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5 myths about using TransitTech in rural transportation networks

Think rural transportation is not compatible with modern technology? Think again. Here are five common misconceptions — and the transit agencies who've debunked them.

Via Transportation •

While rural agencies have begun exploring new ways to further increase the flexibility and responsiveness of their dial-a-ride services — including offering fully on-demand service — many of them have rightly been cautious about getting onboard with a tech-powered transit option, or on-demand microtransit. Will riders who prefer to pre-book be excluded? How about riders without smartphones? Can tech-enabled services operate in areas of low data or cellular connectivity? Will upgrading technology break the bank? 

Below are the top five most common concerns we’ve seen when considering a TransitTech program in rural public transit services, along with real-world Via partners who have overcome these challenges to deliver high-quality, cost-effective service to rural residents. 

MYTH 1: “TransitTech-powered on-demand transit is never financially viable in a sprawling and low-demand area. It can’t be deployed in rural areas without increased costs.”

REALITY: In some cases, switching from fixed-route or pre-booked dial-a-ride to on-demand can actually help decrease costs, while meeting the community’s needs with flexibly adjusted parameters. 

WeGo-comparison WeGo, in Hall County, Georgia, has proven that replacing fixed route services with true on-demand solutions can achieve the same dramatic effect on cost-per-passenger as the demand-response services cited by the NTD. 

In August 2020, WeGo replaced three underperforming fixed bus routes while cutting operating costs in half. The on-demand service was so successful that the agency expanded  WeGo into the entire Hall County, scaling the service zone from 35 to 429 square miles, and used it to additionally replace the reservation-only curbside bus Dial-A-Ride. Average wait times for WeGo are shorter than the bus headways or pre-booking windows of the services it replaced. 

MYTH 2: “TransitTech is one-size-fits-all: agencies will be pressured into implementing on-demand services even where pre-booking may be a better option.”

REALITY: Technology facilitates flexible service design. Simulation exercises and live service data can help agencies refine their demand-responsive networks, indicating where pre-booked and on-demand services will work best.

In Baldwin County, Alabama, the Baldwin Region Area Transit Service (BRATS) faced a daunting challenge: providing transit services to an area of 2,000 square miles. 

BRATS On-Demand, which launched in September of 2020, has offered a mix of true on-demand and pre-booked services based on riders’ requested pickup locations, ensuring that vehicles can be allocated appropriately to more remote regions as needed while maintaining higher overall quality of service. Riders have responded enthusiastically, and BRATS has seen a 48% increase in trips with the same operating budget.

MYTH 3: “Mapping and connectivity are too spotty in rural areas to allow tech-enabled services to work.”

REALITY: Even in remote areas without any cellular service, tech-enabled transit can work in off-line mode with pre-downloaded rider locations, directions, and routing.

Some major benefits of TransitTech are dynamic routing, turn-by-turn directions for drivers, and real-time updates for riders — all of which rural agencies worry can be impacted by low data connectivity or inaccurate mapping in remote regions. But Via’s platform functions in these conditions with very little impact on riders or drivers.

Though a mountainous, 250 square mile region with numerous cellular dead zones, riders in Roanoke County, Virginia, enjoy tech-enabled paratransit service. When out of cell range, drivers operate in “offline mode” that continues to deliver cached directions, permits logging of pickups and drop-offs, and connects whenever possible to transmit information between the driver and the central operations console. Riders continue to receive notifications and other communications as usual, despite the driver’s loss of connectivity.

When faced with insufficient mapping in rural regions, Via teams help our partners bridge the gap. In our partnership with Blackfeet Transit, for example, many houses on the reservation lack recorded addresses; our software helps operators save map locations as riders’ homes, facilitating accurate routing. 

MYTH 4: “Tech-based on-demand services offer no options for riders without smartphones.”

REALITY: On-demand systems offer a variety of booking options, including by calling dispatch centers, smartphone apps, web portals, or even standalone ride-booking kiosks, to ensure all types of riders are able to access the service.

Though TransitTech is a cutting-edge way to power rural services, it does not require that riders use cutting-edge technology to access those services. 

In Wilson, North Carolina, Via helped build an entirely on-demand transit system, called RIDE, that offers phone booking for customers without smartphones, cash-based payment options for those without bank accounts, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles for riders with disabilities. As transit coverage and ridership have increased, approximately 34% of riders surveyed reported not owning a smartphone. In Baldwin County, Alabama, the proportion of phone-bookings sits at 70%. 

MYTH 5: “Rural microtransit leaves out people with mobility issues.” 

REALITY: Microtransit serves all. With wheelchair-accessible vehicles, microtransit — sometimes commingled with paratransit — can bring an even better riding experience for those with accessibility needs.

One in 4 US adults live with some type of disability, yet a lack of convenient transit options impacts their access to essential destinations. To better serve this community, cities are increasingly supplementing their existing networks with microtransit, improving accessibility. 

Like fixed routes and paratransit services, microtransit vehicles can also be WAVs (wheelchair-accessible vehicles), enabling riders to board with ease. However, unlike those traditional ways of moving, microtransit allows riders to book trips in real-time and be picked up from their doorsteps. Turns out, riders love the new freedom given by this new type of transit. As one of our riders in the Niagara region of Canada says, “For me, this (incoming microtransit service) is going to be a lot better than the system we have now. And it’s not just me, there are actually quite a few people in Port Colborne who use a wheelchair, and this is going to be an improvement for all of us.”

TransitTech for the future of rural transit.

Rural and suburban communities have taken advantage of modern mobility solutions and overcome their historic transit challenges. These real-life examples just demonstrate the power of software-enabled transit’s efficiency, quality of service, and impact on bringing riders back. Despite any perceived roadblocks, TransitTech solutions are flexible and can fit seamlessly into communities of all sizes — the future of rural mobility is digitized.