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MARTA, Microsoft, Georgia Tech Partner to Improve Microtransit

The latest Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority pilot project, MARTA Reach, pulled in the expertise of tech giant Microsoft and students at Georgia Tech to build a platform that helped to close first- and last-mile gaps.

A MARTA train passing through a station with people waiting on the platform.
(David Kidd)
Another major transit agency is dipping its toes into the waters of on-demand microtransit, aided this time by a marquee technology company.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) recently launched its MARTA Reach program, an on-demand service using small cutaway shuttles to connect riders with the larger bus and train network. The six-month pilot project began in March and was a partnership among MARTA, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Microsoft, which provided much of the technology backbone.

“We are currently in the evaluation phase, where we are analyzing how the program went, including ridership numbers, rider demographics, operations, equity and access, and costs — among many others,” said Anthony Thomas, project manager for MARTA Reach.

Transit agencies across the nation in cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle and others have been turning to on-demand microtransit initiatives as they work to better serve riders, particularly by closing the first-mile, last-mile gap.

Agencies are also responding to calls that they serve more as transportation providers, and not simply operators or bus and train networks along fixed routes. It is a call to become more relevant and responsive in a post-COVID-19 world. Public transit ridership nationwide is now at about 68 percent of pre-COVID-19 ridership, according to a transit ridership dashboard maintained by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

The MARTA Reach project, which ran from early March until the end of August, provided around 8,300 trips. The project used MARTA vehicles, with technology developed by Georgia Tech, using expertise from Microsoft and the company’s Azure cloud platform.

“What ended up happening was they [Georgia Tech] started the process of having this thing built out, and then reached out to our account team, looking for some support in a couple of places,” explained Samir Saini, industry director for U.S. critical infrastructure at Microsoft, adding the university needed support around “optimizing the solution architecture.”

The project helped to demonstrate that an on-demand transit program — which includes developing the user app and other technology pieces — is not as big of a lift as some agencies may imagine it to be, Saini explained.

“What we love about this story the most is we didn’t have to get a third-party partner involved. It was relatively seamless, and easy, for the Georgia Tech students themselves to build this. Which is ultimately the goal,” said Saini. “This kind of capability is not something that you necessarily have to depend on from a third-party partner, to buy as a SaaS solution [software as a service]. It can be built, organically.”

The project launched in three zones and then expanded to other areas, with weekly ridership increasing as the project progressed, said Georgia Tech officials.

“The idea was to address the first-mile, last-mile issue — connecting users without convenient access to MARTA buses and trains,” said Joshua Stewart, a communications spokesman for the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.

Ultimately, the technology solution developed by Georgia Tech for the MARTA Reach project is the university’s own, said Saini, and Microsoft has no plans to jump directly into the transportation tech arena. But it hopes to impress upon agencies and others the versatility and ease of working with the Azure platform.

“We want to make sure that transit agencies, first and foremost, understand that this kind of capability, to build an on-demand transit system that’s highly available, functional and works… can be done, relatively easily, leveraging the Microsoft stack,” said Saini.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.