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Autonomous On-Demand Transit Comes to Rural Minnesota

The rural northern community of Grand Rapids is now being served by Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative, an 18-month pilot program to explore the use of self-driving on-demand microtransit.

Riders boarding an on-demand autonomous van in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Riders board an on-demand autonomous transit vehicle in Grand Rapids, Minn. The service, known as goMARTI, is an 18-month pilot program.
Submitted Photo: Via
Autonomous transit has come to rural Minnesota, supplementing local transportation options.

The service in the small northern city of Grand Rapids, known as goMARTI (Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative), will run for 18 months and include an area across 17 square miles with some 70 pickup and drop-off locations. Five ADA-compliant Toyota Sienna vans will be used for the service and will all include an onboard safety driver.

The project is a partnership among the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the city of Grand Rapids, Via, May Mobility and others.

“Via and May Mobility together believe that the broader promise of AVs lies in their capacity to transform mass transit through shared, public AV services like this one,” said Israel Duanis, senior vice president and head of logistics at Via. “There are so many potential benefits for shared, public AVs — including bringing more riders to mass transit, creating safer streets, and reducing operating costs — compared to single-use AVs.”

The project is in a similar vein as other on-demand, microtransit operations in other parts of the country, where smaller vehicles take the place of larger transit buses to better serve locations with little access to conventional public transit. And increasingly, public agencies and the private sector are exploring the use of autonomy in these applications, drawn to it by the significant operational savings when no driver is involved.

“On-demand microtransit can create operational and cost efficiencies for operators when compared to traditional dial-a-ride or fixed-route transit,” said Duanis. “When AVs are booked and routed dynamically based on real-time factors, demand-responsive software can optimize the fleet’s utilization.”