Community Transit Systems
- By Meg Misenti
- Mar 15, 1998
In many cities and towns, elderly, disabled or low-income residents who have trouble getting to their local fixed-route public transportation system can simply place a call and be picked up at their doorstep. To accommodate such "flex" requests, transit agencies are turning to a variety of high-tech alternatives, including automated scheduling software, geographic information systems (GIS), mobile radio data service and the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Since 1992, such customized transportation services have become part of local government service menus. Part of the motivation was a change in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required transit agencies to offer "paratransit or special transportation services." The other reason is pure economics: Transportation agencies in cities and counties are struggling to expand ridership and revenues by increasing service options and boosting efficiency.
To do this, agencies are integrating different modes of service, including fixed-route bus service, flexible-route service-in which vehicles deviate from a set route-and paratransit, or door-to-door, services. Introducing that level of innovation in deeply entrenched local transportation markets is generally difficult, expensive and labor-intensive, but according to experts, that is changing, thanks in part to companies and transit planners who are bringing new software and command-and-control solutions to bear on the problem.
"The demand for flex-type software is greater now than it ever was, and the market doesn't seem to be leveling off," said Ryan Larsen, manager of transit consulting services for Trapeze Software Corp., a Scottsdale, Ariz., developer of transit scheduling and dispatching software. "The industry is changing. People are finding creative ways to...[integrate] different modes of service."
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The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) started with a clean slate in redesigning its transit services. Three years ago, the agency rejected the idea of providing traditional fixed-route bus service with paratransit service for people with disabilities, opting instead to target specific transportation needs of residents in two suburban cities southwest of Washington, D.C.
In addition to fixed-route commuter bus service to key D.C. locations, the PRTC provided flexible-route bus service that allowed drivers to deviate from standard routes to better accommodate local riders. Feeder bus service to Virginia Railway Express stations and a ride-sharing database to facilitate carpooling also was offered.
To launch these services, the PRTC created an integrated transit system called Safires, which stands for the Smart Flex-route Integrated Real-time Enhancement System. The system is designed to choose the most appropriate service-fixed route (commuter bus) or flex route (route deviation)-to respond to transportation requests on the fly.
Safires includes a GPS-based automated vehicle location (AVL) application and real-time scheduling and dispatching software. Fixed- and flex-route services are integrated using GIS mapping, and mobile data terminals (MDTs) communicate dispatch as well as ridership activity. The PRTC has been using Trapeze FL, Trapeze's fully automated scheduling software, on its flex-route service since October.
"The ability to schedule a trip is a lot faster now with the new software," said Eric Marx, the director of planning at the PRTC and the person responsible for Safires. Passengers can schedule a special trip, place a standing order for a repeat trip or pick up the bus at a stop along a standard route. When a customer calls to schedule a trip, agents use the system to look for options to meet the request and then work with the customer to find the optimal route.
Of the 1,200 trips the PRTC provides each day, about 20 percent are deviations from the scheduled route. To navigate deviations, drivers can query the system through their MDTs to request routing instructions. GPS-based vehicle tracking enables the system to capture data on transit performance, evaluate service and more easily determine needed changes in routes and planned stops.
"We know where the vehicles are and if they are running late," Marx said. "Communicating this information electronically allows us to make modifications to make service better for the riders."
Although customer service has been improved, project management has not been easy. "If you could think of a stumbling block-financial, technological, scope of work, time line, meshing of interfaces-we've been through it," said Marx, who went through four technical managers on the project.
"We experienced turnover on every element of our team," he said. "We were also frustrated by how long everything took to come together, especially from the software perspective.
"And we're looking toward a period of time when we can evaluate how well the technology works and determine an adequate expenditure of manpower to keep the system running," he said.
The PRTC received a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to develop Safires. The PRTC contributed about $1 million to operate the bus service.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation put up $200,000, and $200,000 more came from private partners in an in-kind match.
The biggest funding hurdle initially was to figure out what could be done with an unknown amount of money.
"It was a little bit of chicken and egg," said Eric Marx, the director of planning at the PRTC and the person responsible for Safires. "They couldn't tell us how much money they could give us until we could define our needs and a dollar amount." The PRTC has spent about $3.4 million in matching funds toward the project, he said.
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Delaware County, Pa.
Three years ago, Community Transit of Delaware County wanted to increase the number of shared rides available to county residents to improve the return on the 1,800 one-way trips it provides daily. The suburban Philadelphia private nonprofit agency-partially funded by the state lottery-provides door-to-door, shared-ride services to adults 65 and older, people with disabilities and people who have low income or need medical assistance.
To improve customer service and efficiency, Community Transit started incorporating four technology components: scheduling software, MDTs for tracking passenger trips, automated passenger identification cards and radio frequency service.
Instead of fully automated scheduling software-such as the package used by the PRTC-the agency chose Rides Unlimited (which has since been bought by Trapeze), which assists a working scheduler. "The list of human factors that must be considered is lengthy and critical to our patrons," said Judy McGrane, Rides Unlimited's general manager. "I don't think a batch scheduling program can adequately address these factors." Those human aspects include frailty, cognitive impairments, incontinence, medication and care-giver schedules that can affect how long a passenger can remain on a bus.
Cone Software integrated the scheduling and mobile data system for tracking passenger trips, added new interfaces to capture more customer information, developed a back-end reporting system to meet complex billing requirements and created a tracking application to run on MDTs.
Trip requests are scheduled manually. On the day of the trip, the schedule is sent via a cellular digital-packet data network to MDTs in the vehicles. "Once the driver signs on, passenger movement and vehicle movement is tracked online," said Seth Rosenberg, project manager at Cone. The driver picks up a passenger, who swipes an ID card through an automated card reader. Personal and eligibility information on the passenger can then be called up on the data terminal, a feature that helps substitute drivers who may not know regular riders.
Hitting the pickup button on the data terminal transmits a message to the dispatcher that the passenger is on board. "At any time, the dispatcher knows how many trips each driver has and whether a rider has been picked up or dropped off," Rosenberg said. The ride-tracking system also offers increased analytic reporting capabilities, which can provide key data such as how many trips each vehicle makes per hour.
Training the staff and the drivers to use the new technology was critical to getting the system up and running, said McGrane, who involved staff from each agency area. Because most drivers are retirees, McGrane used a phased approach to make the transition from paper manifests to a paperless mobile system. "It was a real challenge to educate these folks," she said.
While the system can handle same-day reservations, Community Transit requires two- to 30-days' advance notice for the 320 requests it gets each day. Currently, the agency has 15 vehicles equipped with MDTs, so most drivers still receive work orders manually and talk to dispatchers over voice channels. "But that will change," said McGrane, who expects to have all vehicles equipped with MDTs and to provide same-day service early this year.
Community Transit received an initial grant of $200,000 from the FTA to develop the passenger ID system and MDTs. "In addition to FTA, we had a private foundation that donated $90,000 that we used to purchase the Rides Unlimited software and do modifications," said Judy McGrane, Rides Unlimited's general manager. Grants from counties totaled $183,000. McGrane expressed confidence that her agency's operating costs will be affordable. "Other than equipping new vehicles with mobile data terminals, the ongoing operating costs will mainly be the costs of transmitting the data from headquarters to the vehicles," she said.
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Ann Arbor, Mich.
Unlike the PRTC and Community Transit, which tailored their services to key segments of their communities, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority in Michigan sought simply to grow. "We felt we had to have a paradigm change on how we interfaced with our customers, and we felt that technology would give us a greater opportunity to expand our services and capture a bigger share of the market," said Greg Cook, executive director of AATA.
Three years ago AATA began using a host of new transit technologies, including a GPS-based AVL program and a computer-aided dispatch system to route and schedule vehicles dynamically. Now 23 vehicles are equipped with MDTs and AVL systems, which are programmed for paratransit or fixed-route service, depending on the need.
The AVL system allows a dispatcher to track vehicles in real time. "We can see on a screen a map of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti with all the vehicles and their locations," said Amy Terango, paratransit coordinator at AATA. "It's time-specific, constantly changing and accurate [within] a few meters." The agency installed Trapeze's multimodal scheduling software and since December has used its fully automated dispatching features.
Rides scheduled in advance are held in the database until the day of the trip, when they are sent to each vehicle's MDT. Drivers provide feedback via their MDTs to the system, which stores the data. "The power of it is the feedback from the driver," said Bill Hiller, manager of information systems at AATA. "We actually have knowledge of what's going on out there and can make better decisions on same-day trip scheduling."
AATA, which provides about 500 trips per day, offers same-day as well as advance reservations. The software sends cancellations or add-ons directly to the driver's MDT, which beeps when the schedule changes. "This is a great cost-saver because sometimes you can't [reach] the dispatcher to radio the van," said Terango, whose dispatchers also handle the city's fixed-route bus service.
All paratransit passengers use AATA ID cards-the agency's first step toward a smart card. "We're looking at speed of technology and compatibility with other cards in the area," Terango said.
"This was a massive undertaking," Cook said. "We can do so much more now, [such as] expanding our service area and setting up links with other agencies like health care providers, social services agencies and even large employers." Terango said the agency plans to connect its World Wide Web site (www.aata.org) to the AVL technology to allow paratransit riders to submit requests electronically, and eventually, schedule their own trips.
AATA's initial funding-almost $2 million-came largely from federal and state grants. Today its main funding sources include a property tax from city residents and the purchase of service agreements with local townships and the city of Ypsilanti. "Towns pay for a level of service that they can afford, and we provide service based on that," said Amy Terango, paratransit coordinator at AATA.