In Part 3 of Spare’s series on the role of technology in paratransit, we’re getting on the bus and sharing how the power of information is key to making every ride the best ride.
Automated technology and processes can help tackle the complex pre-service part of the paratransit customer journey, delivering real-time on-demand transit and giving passengers the freedom to live their lives without restrictions — at least when it comes to transportation. But all those good intentions go out the window if the actual ride isn’t similarly delightful, efficient and robust.
In the final part of our three part series on how tech can enable better paratransit, we zero in on what happens in the ride and post-ride phases: Why do notifications matter, why should transit agencies explore different service configurations, how can paratransit riders take advantage of public transportation’s full offering and how can they ensure their voices are heard once a trip is over? Let’s dive in.
In a well-functioning transit network, a fixed-route bus that’s supposed to show up at 9:30 a.m., generally does — give or take a few minutes. In manually-powered scheduled paratransit, passengers are given a pick-up window of up to a couple of hours during which they are on standby; accurate notifications are rare and there’s no easy way to follow the whereabouts of their ride. If their minibus is stuck in traffic and running late, they have no reassurance it’s actually on its way unless the transit agency is able to manually track it down on their behalf. This can impact trust in the public transit system and affect how a rider plans their day.
Yet, the ability to automatically track vehicles and alert passengers is one of the simplest and most impactful pieces of technology in modern transportation’s toolkit. It’s key to the user-experience in private rideshare and also used in fixed-route transportation.
It’s also easy to implement in automated systems where data about a person’s pick-up location, destination, and vehicle-assignment, is in the software’s back-end. Setting up automated app notifications,phone calls or text messages, lets passengers make the most of their time. They can, for instance, decide to make lunch without worrying their transit will show up mid-bite. They can also be alerted when their vehicle is nearby avoiding delays at pick up, and once onboard, can track their ETA to their destination in real-time.
Just like passengers, drivers aren’t necessarily privy to much information after they set off on their journeys. Stil today, many receive a printed manifest with their scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs, and which route to take. If there's a last-minute cancellation or traffic, an agency’s dispatch needs to contact the driver and together they need to determine if a change is possible. Only transit agencies with ample call center and on-the-road resources are often able to accommodate same-day changes.
A driver-side smartphone or tablet app backed by a data-driven system makes this difficult process much easier. Once behind the wheel, the driver fires up the app and sees information about their next pick up. If a road accident causes a traffic snarl, the system re-optimizes their route within seconds and directs the driver accordingly leading to greater efficiency and fewer headaches.
Since switching to Spare’s dynamic on-demand transit system in March, StarTran in Lincoln, Nebraska notes that drivers feel less anxiety around cancellations since with the Spare driver app they’re never even aware of the booking in the first place,” explains Assistant Transit Planner Carla Cosier. This way drivers can concentrate on driving, and don’t have to sort out their paper manifest or handle rerouting and handle radio communications with dispatchers.
For many transit agencies, paratransit exists in a silo and doesn’t mix with other on-demand services or the regular transit network.
With the right tech, transit agencies can pool paratransit and on-demand microtransit customers onto the same vehicles at the same time. Called commingling, it helps increase passenger-to-vehicle ratios (more passengers per vehicle means the route is less expensive to run), covers gaps in service on the fixed-route system and brings people who might not always interact together, creating community.
In a manual system, on-demand commingling is also possible, but a significant challenge. Just like with paratransit, commingled services need to be scheduled, which doesn’t always fit with how people live. An automated approach segments passengers based on their customer profile in real-time. They can easily share the same vehicle but receive different services (e.g. door-to-door vs. pick-up at an ad hoc bus stop) — without requiring schedulers to slot them in.
When we leave vehicle matching to dispatchers, they aren’t always able to match requests to the most cost-efficient vehicle. There are a lot of variables that go into this determination — too many for a human to juggle. That might mean an entire minibus is dispatched to pick up a single passenger because this was the path of least resistance for a busy dispatcher who didn’t have the time to optimize an existing route.
A data-driven platform removes the guesswork. It analyzes all the requirements and chooses the best vehicle for the situation, even if that means looking outside an agency’s own fleet.
Through Spare, transit authorities can actually automatically broker trips to third-party providers like taxis, without putting the onus on passengers to negotiate the journey. Transit agencies aren’t always able to meet the demands on their fleet, so this allows them to bring in additional vehicles when needed. The decision to outsource a trip for a passenger is based on a calculation of what is the most time and cost-efficient to meet the demand. Just like with an agency’s own vehicles, pooling is possible on trip-brokered rides when appropriate either for paratransit-only or where commingling is available.
On-demand to fixed-route
Transit agencies want people to use the fixed-route system: it’s less expensive to run in high-demand, more dense areas than on-demand. It also provides convenience and more options for riders to get around. For some paratransit users, this could be a viable option. But getting to the fixed-route bus or a train might not be. The stop could be too far or the bus that connects to the tram is not equipped with a deck-lowering platform.
Like we saw in part 1 of this series on the paratransit customer journey, manual systems don’t really allow paratransit riders to sync up to the larger public transportation network because planning is analog.
By digitizing paratransit, this service can be integrated into transit planning tools, such as mobility as a service (MaaS) apps like GoPass and Transit, or even the agency’s own mobile app, through an open API. Transit agencies can offer regular route alternatives to paratransit customers based on their to-and-from search criteria or even at destination. Maybe that means offering paratransit for a short distance to the commuter train instead of taking the on-demand option the whole way. A rider app can educate paratransit riders about these options, nudge them towards using them and keep them informed so that they can master the mode change smoothly.
Before switching to Spare, the only way StarTran could really understand its paratransit customers’ transit challenges was through surveys and focus groups, rendering the road to improvement long and winding.
Today, instantaneous feedback is possible on just about anything. We can rate our Airbnb hosts after checking out or give five stars to our food delivery service. We can log and track complaints through a service’s smartphone app, or on its website, and at the very least receive an acknowledgment.
Paratransit passengers don’t have that luxury in a manual system. A self-serve rider app empowers them to express their thoughts about the service. Agencies and technology providers like Spare, which reacts promptly to reviews, can address concerns quickly, make adjustments when appropriate and improve their offer based on this feedback. In turn, this helps passengers feel more valued and can ultimately transform paratransit’s sometimes dismal reputation.
The paratransit customer journey is admittedly complex. From planning and scheduling to booking, dispatching and keeping riders in the loop, it’s a completely different ballgame than fixed-route services. Transit agencies do the best they can with the tools they have because all people, especially those who are most vulnerable, need transportation to participate in society.
But it’s time to leave behind the old way of doing things, which is costly, inefficient and out of sync with modern realities. The right technology tools can support real-time, customer-focused paratransit operations and secure the future of transit agencies everywhere.
Our series on the role of tech in the paratransit customer journey traces how passengers interact with this service from the very first touchpoint until the very last and how we can improve this process through real-time, automated software.
Part 1 examines journey planning; everything that happens before a rider books.
Part 2 digs into the complexities of booking, scheduling and dispatching both from the rider and transit agency perspective.
Finally, in Part 3, we see what happens during and after the ride.
To connect with Spare and find out how our paratransit solutions can bring your transit agency’s operations into the modern age, reach out to email@example.com