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Designing an on-demand transportation service riders love

  •   6 min read

Building a microtransit network isn't easy. Here's everything you should consider when designing your on-demand transportation system.

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The world is entering the golden age of embracing Mobility as a Service (MaaS), with cities around the globe turning to shared bikes, scooters, and on-demand vehicles to move around their communities.

Perhaps one of the biggest trends in MaaS, however, is the dramatic adoption of shared on-demand public transportation. Previously, individuals were likely faced with two often unappetizing choices: either sink enormous sums of money into owning a car, or spend valuable time navigating bus travel that may be inconvenient, if available at all. 

The result: overall transit ridership in the United States has declined by nearly five percent over the last decade, driven by a cumulative 15 percent decline in bus ridership over the same period, according to KPMG. Those numbers, though, represent transit before COVID-19. The pandemic only dramatized the decline as fewer people than ever turn to public transportation.

And yet, at the same time, efficient public transit is as important as ever before. Essential workers need to get to their places of work; healthcare workers need to get to hospitals in major cities where personal cars are scarce; and delivery workers need access to transit to deliver goods. And, as cities start moving again, transit needs to be flexible and use existing resources in new ways to address shifts in demand. Public transportation in most places as we know it has to adapt. 

That’s why many cities are considering dynamically routed, on-demand microtransit solutions, which blend the best of public transport with ride-hailing’s most popular features. Travelers can request an inexpensive shuttle that picks them up at a nearby corner within a few minutes. Vehicles are then dynamically routed to the final destination, with the ability to pick up other travelers heading in the same direction along the way, shifting with evolving safety requirements. 

Microtransit networks can either blanket a whole city or work in tandem with existing transportation infrastructure, acting as an on-demand link to high-frequency transit hubs and light rail stations. And as shelter-in-place measures are lifted and communities go back to work slowly, on-demand microtransit technology can be applied to traditional fixed lines, adapting quickly in order to abide by physical distancing regulations, contact tracing, and safety and sanitary measures.

The idea is nothing new, but the task is difficult to perfect. Dial-a-ride services like Australia’s Telebus offered “on-demand” rides a decade ago, but customers needed to book 24-hours in advance, and it was notoriously unreliable, and failed to gain traction with riders. In New York City, lawmakers are calling-out Access-A-Ride for failing to provide anything close to high-quality service for its 170,000 paratransit riders.

For transit networks to effectively reverse declining bus ridership, they’ll need to design a bespoke service that meets the unique needs of their riders and addresses safety concerns during this unique time.

Determine What Riders Need

Every city is different, and therefore has specific and unique problems it is trying to address with on-demand public transportation.

Cities like Cupertino, CA and Montgomery County, MD offer concessions for students, seniors, and those with disabilities, often cutting ride costs by 50 percent, or making them entirely free for qualifying riders. 

Just as every community has its own unique needs, microtransit can address a seemingly endless list of mobility concerns and adapt accordingly.

In the Boston suburb of Newton, MA, the city launched a new microtransit service called NewMo that caters specifically to its growing population of seniors over 60 years old. To accommodate seniors with limited mobility, NewMo includes wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs), and all vehicles are retrofitted with a stepping stool and additional handles to facilitate an easy and safe boarding experience. 

In collaboration with Newton’s Senior Center, all drivers provide high-touch support, including proactively assisting riders with bags and automatically opening the van’s sliding door upon arrival. Plus, in recognition of lower smartphone adoption among older adults, the service allows riders to book on-demand or pre-scheduled rides through the mobile app or over the phone. All phone operators receive senior sensitivity training, including expectations to speak slowly and repeat instructions.

Just as every community has its own unique needs, microtransit can address a seemingly endless list of mobility concerns and adapt accordingly. There is no clear blueprint for developing a microtransit service, and each one can and should be quite different in order to make it successful.

Create Microtransit Zones That Benefit the Most Riders

The first step of building an on-demand microtransit service is choosing the right operational boundaries. First determine what the goal is: to operate a first-and- last mile network around transit hubs, fill transportation gaps on weekends, cater to weekday commuters? What the service aims to achieve will paint a picture of where to operate.

But be careful: bigger isn’t always better. The larger the zone, the larger the number of possible route combinations. That means doubling the size of the service zone may necessitate tripling the number of vehicles on the road to maintain the same quality of service. 

The shape of the service zone also plays a role. A square or circle may seem right in theory, but it may be harder to aggregate shared rides compared to a more strategic zone that captures riders traveling in the same direction.

Design Specific On-Demand Service Elements

Next, it’s important to consider quality of service metrics like the time it takes a vehicle to arrive and the distance riders could walk to meet their drivers for pickup at a virtual bus stop. In today’s world, it’s also important to consider advanced safety measures, like how many people should be able to share a vehicle and how often a vehicle may need to receive a heavy cleaning. These measures are both important on a regulatory level, but also, as we think about communities’ ongoing fear of re-contamination of the disease, are also important influencers of quality of service. 

Via’s data shows that first-and-last mile commuter services, or those in urban environments, carry an acceptable wait time of about 4-6 minutes. However, for rural areas, wait times closer to 15 minutes can be acceptable, as other public transportation alternatives can easily be an hour if they exist at all.

Once an appropriate wait time is established, determine the acceptable walking distance to a virtual bus stop. On-demand mobility deployments can be drastically streamlined if riders walk a short distance to meet their driver, but the acceptable distance is impacted by a number of variables, like steep terrain, extreme weather, or target population (e.g., if the service is primarily geared toward the elderly). If the service is catering to those needing wheelchair access, maybe meeting at a virtual bus stop isn’t an option at all. 

These service decisions, designed with the rider in mind, as well as choosing the type of vehicles and number of drivers, can quickly contribute to building an on-demand service riders love and trust.

Understand How People Want to Pay

Because the new on-demand system can act as an extension of the greater public transportation network, the price of rides should reflect other modes of transit. For example, in Seattle, on-demand rides are automatically applied as a transfer toward a trip on a bus or a light rail train.

And while riders can pay through the app with a linked credit card, it’s vital to ensure the service can accept a variety of payment methods such as cash, voucher payments, or a full integration with the transit system’s native payment system. Plus, digital payment is only growing in importance as communities try to limit interactions as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19.

King County Metro and Sound Transit fully integrated their new on-demand mobility service with the transit system’s ORCA Card, allowing customers to use a single payment method across the full King County transportation network. On-demand rides are automatically applied as a transfer toward a trip on a bus or a Link light rail train.

In suburban Sydney, the service Cooee Busways became one of the first demand-responsive transportation providers in Australia to fully integrate with Opal Connect, a new account-based ticketing system by Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW).

Find the Right Microtransit Partner

It’s one thing to power a dial-a-ride service with a few vehicles; it’s another thing entirely to power a microtransit service at scale with dozens or even hundreds of vehicles delivering hundreds or thousands of rides every day.

Those that choose to share data do so in the name of helping municipalities and transit agencies create a better place for everyone to live and work.

The ability to do the former usually doesn’t transfer to the latter — as the number of vehicles and rides increase, the number of possible rider/vehicle assignments and routing options grow exponentially, which requires both an algorithm and automated service management tools built to handle scale. 

It’s also important to note that not every mobility technology company chooses to share their data. Some guard it closely in the name of protecting key business indicators like revenue, pricing models or demand from competitors, or in order to shield their actual environmental impact. 

But those that choose to share data do so in the name of helping municipalities and transit agencies create a better place for everyone to live and work. By partnering with a company that agrees to share its data, cities can maximize the value of the microtransit service — because with so many ways to use the data, microtransit isn’t just a transportation improvement; it’s a way to improve the entire municipality. 

Powering a flexible service that is continuously optimized in real time is a big technical challenge – and an ever-increasing global necessity. Transit agencies should find a partner who is not only up to the challenge, but proven in multiple markets they know how to deliver results.

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