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Three cities redefining paratransit with on-demand technology

  •   5 min read

Fed up with traditional dial-a-ride services, cities are implementing new systems that allow paratransit and community transport riders more freedom.

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The public transportation industry is ready for an overhaul following the effects of COVID-19. In a recent survey by IBM, 20% of public transportation riders say they no longer plan to take buses, subways, and trains after emerging from sheltering-in-place, and another 28% said they will use public transit less frequently.

But for most paratransit riders — a group with much fewer affordable mobility options — driving your own personal vehicle may not be an option. As the world rebounds from the pandemic, cities and transit agencies can’t forget that paratransit needs a revolution of its own.

Despite the glaring issues with dial-a-ride services like needing to request rides two days in advance, unpredictable routes, and siloed operations, some cities and transportation agencies are finding ways to use familiar technology to make a change. 

“There’s been a recent transformation happening within public transportation where more cities and transit agencies are exploring on-demand microtransit, and now we’re starting to see similar interest in the paratransit sector,” said Alex Lavoie, Global Head of Operations at Via. “Updating outdated paratransit has unfortunately not yet been a priority for many transit agencies. It needs a tech revolution.”

With intelligent routing algorithms, location tracking, and detailed service planning, some transit agencies are applying microtransit technology to offer increasingly affordable and accessible paratransit and community transport while improving common issues like unnecessarily long waits, unreasonably long trips, and high operating costs. 

A number of cities and transit agencies have already applied microtransit technology to their outdated paratransit programs, and results are proving to be immensely promising.

1. On-demand ADA paratransit in Michigan.

In July 2019, leaders at The Rapid — the public transit agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan — collaborated with city government and the Disability Advocates of Kent County to launch “Rapid On Demand,” an innovative six-month pilot project aimed at serving the transportation needs of disabled individuals by providing paratransit-eligible riders with flexible booking options and shorter wait times. Funded in part by the State of Michigan’s Mobility Challenge grant, the service supplemented, rather than fully replaced, the agency’s traditional ADA paratransit system.

Rapid On Demand — a six-month pilot that ended in March 2020 after Michigan Mobility Challenge funding expired — allowed customers to book pre-scheduled or on-demand trips through an easy-to-use mobile application, powered by Via. As many within the rider population do not own smartphones, the service also allowed riders to call a live dispatcher, who could book a ride using the same technology on their behalf. The Rapid’s legacy paratransit service, Go!Bus, required trip reservations at least one day in advance, and lacked an automated capacity to adjust routes in response to late cancellations and no-shows – Rapid On Demand solved for those gaps. 

Demand density heat maps indicating popular destinations in Grand Rapids.

Demand density heat map indicating popular destinations in Grand Rapids.

To address these service constraints, Rapid On Demand used a highly efficient trip scheduling algorithm, which enabled real-time trip booking and automatically updated routes to account for trip modifications and new ride requests. The platform also aggregated riders going in the same direction into shared trips, without taking lengthy detours or inconvenient fixed routes. 

After six months, the pilot project came in under budget by more than $80,000 as a result of the operational efficiencies gained by the use of the new software. 

For many of The Rapids’ paratransit riders, the service was a welcome innovation. 

“Rapid On Demand has been such a great resource for me,” one rider said. “I primarily use this service to get to and from work on the days when an early morning or late evening ride on Go!Bus would add more stress to my chronic pain and fatigue. Rapid On Demand combines the safety and security of door-to-door pick up on Go!Bus, with the instant independence afforded through similar ride-share services. Not only that, but it’s incredibly affordable. I love that when I use Rapid On Demand, I am able to be as independent as other people who can just get in their cars and drive to their destinations, yet I’m paying similarly to what a person might pay for a gallon of gas.”

2. Overhauling a massive network in Virginia.

Although Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) was already operating a robust paratransit service, local leadership was looking for new solutions to eliminate many of the most common complaints from customers: uncertain vehicle arrival times, long or circuitous routes, and lack of same-day scheduling flexibility, all while improving inefficiencies and reducing operational costs.  

HRT’s existing service was accessible to both ambulatory and non-ambulatory customers and operated with a mixed fleet of sedans and wheelchair-accessible cutaway vans. Ambulatory customers were frequently also accommodated by local taxi operators.  

In order to overhaul operations, HRT invested in new ADA-compliant technology that optimized vehicle usage while providing riders with as much flexibility as possible, allowing for pre-scheduled trips with plans to gradually introduce riders to new on-demand trip planning technology. The vision: more efficient driver routing and dispatching will lead to both a better rider experience as well as higher vehicle utilization, resulting in lower operational costs. 

Demand density heat map indicating popular destinations with Hampton Roads Transit.

HRT’s transition to a technology-powered solution was not without challenges. The agency’s network covers almost 400 square miles across six cities, and is bisected by a large waterway that is crossed by only two bridges and a tunnel – all of which can be plagued by heavy traffic during rush hours. The area’s major employer, the U.S. Military, operates several bases within the service area, each with varying access and security requirements. 

Beyond these operational challenges, HRT’s legacy paratransit service enjoyed strong ridership. Users knew their booking operator by name; they recognized the routes that took them to their weekly appointments. These comforts in the legacy service made the transition to a new operator a challenge. But, within two months of launch, the new service enjoyed lower call-in wait times, fewer late pickups, and an improved rider experience  — a strong testament to the adaptability of the new technology HRT began using to modernize its paratransit service.

3. Serving senior citizens in Massachusetts.

In June 2019, the City of Newton, Massachusetts launched “Newton in Motion,” or NewMo, a ridesharing solution tailored to the unique needs of older riders. 

NewMo provides any resident over the age of 60 with an efficient, reliable, and affordable way to travel within the city of Newton, as well as a number of medical facilities outside of the city’s boundaries. The on-demand service replaces an outdated taxi voucher system which required passengers to make reservations at least 72 hours in advance.

While not a dedicated or ADA-compliant paratransit service, the case of NewMo does provide an interesting example of how one innovative community is adapting on-demand mobility technology to solve its unique transportation needs and challenges in a similar way. 

“I want seniors to be able to stay in Newton and thrive. Reliable, safe, affordable transportation is a key to giving people options for staying involved in their community as they phase out driving. This is a ground-breaking program that I really think can be a game-changer,” said Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.

Demand density heat maps indicating popular destinations in Newton.

Demand density heat map indicating popular destinations in Newton.

Seniors are able to book a ride using a dedicated mobile app, but given the age demographics, a majority of riders still call to book their on-demand trips. To accommodate seniors with limited mobility, NewMo includes wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) in its custom-branded fleet and offers both curb-to-curb and door-to-door service. Furthermore, all vehicles are retrofitted with stepping stools and additional handles for an easy and safe boarding experience. 

In less than a year since launching the service, NewMo made more than 16,000 trips, carrying an average of 50 seniors around Newton per day, which provides a new sense of independence to an entire population of residents.

The transportation project has been such a success that the City of Newton is looking to expand this service beyond serving just seniors.

Paratransit’s desperate need for a revolution.

As more cities rethink their public transportation operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of paratransit is also hanging in the balance. Cities are already embracing on-demand technology to optimize fixed-route bus networks, meaning it’s time to turn to similar technology to cure paratransit of its bleak reputation.

With on-demand technology, cities and transit agencies can give seniors and individuals with disabilities a new sense of independence — as well as increase the potential for more efficient operations and lower costs for agencies, cities, and taxpayers. While the days of dial-a-ride may swiftly be coming to an end, transit leaders in Michigan, Virginia, and Massachusetts prove that the future of paratransit is bright. 

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