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Some people think on-demand microtransit exists in its own world. On-demand is one thing and fixed-route is another. They are two different animals that don’t overlap with each other. But several agencies have found that on-demand transit is a great way to: 

  • See where new routes should go 
  • Bridge the gap while demand increases 
  • Expand fixed route service by focusing on the routes with the most passengers. 

In parts of the country, like Phoenix, AZ, that are growing fast, it’s nearly impossible to know where new fixed route buses should go, especially now when so many people work from home. When a new development goes in, how do you know what kind of demand for transit there will be? And even if there is demand, is it worth driving a 40-foot bus around empty or having community shuttles with hour plus headways? Neither of those seem like good uses of scarce operating dollars. 

But what if you offered on demand, microtransit in new developments—maybe even at a discount to start—to see what demand is like first? You get a true sense of where people are and connect riders to larger transit hubs more conveniently than a community shuttle. What if before you attempt to get a big bus into places it might not be able to physically go, you serve the people with something smaller and more convenient? 

What if you could offer more frequency and service on your most popular routes by replacing inefficient routes with microtransit? Imagine getting more people riding transit by connecting more neighborhoods to faster and more efficient routes on major corridors. 

Get people into the transit habit by going right to where they live. When on demand, fixed-route, and even paratransit can work in synergy together, each mode makes the other modes stronger.

Let’s dispel some misconceptions about on demand transit with 5 ways on-demand transit supports fixed route buses and improves operations.

On-demand transit is not an either or thing 

A recent article in Bloomberg talked about this oft argued line of thinking that on-demand and fixed-route are too different and that they compete with each other for riders. But the truth is more complicated. Fixed-route and on-demand do meet different needs, but they are complementary services that can help each one be more efficient. 

Fixed-route is great at moving lots of people along well-travelled corridors. Fixed-route connects people with large transit hubs, employers, schools, and other activity centers. It’s most efficient when it doesn’t have to stop too often and can travel in a pretty direct route from A to B. Fixed-route on major streets and roads is a no brainer. 

But we’ve also all been on bus routes that wander half-empty around neighborhoods and often feel like it would be faster to walk than ride the bus. The route might have been put in to meet a potential need or even serve a large employer who isn’t even around anymore. When it takes people three times longer to take the bus than to drive a private car, people who have the choice will opt for convenience. 

Now consider if the route could be reconfigured to be more direct and stay on major roads, while on-demand supported people who occasionally need transit. You could even offer two kinds of on-demand services. One that’s more door-to-door and personalized and another that serves as a door-to-transit connector. Either way, you’re getting cars off the road and people using transit. That’s exactly what the city of Decatur, IL is planning on doing. Resources are  focused on increased frequency serving jobs, shopping, and education, and connecting far-flung neighborhoods with more reliable transit on demand. 

Bring relief to transit deserts 

There are two kinds of transit deserts: where people live and where people work. On-demand transit brings public transit options to people who need it regardless of where they are. When there is no transit in communities, people can’t access work, school, or healthcare easily. They must rely on friends or taxis to connect them to the rest of the city. Some transit deserts are the result of systemic planning inequalities, but others happen when small areas suddenly have more people than they did before. A new development outside of town wasn’t on the transit planning map; now suddenly there are people who need to get places and go way to do it. 

The other side of the coin is when companies build new campuses in green field areas without any existing transit service. Without public transit, beyond the need for parking and traffic management, those companies are limited to hiring people who have cars and can drive to work. What about everyone else? 

Tsawwassen Mills outside of Vancouver, BC was seen as a boon for the First Nations on whose land the mall sits and for job creation in the Lower Mainland, but things didn’t go as planned when it opened in 2016. There were few transit options available to the mostly minimum wage workers, making it hard to attract employees to somewhere 18/mi/30km from the closest Skytrain station and bounded by some of the most congested roads in the area. Eventually the mall was forced to offer a shuttle service from major transit hubs simply so they could get workers to jobs. Building this project in the middle of a transit desert not only made it hard to attract employees, but since shoppers had few options other than driving to get to the mall, it caused massive traffic congestion during the opening weeks. 

On-demand transit works on both sides of this problem. People can use on-demand to get to and from a major transit hubs when, like in the campus safety example, it’s early or late and regular service isn’t available. 

Get ahead of growth and gauge demand 

Like the transit deserts, when an area is growing fast, even if it’s concentrated in a small area, it’s practically impossible for transit routes to keep up. Even if planners could wave a magic wand and create schedules that predict future growth, most subdivisions can’t support large buses rolling through their streets. For dense neighborhoods, many agencies use community shuttle models to connect subdivisions with larger transit routes. But community shuttles can have excruciatingly long wait times and wander through neighborhoods without many passengers for much of the day. So, community shuttles get a bad rap as being wasteful and empty most of the time, when in reality they are crucial to the neighborhood, just not in the same way throughout the day. 

A better solution is looking at community shuttles and on-demand transit as “yes and” options. Use on-demand to gauge interest and ridership patterns, then deploy community shuttles when you understand the community’s needs. 

Here’s how it could work. 

A new subdivision has gone in and is quickly filling up. While you get a sense of what a community needs, an on-demand shuttle service is used to see where people live and where they want to go. After a few months, ridership patterns become clear. You see that this area has three distinct zones or clusters of people and there are cohorts of people who need to get to hubs in the morning and evening. During the day, there are fewer people riding and they aren’t going to transit hubs as much as shopping, libraries, and activities. Instead of trying to create community shuttle routes to meet everyone’s needs (and failing), you create a hybrid approach. Community shuttles operate a rapid, fixed route going through your main zones to and from the transit hubs in the morning and evening. During the day these shuttles serve double duty as on-demand vehicles and paratransit roving through the three zones as needed to bring people to shopping, activities, and appointments. 

As the community grows and changes, the on-demand service might evolve back to a regular community shuttle or stay focused on serving the less predictable needs of the community during the day. Either way you’ve created a transit habit in a community by being flexible and adaptable. 

Bridge the first mile-last mile gap and improve rider experience 

Like growing subdivisions or transit deserts, the first mile – last mile gap is a huge issue for transit agencies. People who are ready and willing to take transit, but options to get from home to transit to work have big gaps. This isn’t a stopgap, like meeting growing needs or fixing a transit desert—which might get its own fixed route service as demand grows—this is a permanent solution to a real need. 

Say you live close to a park and ride lot. It’s maybe a 10-minute drive to get there, but if you took transit, it’s 2-3x that and getting home in the evening can be a challenge. While using a park and ride is great for reducing congestion, it’s still a car on the road. Chances are in the morning and evening there are enough people to fill a small on-demand vehicle, but not enough people in a single place to make a community shuttle practical. On-demand transit can pick up groups of people all from the same general area to get to/from the park and ride and then be deployed elsewhere in the neighborhood. 

Unlike a community shuttle on a fixed route, an on-demand vehicle goes where the demand is, not tied to the demands of a route. Your shuttle can only follow one path, because people are expecting it to be at a certain place at a certain time. Your on-demand vehicle can go drop people off at a park and ride, and pick up people there to go somewhere else. Then go from there to the next place it’s needed. It’s flexible transit that adapts to what your community needs when they are needed. 

Closing the gap between where transit ends and where you need to go, encourages people to take transit. You eliminate the mindset of “well, it’s just easier if I drive” and replace it with “it’s so much easier when I don’t have to worry about traffic or parking.” 

Make better use of paratransit vehicles 

Paratransit is by far the most expensive mode transit agencies offer. It’s often one-on-one, booked far ahead of time, and uses specialized vehicles. You have vehicles driving from place to place and often empty a lot of the time between pickups. But paratransit vehicles don’t have to serve only ADA riders, just as a non-paratransit on demand shuttle bus or van doesn’t have to be limited to only on-demand riders. 

You can blend these two fleets into a hybrid fleet that sends the right kind of vehicle to the right people right when it’s needed. Not all paratransit riders need a full lift and accessibility equipment, some people just find getting to or riding on transit too difficult on their own. You can dispatch an accessible vehicle for more mobile paratransit users that could pick up non-paratransit riders along the way. For riders who need lifts and other accommodations, sending a fully equipped van is the right choice, but it can also be used after a paratransit run for non-ADA passengers on its way to the next paratransit pick up. 

The crucial thing here is making the most efficient use of a driver’s time and fuel while also maximizing revenue. Driving empty revenue vehicles around isn’t the best use of scarce resources, but if you can reduce dead head runs by flexibly putting vehicles into service, then everyone wins. 

TransLoc makes on demand better transit for everyone 

The hardest part of making on-demand service a reality is planning and dispatch. Trying to juggle which drivers should go where, when, and in what order is almost impossible for a person to work out on their own. And that’s if the phone doesn’t ring requesting a pickup right after you think you’ve got it all figured out. 

TransLoc takes away that pain. 

Riders can request a ride from a mobile app and the TransLoc software matches the rider with a driver and handles all the dispatching and routing. Drivers can see their upcoming pickups and drop offs from a tablet and don’t have to answer a radio call to add a new pickup while driving since their route is dynamically updated as they drive with new instructions pushed to them. 

Automated booking can reduce call center staff so you can deploy your limited staff where you need them instead of answering the phone and booking riders. 

TransLoc OnDemand solution lets you deploy your people, vehicles, and resources right where they need to be and improve service for your riders at the same time. 

Learn more about TransLoc on-demand solutions