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Using TransitTech to improve the 4 most important paratransit metrics

  •   6 min read

Evaluating paratransit can take many forms, but there are some critical metrics that stand out. Find out how to give those numbers a boost.

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Fifty. The U.S. Department of Transportation suggests analyzing more than 50 metrics to determine a network’s performance. But when it comes to paratransit, agencies typically focus on four that carry the most weight: productivity, on-time performance, trip duration, and rider satisfaction.

Agencies often have similar high-level goals for their traditional and paratransit systems: providing high quality service in a cost-effective manner. But the definition of “high quality” varies between traditional transit and paratransit, with the latter partly determined by compliance with specific Federal Transit Administration-issued guidelines. And the “cost-effectiveness” of a paratransit service can have a considerable impact on an agency’s bottom line if, as is the case for most services, the average cost-per-trip is 11 times higher than traditional public transit — and rising. 

Collecting data on cost and quality metrics is critical as agencies look to evaluate their paratransit performance, and plan interventions to improve their offering and ensure its long-term financial sustainability. In recent years, more and more agencies are turning to TransitTech to upgrade their services and measure improvements on key performance metrics. With clear-eyed assessment, transit agencies have an opportunity to invest in efforts that will pay back.

We’ve identified agencies across North America  — in Virginia, Wisconsin, Utah, Texas, and Ontario — that are using TransitTech to optimize their operations and seeing real results across the four most important paratransit metrics. Their vision is of high-quality, compliant paratransit service that doesn’t break the bank. 

#1: Productivity

“Productivity” measures passengers transported per revenue hour (excluding breaktime and travel to and from the depot), which agencies assess to evaluate system efficiency. It’s one of the banner metrics reported on a monthly basis to the National Transit Database (NTD). 

This indicator captures the ability of a paratransit system to aggregate passengers, scheduling riders’ trips with similar pickup and dropoff locations using the least number of total vehicles and hours. Higher productivity is critical in lowering the overall cost-per-trip for delivering services, which has been on the rise since 2015. Since 2015, a 13% decrease in paratransit productivity in 16 key metropolitan areas has been accompanied by a 37.5% rise in cost-per-trip.  

An optimized supply plan — the allocation of appropriate vehicle resources to anticipated demand — is a critical factor impacting productivity, as is routing efficiency and schedule flexibility. That’s why some transit agencies are helping dispatchers modernize their supply planning and dispatch processes by leveraging technologies that continually optimize driver schedules in response to same-day trip adjustments and live traffic conditions. 

To improve productivity, Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) in Virginia switched to intelligent software to conduct better supply planning and pool more riders more efficiently into shared vehicles. The software reduced the manual intervention necessary to keep the service running smoothly, resulting in a 16% increase in vehicle utilization within six months of launch.

High Valley Transit (HVT) agency in Summit, Utah, has gone even further in their pursuit of higher productivity by introducing a microtransit service that shares vehicles and drivers with its paratransit service, in a strategy called “commingling.” The productivity of the combined service has increased dramatically — by over 150% — even when measured against the pre-COVID utilization of the pre-existing paratransit service. Similarly, local leadership in St. Thomas (Ontario, Canada) also upgraded to a commingled service and gained an immediate productivity rise by 82%. 

In response to low productivity and high per-trip costs within their dedicated paratransit fleets, many agencies have turned to dispatching trips to “overflow” fleets of local taxi or TNC vehicles. While one-off trip assignments can be cost-effective in some scenarios, over-reliance on overflow fleets — which may or may not be able to transport non-ambulatory riders and may not be able to aggregate riders — can be operationally complex and in the long term financially inefficient.

Increasing passenger aggregation and productivity of the core fleet, and incorporating business logic that automates dispatch to the core fleet or third-parties based on anticipated cost, can ensure that overflow trips are only booked when they are truly cost-effective. In Tyler, Texas, where overflow dispatching was high, the introduction of dynamic routing has led to a significant reduction in the number of trips dispatched to third parties.

#2: On-time performance

Though agencies strive to provide high quality of service across all forms of public transit, quality of service metrics  — on-time performance, on-board time and riders satisfaction — have particular significance for paratransit. ADA compliance rests on an agency’s ability to deliver truly equivalent service for the riders, who have travel-limiting disabilities and rely on paratransit to reach essential destinations. 

Ensuring that trips are on-time and efficiently routed — and that riders are, on the whole, satisfied with the service — can be critical to meeting regulatory compliance. 

On-time performance (OTP) is a measure of 1) how many trips depart within the pickup window communicated to the rider when they booked their trip, or 2) arrive before a rider’s requested dropoff time at their destination. Excessively late trips could be registered as “missed trips” resulting in higher penalties for operators, causing disruption to passengers’ schedules. 

When paratransit riders are waiting for their vehicle, an unexpected delay is the last thing they want. Agencies value on-time performance (OTP) and reducing missed trips not only because it is required for ADA compliance, but because it reveals how riders feel about the reliability of the system: Does the vehicle arrive for their pickup locations as promised so that they can be on track with their schedules? 

Poor on-time performance may be caused by various factors, most commonly inefficient and inflexible scheduling and route planning. While low-tech scheduling and manual dispatching can work for planning small-scale services and adjusting on the fly to real-time conditions, agencies will be limited in their ability to scale up to serve larger passenger volumes.

In hope of bringing riders’ experience to the next level, agencies like Hampton Roads Transit and Green Bay Metro re-launched their services with TransitTech-enabled improvements in supply plan optimization and routing. Both saw a 7% improvement in OTP. While this difference may sound small, it means a lot to paratransit operators: this improvement in OTP brought both services to nearly 100% on-time trips, and out of the range in which operators may face penalties for low quality of service. 

#3: Travel time (trip duration)

Average trip duration is usually affected by several factors, including the coverage of the service area, the distance between riders’ origins and destinations, the degree of passenger aggregation, and the efficiency of routing for shared rides. While the first two factors are out of an agency’s control, the latter two can be improved by better routing technology — more passengers end up sharing trips, and these trips are designed to avoid winding, circuitous routes. 

Though “excessive” onboard time can be defined differently from agency to agency, it has the same detrimental effect: Making paratransit an unappealing option for riders who would prefer to maximize their time at their destination, rather than in transit. Overly long trips can threaten paratransit’s status as truly ”equal”, or equivalent service, so that many agencies choose to define excessive onboard time in relation to the time required for the equivalent trip by traditional public transit.  

The ability to balance trip duration and passenger aggregation is critical to paratransit scheduling. While providing direct, single-passenger trips can decrease time on board, it will also radically reduce productivity, driving up costs to potentially untenable levels. 

Smart routing software can achieve this balance. A dynamic algorithm also ensures that no new riders are added to a vehicle if their trip will push other riders outside of this maximum time goal.

In Hampton Roads, where heavy traffic and multiple bridges and tunnels can easily drive travel time excessively high, TransitTech has been able to curb onboard time by 42% even as productivity has increased. With smarter routing, many agencies have been able to provide a significantly better rider experience while simultaneously reducing costs.

#4: Rider satisfaction

Riders’ feedback, assessed both qualitatively and quantitatively, can provide key insight into what is (and isn’t) working within a paratransit network. For operators who expect to see if a network really ensures equitable access, hearing what riders say could be a great starting point.

Paratransit riders in Hampton Roads especially appreciated the new transparency given by the software — as one rider noted, “I can look on the app and see how far away the ride is. I am getting text messages, showing me my schedules, and giving me phone calls, telling me my schedules. Those really help a lot.” The same story can be told in St.Thomas, where 40% of riders have become regular app users since software provider Via introduced app-based booking.

Although booking by app was a novel experience, many of the riders quickly switched to this new option, and began enjoying the new freedom of managing and tracking everything about their trips in one place. Since the app-launched, Hampton Roads Transit saw a 35% decrease in total incoming calls. Another bonus of introducing a self-service software: Operators save loads of manual work and money due to significantly reduced rider calls and fewer bookings via phone.

Final thoughts.

Together, these four metrics — productivity, on-time percentage, onboard time, and rider satisfaction — describe a sustainable, high-quality service that fulfills paratransit’s original mission: to provide equitable transit to all riders regardless of ability. Balancing efficiency with quality ensures that individual riders’ needs are met — and TransitTech can help agencies achieve this critical balance. 

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