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Orange County, Calif., Looks to Microtransit to Bridge Ridership Gaps

To improve access in areas impacted by bus route reductions, officials are looking at an innovative method of connecting riders with their destinations.

Officials in Orange County, Calif., have plans to launch a new service this summer that behaves more like a taxi than a bus.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) is set to launch OC Flex, an on-demand, microtransit service that dispatches vehicles to a rider’s home and takes them to a destination. The service, which is expected to be approved by the OCTA board on March 26, would begin July 1.

Like other “on-demand” transit programs popping up in cities across California and other parts of the country, OC Flex will begin as a one-year pilot and will operate in two designated coverage areas, known as “zones.” Each zone will cover about six square miles, according to an OCTA staff report. As it's currently planned, the system will serve the cities of Huntington Beach, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo.

OCTA has selected Keolis Transit as the operator, with the contract to be finalized at the March 26 board meeting.

The aim for the project, said Andreas Mai, executive vice-president for market development and innovation at the Keolis Group, is “to provide public transit mobility in those underserved areas, to extend the reach of the OC bus and Metrolink services, but also to reduce the operating costs and capital costs required, and the vehicle miles traveled.”

Mai made the comments during a Meeting of the Minds webinar March 14. Meeting of the Minds is a nonprofit promoting smart and sustainable cities. The Keolis Group is the parent company for Keolis Transit, which is based in Los Angeles.  

The $1,150,000 project is structured to provide transit services in areas where there’s little demand or need for full fixed-route service. OC Flex will use a cloud-based system to route and dispatch vehicles to riders. The vehicles will transport passengers to predetermined “hubs” — retail centers, transit stops and other destinations — or to any destination with a coverage zone.

The system is being structured as shared transit, meaning vehicles may transport multiple riders at one time.

OC Flex is being launched to help bolster slipping ridership in Orange County. Ridership on the Orange County bus system fell 22 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to statistics. Though final statistics for 2017 were not readily available, the trend seemed to be continuing. In the summer of 2016, the authority initiated the first phase of its plan to increase ridership, which is known as OC Bus 360°.

“The idea was that if we don’t change anything, nothing will change. And ridership would continue to sharply decline,” said Eric Carpenter, a spokesman for OCTA.

The agency began surveying riders and holding community meetings to hear from residents to learn why they were abandoning the region’s bus system.

“What we heard repeatedly is that buses need to run more frequently and get riders to their destinations faster,” said Carpenter.

Similarly, the Southern California Association of Governments recently released its own report, a detailed look at declining mass transit use across Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Orange and Imperial counties — a region home to 18.8 million residents.

The report concluded that an increase in car ownership — particularly among residents who have traditionally been frequent users of public transit — contributed to significant drops in ridership.

In addition to the upcoming OC Flex, transit officials in Orange County have increased bus frequencies and improved travel times, among other improvements. The changes seem to be working; OCTA reported 92 percent of riders saw improved service or no change to their existing service.

“But this also meant making some difficult decisions to reduce or eliminate service in some areas throughout Orange County where buses had low ridership,” said Carpenter. “It didn’t make sense in some places in south Orange County, for instance, that aren’t as densely populated to continue running buses that were close to empty.”

OC Flex will operate in some of those areas where regular fixed route service was reduced or eliminated.

By September 2017, Orange County bus ridership had increased 20 percent compared to where it was at the same time a year before, say transit officials.

The transit authority also introduced technology improvements by launching a mobile-ticketing app in summer 2016 and then outfitting the buses with mobile-ticketing readers in February. More than 76,000 riders have downloaded the app. 

“Previously, riders had to show their smartphone screen to the coach operator for verification, which could slow the boarding process,” said Carpenter.

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.