Paratransit van in NYC

Long familiar to paratransit and rural riders, demand response transit options have become more common in recent years as transit agencies have experimented with new technology-enabled services. Federal funding support, private competition and partnership, and shifting rider expectations are just some of the factors leading to new “flex” and “microtransit” routes. On top of that, the profound industry disruption provoked by COVID-19 has created additional incentives to explore new models. For both new and existing services, agencies have ever-growing access to a bewildering array of technology solutions.

Demand response transit typically includes publicly operated or funded services that do not operate according to fixed routes and timetables. This may encompass everything from paratransit or dial-a-ride offering point-to-point connections, to deviated-fixed services where the transit vehicle can make specified deviations from a pre-defined route

As agencies seek to improve the customer experience for existing services or plan new services, trip planning offers a powerful visualization of how to get from here to there. Many riders are accustomed to trip planning in Google Maps or ridehail apps, and expect the same experience for their paratransit or flex ride. When selecting partners or tools, transit agencies have to make tough choices:

  • Should demand response information be separate from fixed route information, or integrated?

  • Should trip planning take into account eligibility and funding restrictions, if applicable?

  • Should the agency contract with an all-in-one vendor for everything from scheduling to operations to booking, payment, and customer information along with trip planning? What are the risks?

  • Should information be published to all platforms including third parties, or be primarily provided via a preferred website or app?

  • Can the agency’s needs be fully met by off-the-shelf options, or is additional configuration/customization warranted? And if so, what are the cost implications?

The right answers may vary by agency, and have substantial impacts on lifecycle costs, as well as equity goals.

At CS, we strongly believe that the answers start with providing information about your services using broadly-accepted data standards. Specifically, the GTFS-Flex data format allows demand response services to be described in standardized terms. Thanks to GTFS-Flex, trip planning tools such as OpenTripPlanner (OTP) can show demand response options alongside fixed route services, and can even identify itineraries that efficiently combine demand-response and fixed route for different legs of a journey. We’ve helped partners such as Orange County, NY and Denver’s RTD achieve this. And by layering 1-Click on top of OTP, CS allows other partners to link trip planning to eligibility restrictions, funding sources, and trip booking, bridging the gap between transit and mobility management.

But it’s not just about having the tools. When configuring trip planners, agencies should think through how their riders access service information. For example, the context may determine the relative importance of fixed route versus flexible demand-response options, or customers’ willingness to walk, or their sensitivity to transferring between routes or modes. Incorporating real-time information may have a different weight for a frequent service with many alternatives in comparison to an infrequent service with longer stop intervals. With even greater complexity, an agency may want to include private services and pursue Mobility-as-a-Service solutions, or focus on promoting access to transit.

So it’s not easy; but as you work through these challenges, the benefits to agencies and riders are real. For agencies, offering dynamic customer information can increase ridership while freeing staff from answering repetitive customer questions. For riders, trip discovery is easier than ever. A demand response-enabled trip planner can ensure that service information is current and actionable for all transit customers regardless of their geographic locale and the types of services offered by their local agency.

In two upcoming articles, we will dive into the five factors mentioned above surrounding the broader strategic, technology questions.