“It’s a no-brainer”: A conversation with David Marsh on tech and rural mobility.• 4 min read
The Capital Area Rural Transportation System serves 72,000 square miles around Austin, Texas. We sat down with the agency’s General Manager, David Marsh, to talk candidly about how rural providers of all sizes can take advantage of technology.
According to the United States Census Bureau, rural areas make up 97% of the nation’s land mass. But just because the overwhelming majority of the country is given the same label, it doesn’t mean every ‘rural’ area is identical — not by a long shot. David Marsh, General Manager of the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) in Texas is intimately familiar with the wide diversity of rural transit agencies across the US. He knows that what works for his community outside of Austin can’t just be copy and pasted into bustling Colorado Springs or the deserts of Arizona.
In a recent conversation, Marsh’s confidence in the potential of a rural technological revolution was evident. His team’s 30-year relationship with Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) has allowed them to test out TransitTech for themselves. Now, Marsh envisions a future where rural transit agencies work to increase mobility for all members of their community, buoyed by a flexible technology partner with the ability and willingness to scale as needed.
VIA: How were you first introduced to microtransit and the use of technology for rural transit agencies?
DAVID MARSH: When CapMetro wanted to bring Via’s technology into a small town on the periphery of their service area, they asked us to implement it. Once we did that and once I got to know the folks from Via, it didn’t take a real genius to recognize the benefits.
What was the aha moment for you? When did it all click?
I run a nine-county, demand-responsive service where people have to call me. The call center has to take that call, schedule that ride, they have to send out the data to the driver — it’s a very labor-intensive system. Once we started doing Pickup with CapMetro and Via’s software, it was like, duh! I can cut my call center out of the equation. It’s a no-brainer. Most people will be very excited by the fact that they can get a time-certain ride by not talking to anybody and I think there’s a real market there.
Could you tell us a bit about your forthcoming on-demand service, CARTS Now, in the small town of Bastrop, TX?
What we’re about to do in Bastrop is going to be the showcase for what we think the future will be. We can really provide mobility people can use. What will that do? Well, we call our demand-responsive paratransit system Country Bus… because we like being ‘country.’ Right now, our Country Buses have to serve both the cities and the outlying areas. Once I get on-demand service established in Bastrop and other towns, I’ll be able to move my Country Buses to serve more people out in the country who need it.
How did you secure funding for the project?
We were lucky enough in Bastrop to be able to align our startup with a Department of Energy grant, so we’ll be integrating three electric taxis into our service. We’re going to put a lot of service in one small town and show people what can really be done.
Do you have any advice for your peers in the rural transit space, regarding the use of technology and providers like Via?
My advice would be to find that town. Everybody’s got those towns — usually it’s the county seat, where there’s more people, there’s a lot more action, there’s local government — and just try it! I was lucky enough that I stumbled into Via based on a procurement done by my sister agency in Austin.
What would you say to those in rural America who are hesitant to introduce a new kind of transportation service to their communities — especially people who might think microtransit doesn’t work in low-density areas?
If Via can be as flexible and easy to work with in some of these smaller towns as they were with me, just try it as a pilot. Nobody is going to make any money or do a good job being Uber in Podunk, Texas. But the transit company is already a part of the community and if we can build a community asset to serve that kind of demand seamlessly, I don’t think there’s a downside to it.
“Nobody is going to make any money or do a good job being Uber in Podunk, Texas. But the transit company is already a part of the community.”
Raise your profile in your community by showing that you can be as innovative as the next guy. It’s not just that same old thing you do everyday. It’s a service anybody can use and will use, if it’s done right.
What makes you so confident about partnering with Via, specifically?
It’s the people. The people we work with at Via have scaled to us. I know you guys are a worldwide company. I know you deal with large operations in Manhattan. But Via can be scaled to get you in the door relatively cheaply. It’s not like you have to invest a ton of money.
Before we even started, one of your guys came to see us! From then on, your sales person was so personable and easy to work with, and once we implemented, the Via team spent time here on the ground helping launch the service. All of those things make me happy to be a Via customer.
What are some of the challenges or opportunities you expect in the next couple of years — particularly as our country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and its widespread impact on the transportation industry?
We’ve all weathered a pretty severe storm and, while it’s not over, I think that what we’ve shown is what rural transit is known for: resilience. Everybody wants to talk about COVID-19 and what it’s going to do to the transit industry and everybody’s got an idea, but I have my eye on the horizon. It’s hard to imagine, but this will be over.
So we’re planning for the future, because people are going to come back to transit. Which brings us to Via and our new project, which we’re really looking forward to. As dark as the skies have been, I can still see the sunshine on the horizon.