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Tech Enables Better On-Demand Services for Transit Agencies

Several transit agencies are experimenting with service ideas that will pick you up from home, much like a taxi or ride-share service.

Taxi trips in Kansas City, Mo., have fallen to $3 for some passengers, while similar door-to-door transportation services can be arranged in Tampa, Fla., for just a few dollars. A similar transit program in Austin, Texas, has made its rides free. 
These three cities are just a few examples of transit agencies experimenting with transportation models that offer more “on-demand” services while exploring new transit options in neighborhoods with few regular bus routes.
“The millennials want transit, but they don’t want a 40-foot bus. They want other options out there, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to do some new initiatives, and new clever ideas to get people around, to where they want to go,” said Greg Brackin, director of operations support and ADA officer with the Hillsborough Regional Transit (HART), serving Florida’s Tampa region.
In 2016, HART rolled out HyperLINK, a pilot program offering door-to-service within set zones for $3 a ride. HART officials hoped HyperLINK would encourage riders to take the service, offered in van-type vehicles, to a bus station that would place the rider within the larger HART system. Several months later, the system was tweaked so that a HyperLINK ride only costs $1 for anyone connecting with a bus, and $3 for everyone else.
“So we encouraged them to use it for transit, but if they want to use it to get around in the area, that seems to have worked,” said Brackin.
Since making these changes, HyperLINK ridership has doubled to more than 3,600 trips a month. In November, ridership climbed to more than 4,300 trips, officials reported.
“So, it looks like our changes have worked,” Brackin added.
In Kansas City, Mo., officials are into the first six months of testing a pilot, known as RideKC Freedom On-Demand, that offers $3 cab rides within two large swaths of the city for passengers with disabilities, and $2 per mile beyond the first eight miles. Other residents without a disability can ride for $5 per trip within eight miles, adding $2 for every additional mile.
Nearly 30,000 trips have been taken since the soft launch of RideKC Freedom in May 2016. The service is intended to function as an alternative option for paratransit riders, or riders who have been prequalified by a doctor for on-demand transit.
The RideKC Freedom service is significantly cheaper to operate than traditional paratransit service, which can cost more than $40 per trip.
“Under the RideKC Freedom structure, the agency pays up to $19.50 per trip,” said Jameson Auten, vice president, Regional Service Delivery and Innovation Division at Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA). 
“We’re able to save money and use a better service, and the reason why is because we’re using non-dedicated fleet.”
RideKC, like HyperLINK in Tampa and a new similar service called Pickup by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro), allows riders to call up the service via a mobile app as well as dialing into a traditional dispatching service. Payment can be handled through the mobile app — similar to a ride-hailing service like Lyft or Uber — as well as made in cash. Transit officials in all three cities stressed the importance of devising systems that will serve the entire community, including users without access to a smartphone, the Internet or a bank account.  
The CapMetro system covers free rides within a roughly seven-square-mile area in Mueller and Windsor Park Neighborhoods, which are located near downtown — areas that have little in the way of regular bus service. The Pickup is available six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Riders generally have a 10 to 15 minute wait between requesting the ride and the vehicle arriving. An average of 68 customers use the service daily, mostly opting for destinations within the service area, said Tony Lynch, supervisor of the Demand Response Planning department at CapMetro.
The Pickup uses software developed by Via, the ride-hailing app that puts would-be carpoolers in touch with each other. CapMetro is using its own vehicles for the trips, rather than contracting this work out to an outside provider or partnering with the local taxi provider, which is done in Tampa and Kansas City, respectively.
Partnering with Uber, Lyft or other transportation network companies was considered, officials explained, but serving passengers with disabilities could not always be guaranteed, and transportation network companies (TNCs) often do not require the same level of background checks and drug and alcohol screening as other transit providers.
Uber was one of the bidders for the Tampa service, but was disqualified because it did not have adequately served riders with disabilities, Brackin said.
“Their version of ADA (Americans With Disability Act) was to throw a wheelchair in the trunk, and that’s not how we do business,” he added. 
Transdev, Tampa’s contractor for HyperLINK, is paid $10 per ride. The funding comes in part from a $400,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation. HART matched with another $400,000.
The Pickup in Austin costs CapMetro about $25 per trip, significantly more than a fixed-route bus, which equates to about $5.50 per passenger to operate. It’s not yet clear if Pickup will transition into a fare-based service when the pilot ends in about five months.
“There’s some numbers that we really, really have to dig into before we actually put something like this into regular rotation,” said Lynch.
On-demand transit is not a novel concept, said Jeff Becker, senior manager of service development for the Regional Transportation District in Denver, Colo. What is new is the way transit agencies are employing technology to connect riders to transit options.
“There is not much new here except for the highly accessible, easy-to-pay ... user-friendly, pretty accurate dispatching apps,” he explained.
Watch for on-demand and other features to be introduced by transit organizations to lure riders out of their cars, with what officials hope will be more convenient transportation options.
“At the end of the day, people are creatures of habit, and they’re going to use what works for them,” said Auten.

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.