Microtransit series (Part 3): How tech can help transit unlock microtransit's opportunities

November 14, 2018 Sasha Pejcic

Technology in transit is no longer a nice-to-have…it’s a must-have

 

Most transit agencies recognize the important role technology plays in meeting the expectations of today’s ridership. In a smartphone age, we expect to be able to summon anything we need—from a ride to a sandwich—at the touch of a button.

We often advise clients that technology is no longer a nice-to-have but rather a must-have. This is particularly true as conventional fixed-route transit services integrate with other transportation modes that are established on technology and ease of use, such as ride-, bike-, and car-sharing services.

The right technology has the potential to positively impact the entire family of services for many transit agencies, as well as the ways in which riders—both traditional and accessible—use the transit services. As transit agencies consider how to best integrate smart technology into their models, cost is a primary consideration.

Cost-effective technology solutions that enhance the rider experience, grow ridership, and provide actionable data are essential for the successful implementation of any alternative to a transit agency’s fixed-route service.

Many transit agencies are under the impression that incorporating new technology into their existing operations will be either cumbersome or cost-prohibitive. But, that doesn’t have to be the case. The key is to select the appropriate solution scale to match the needs of the agency. 

While there is a plethora of emerging transportation technologies impacting the delivery of transit service around the world, here are a few ways technology can provide a direct benefit to transit agencies, particularly those considering how microtransit can be integrated into their family of services.

 

Cost-effective technology solutions that enhance the rider experience, grow ridership, and provide actionable data are essential for the successful implementation of any alternative to a transit agency’s fixed-route service.

 

On-demand / dynamic scheduling software packages

As we’ve talked about in our previous articles in this series, transit agencies are increasingly exploring on-demand or dynamic scheduling software solutions to unlock the opportunities of microtransit to provide more complete service and better integrated mobility.

Recognizing how much technology you need is vital in the decision-making process. Often, we see smaller transit agencies with too much technology for their size and mid-sized agencies with not enough. Of course, cost certainly factors into the decision. Costs can vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars per month, depending on the level of sophistication your agency requires, so it’s important to recognize the capabilities you actually need. Regardless of the size of the agency, most will need to invest in additional software technology should the agency wish to implement alternative service delivery solutions, such as microtransit or an advanced version of home-to-hub.

There are a growing number of platforms that offer software packages. Some examples include Via, TransLoc, RouteMatch, and SpareLabs. For agencies that require more tailored solutions, there are companies that will customize software, such as MDData and Softbit Tech.

 

Trip planner

Applications such as Google Maps or the Transit App can assist transit users in getting where they want to go. Users provide a starting location, optional midpoints, the destination, and their desired departure or arrival time. The trip planner produces a personalized plan based on these parameters, outlining both the path and mode(s) of travel. An agency’s General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is necessary to power these trip planners.

Many transit agencies currently employ some variation of this system, however, they often start and end at a bus stop and typically do not account for the all-important first-and-last mile. In this instance, an agency may consider an improved app where riders can more completely plan their trips, especially if the service offerings include any sort of on-demand trip booking. By making it easier for riders to understand how they can incorporate public transit into their travel plans, agencies can increase ridership and expand their role into that of a mobility manager. This helps more people get from A to B using a variety of modes (transit, active transportation, car-share, ride-share, bike-share, etc.)

 

Advanced fare payment systems

The number of transit payment options has increased with mobile payments, open payments, and more. Agencies can now choose between operating branded fare cards, open payment systems, smartphones, wearables, or other smart tokens. Smart stations and regional fare cards offer a more integrated approach, enabling connections to other transportation modes such as commuter rail or taxis.

_q_tweetable:In the smartphone age we expect to be able to summon anything we need—from a ride to a sandwich—at the touch of a button._q_

One payment system that is often overlooked is the functionality of the account management system, which is proving to be highly-effective for the delivery of accessible services to seniors or disabled riders who may have challenges using traditional fare products. Mobile and open payment systems can communicate with a central management system to validate the rider’s eligibility to ride and can deduct the value of the ride from a prepaid account. In addition to accessible service programs, account management payment systems communicate well with commuter rail and bus programs where riders may receive some form of subsidy from an employer.

 

Software-as-a-Service

Software as a Service (SaaS) is a model for licensing and delivering software, typically on a subscription basis and hosted in a cloud environment. Unlike conventional software, the SaaS provider ensures a computing environment to run the software and provides a mechanism for accessing the software through a web browser or smartphone/desktop application. The benefits of SaaS include faster time to market (and faster time to benefit), lower costs, greater scalability and integration, and more affordable/accessible upgrades.

Ride platform services like ridewithvia.com, transloc.com, and moovel.com are all using the SaaS concept providing the benefits detailed above to transit clients. Customers of SaaS products generally have options as to how much of the product they wish to purchase, including the speed and size of the computing environment and the desired software functionality. This makes it a more viable option even for a smaller agency.

If there is a public-facing component to a SaaS product—such as to enable fare payment or trip planning—often a cloud-hosted product can be much faster to load and use for the customer as the infrastructure can be more easily optimized for any number of simultaneous data requests.

With the advent of cloud computing and the benefits of agencies not having to maintain their own servers (and thus eliminating the need to directly manage security and upgrades), there are significant advantages to agencies adopting cloud-based software and the concept of software as a service.

For many years, the transit industry has been confined to proprietary software and hardware that came with significant burdens such as installation, maintenance, licenses, upgrades, and more. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.

No matter the size of your agency, whether you’re looking to better integrate mobility for riders, incorporate microtransit into your family of services, improve overall rider experience, or better leverage data to optimize your services, there are a number of cost-effective, user-friendly, and efficient technology options available right now.

In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at how the academic field, private industry, and public agencies are partnering to pilot new design strategies for better integrated mobility, including the use of microtransit.

About the Author

Sasha Pejcic

Sasha Pejcic is leading a group of Stantec management consultants for transit agencies across North America, where he has been applying his knowledge in planning, operations, facilities, and marketing. Sasha has been named to Mass Transit’s prestigious Top 40 Under 40.

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