor’s score in an RFP, the partners we spoke with all hovered around the ~30% mark.

In addition to overall cost, Cheri and her team from CATS were interested in understanding their potential vendor’s proposed costs alongside the ridership they estimated for their service. This breakdown was important because CATS had never launched microtransit before, and wanted to be able to assess vendors’ potential scale of service against their costs. We recommend that when asking for these estimates, agencies also ask vendors both to justify their methodology and to provide real-life examples of comparable services where similar ridership was achieved.

At DRPT, Grant had specific goals in mind for various unit costs — cost per hour, cost per trip — in addition to overall costs. The agencies DRPT partnered with for their microtransit procurement were looking specifically to replace underperforming services with microtransit, and needed to understand how proposed vendor costs would compare to their current spend on fixed-route and other programs. These kinds of unit costs are also useful for understanding how the overall budget for the service could evolve over time with service expansion. 

↑ Back to table of contents.

 

Go-Coach_standard_logo

 

Once your team has selected a vendor, you know the process isn’t quite over: there’s the contracting process, dealing with FOIA requests, even potentially dealing with protests. But most importantly, there’s the actual service launch — and crucially, the partners we spoke with were all satisfied that their RFPs had led to smooth and successful launches. 

As planner Brandon Songy of CATS observed, “The end outcome has been a successful service, hugely impactful for the City of Baker… [In addition to high school students heading to school, and seniors heading to dialysis,] the Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Baker uses the service quite frequently. All of the work we put in on the front end and behind the scenes, getting the study, getting the RFP together, has resulted in a hugely successful service.”

CATS and other Via partners have also seen highly-positive news coverage of their service’s launch and subsequent growth — critically, coverage that reinforces the goals laid out in their RFPs. 


Interested in learning more about procurement for technology-driven transit services? Book time on our team's calendar below.
 
Elspeth Green avatar
Elspeth Green

Via Resource Editor