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Transit Partnerships Take On First/Last-Mile Problem

Municipal transit agencies are working with private companies to reduce the difficulty people often have in getting from home or work to public transportation, making trains and buses more accessible for all.

by / June 2020
Matthew Henry/Unsplash

One of the most persistent issues transit and transportation planners face is how to move their populations a mile or two. A few miles are often all that separates a rider’s front door from a transit stop; or the distance from a transit stop to an office. It’s the dreaded “first-mile/last-mile” conundrum. And it often means the difference between taking the train or bus into work, or driving the car, often unaccompanied, and contributing to increasingly congested highways and growing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, every dollar invested in public transportation brings four times that in economic impact. So while it’s true that transit agencies tend to require investments that aren’t repaid in fares, an effective transit system does contribute to the economic vitality of a community.

Transit agencies large and small have launched many efforts to attract riders by making those first- and last-mile trips easier. It has often meant partnering with a private-sector transportation provider like Via or a transportation network company like Lyft or, increasingly, a bike- or scooter-share operator.

Just over a year ago, transit agencies in Los Angeles and Seattle launched partnerships with Via, a provider of on-demand, shared transit. Riders engage with the service much like they would a ride-hailing app, while folks without access to a smartphone can dial a call center for service. The pilot programs were funded by the Federal Transit Administration.

In Los Angeles, the pilot covered service to three distinct zones, with each ride starting or ending at transit stations within the service zones. One of the larger overarching missions for officials at L.A. Metro, the region’s transit agency, was reducing single-occupancy trips.

L.A. Metro riders using the ridesharing option don’t pay a fare until they board a bus or train. / Credit: David Kidd/Government Technology


“If we’re doing that — and this certainly can contribute to that — we’re getting more people who used to travel alone to use alternative means,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for L.A. Metro. “And our initial data indicates that we are.

“A lot of people who were driving alone and parking at stations are saying they’re using this,” Schank added. “A lot of people who used to have a more cumbersome and long, challenging ride to stations are using this. Those are the types of metrics that we are looking at.

“Now, the question is, at some point, is it worth the amount of money we’re spending to get those outcomes? And, from our perspective, this has been a real win on that front,” Schank continued. “Because we’ve been coming in under budget. We have a partner that’s been very flexible, that has tried to accommodate what we’re trying to accomplish and really wants to work with us to meet those goals.”

Ridership has grown from week to week, with only 100 to 200 rides per week in the initial few weeks. As word of the service spread, however, ridership picked up to 3,500 rides a week prior to the slowdown brought on by the novel coronavirus, which took ridership down to 1,300 rides a week. Riders don’t pay when boarding, but instead pay their fare when transferring onto a connecting bus or train.

“It’s taken a while for word-of-mouth to get around, for people to know about the service. It definitely took time to grow that ridership. But it has been going up and up,” said Marie Sullivan, project manager for the mobility-on-demand pilot project. The program has expanded to now serve 10 Metro stations.

In Seattle, transit officials organized a similar year-long pilot with Via, connecting riders to five light rail stations. The pilot concluded near the end of March.

“The idea was to test the use of a transportation network company to provide first- and last-mile service, to make it easier for people to access our transit system, and to expand the access of those transportation network companies to populations who historically have been left out of being able to use on-demand services,” explained Casey Gifford, Innovative Mobility project manager for King County Metro.

The city of Seattle expressed interest in the project and contributed funding to expand its scope. Four of the five transit stops served by the on-demand service were located in Seattle, offering seven-day service at those four stations, 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., correlating with the service hours of the light rail system.

Ridership mostly followed the peak service seen during morning and afternoon commutes on the light rail system, and totaled about 1,000 rides per weekday.

“We also have a lot of youth who take advantage of the service. They’re using it to get to school, and get to jobs, and get to recreational opportunities.”

LA+Metro+train

The L.A. Metro pilot with Via has on-demand rides starting and ending at transit stations in three designated zones, reducing the number of people who drive alone to park at stations. / Credit: David Kidd/Government Technology


School-age riders also turned out to be frequent users of an on-demand shared transit program launched in Cupertino, Calif., in November 2019 as part of an 18-month pilot program, again using Via as the service provider.

“Generally, the community has been really supportive and happy with the program. The data we’re getting is really interesting. I think we went into this assuming it would be more something seniors would take advantage of, and maybe not the rest of the community as much. We’re seeing a really broad usage pattern,” said Chris Corrao, senior transportation planner in Cupertino, adding that a number of users of the program are turning out to be high-school-age riders who may use the service to get home from school or to afterschool events.

“Usually for these kinds of programs, you get the huge morning and afternoon peaks, and then sometimes quiet during the day,” said Corrao. “And we’re not seeing that at all. It’s just kind of busy all day, which is great. It’s expensive to run, so we want to make sure it’s as used as possible.”

The goal of the projects is to “leverage the transit infrastructure that these transit agencies have already built, and help bring more people to transit,” said Obinna Emenike, general manager of partners at Via, speaking during a panel discussion at the CoMotion LA conference last fall in downtown Los Angeles.

“Both of the services have been a success,” Emenike said of the projects in Los Angeles and Seattle. “I think we’ve hit every single one of the KPIs [key performance indicators] that we laid out, and the service continues to grow.”

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) in Austin, Texas, also partnered with Via to launch a new on-demand service now available in six zones, an expansion from one area back when the service was piloted two years ago. The expansion was due, in part, to the elimination of some of the fixed-route bus service following a system redesign, said Tony Lynch, supervisor of the Demand Response Planning department at CapMetro.

“Our Board of Directors requested that where we removed fixed-route, we have an alternative service,” said Lynch. “We determined Pickup was the best option for these locations. Each zone must have access to grocery stores and frequent fixed-route transit at a minimum.”

Ridership has grown since August last year, when it hovered around 80 to 100 riders a day, to 400 to 500 a day — or sometimes slightly more — by February. It has slipped significantly since service was adjusted for the coronavirus response.

The service is designed to both connect riders with regular, fixed-route transit and offer transit within the service zone.

“We determined that the zones must have trip generators like grocery, retail, post office, parks and connections to frequent bus service,” said Lynch. “Initially it looks like the majority of trips are taken to grocery stores and connecting to other transit. Of course, some customers use the service to visit friends and family who live within a particular Pickup zone.”

Austin, Texas, offers on-demand Pickup service in six zones in the city, in conjunction with fixed-route buses throughout the area. / Credit: Capital Metroblog


Not all public-private transit partnerships are formed with traditional transit. The service created in Cupertino is an example seen in a growing collection of small communities — the Silicon Valley city, home to Apple headquarters, has about 60,000 residents — where on-demand transit is the only option.

Cupertino will contribute about $1.2 million for its shuttle service.

“Which is no small amount,” said Corrao, “but it is significantly less than running a full community shuttle.”

In some cases, such as a proposal in Wilson, N.C. (pop. 50,000), communities are contemplating abandoning existing fixed-route transit service.

The city council in Wilson is considering a proposal to replace fixed-route transit service with an on-demand system operated by Via.

“It is very difficult to operate an efficient transit system without the economies of scale found in metropolitan areas, which is one reason most cities of our size do not provide public transportation,” said Grant Goings, city manager for Wilson, in a statement. “For years we have been looking for a technology-based solution that would increase our levels of service to the citizens while containing costs. We believe this public-private partnership provides such an opportunity.”

Other partnerships have formed between transit agencies and transportation network companies (TNCs) like Lyft or Uber. The Transportation Authority for Marin County, Calif., launched a program three years ago to provide up to a $5 per ride credit for users of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), a newly launched commuter rail service for the area north of San Francisco. The program was expanded this year to include two new SMART stations in an effort to grow ridership on the train as well as reduce congestion and air pollution.

Another pilot program that involved a partnership with both Lyft and Via to get riders to light rail stops in the Denver metro area in 2016 was ultimately discontinued due to the high cost of providing service that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Officials say measuring success for these programs — and continuing their operation — is based on a number of factors. And the coronavirus crisis represents the newest curve ball thrown at transit.

“We’re still working with our partners to determine what’s going to happen,” said Gifford at King County Metro, in an interview in early April. The future is less sure given “the new wave of uncertainty that’s come upon us pretty rapidly,” she added.

In Cupertino, ridership data from March and April showed that most users were no longer using the service to get to school or connecting to Caltrain stations like they had been.

“Now, all of our trips are, like, to Target and Whole Foods,” said Corrao.

“We almost considered pausing the program,” due to low ridership, he added. “But we decided, if people are using it, even if it’s a lot less, then we want to have the option for them.”

The city and Via have suspended shared rides in order to maintain physical distancing requirements.

In Los Angeles, Schank said Metro plans to explore other on-demand transit opportunities.

“Our partner remains the people who need it most,” he said plainly. “So that is always what we’re going to be looking for. Where are the places where first- and last-mile options are not great? And we’ve got economically disadvantaged communities we can serve.”

What the new era brought on by the coronavirus has demonstrated is the benefits of a system quick to respond to by-the-moment changes, said Sullivan.

“One thing that service has been able to show, in the midst of this crisis, is flexibility that is inherent in the service model,” she remarked.

In Seattle, ridership numbers are but one metric, said Gifford.

“We’re also looking at who is riding. And equity is one of our core components, or core goals, at King County Metro.”

One of the goals of the program was to serve disadvantaged communities as well as to ensure the service was accessible for riders of all abilities.

“We are also looking at sustainability and the safety of the service,” said Gifford, adding, “ultimately, we’re going to have to take into account the financial situation.”

And of course, all transit agencies are exploring any number of partnerships.

“We’re all about innovating and testing new ways to facilitate access to mobility for our customers,” said Gifford. “And we’re really excited to have more tools in our toolbox for us to leverage. We know that a 40-foot bus is not always going to meet the needs of all of our users, so we are all about testing a range of different mobility options for different populations, for different contexts, to see what works best for each community.”

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

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 Sacramento.

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