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US: Transit leaders praise innovative on-demand programs

On-demand transit projects that started before COVID-19 have led to robust ridership and speak to innovation that the public will need in a post-COVID world, according to experts during an event last week.

By Skip Descant

  • On-demand transit projects that started before COVID-19 have led to robust ridership and speak to innovation that the public will need in a post-COVID world, according to experts during an event last week.

“From the start of the pandemic, the public transportation industry pivoted to meet a new world of never-before-seen challenges,” said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) during a July 28 press briefing. “Innovation became survival.”

APTA organized the briefing to underscore transit innovation during the pandemic and to present a new report titled “Mobility Innovation: The Case for Federal Investment and Support.”

The case studies in the report explore how various transit systems have structured, launched and pivoted on-demand projects. In most cases, the on-demand projects aim to bring transit opportunities to areas where few options exist. These areas are often suburban locations with low-density housing. But in some instances, bigger cities seek to improve their available transportation, as with a project in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) partnered with transportation network companies (TNCs) and taxis to provide late-night transportation for service workers.

In many cases, the arrangements depend on partnerships with private mobility providers. When the pandemic reshuffled all forms of normal American life, transit started serving communities in often unorthodox ways. In Los Angeles, an on-demand program launched as a first-mile, last-mile solution through a partnership with Via. The program’s initial idea was to connect riders with transit stations. During the pandemic, the program, in addition to providing rides, morphed into a food delivery service for residents in need.

“When you have a partnership based on innovation, you can adjust that partnership to fit the needs of the moment,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for L.A. Metro, at the briefing. “And then it’s not a one-time thing. There are crises all the time. Different things come in and affect what you plan on doing. Being able to adjust is a lot easier when you’re working in an innovation culture and with an innovative team in the first place.”

The program with Via is now fully integrated within the L.A. Metro system as part of the Metro Micro program, an on-demand service Metro provides with its own operators.

“That means we now have a much larger pilot program for on-demand services,” said Schank.

The food delivery service has continued.

“People still need to get to essential food. And this could potentially be a mobility option that saves us trips by reducing the number of times people are going to and from places,” he added.

Before the pandemic, a similar on-demand program kicked off in Flint, Mich., and provided 13,000 rides a month. The program is now expected to provide some 20,000 to 25,000 rides a month, said Ed Benning, general manager and CEO of Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) Flint.

“So the need is very strong,” said Benning.

Another on-demand program in the Kansas City, Kan., area uses a seven-vehicle county-owned fleet. But the project also includes a partnership with a local taxi service, which can flex into the system and pick up some of the demand to cut down on wait times.

“In my mind that’s kind of the secret sauce that makes the microtransit program in Johnson County work,” said Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County, Kan.

Microtransit ridership is at 150 percent of pre-COVID levels, said Powers. The service provides more than 8,000 rides a month. Month by month, this number continues to increase.

Skoutelas remarked that transit is frequently seen as an “industry that’s slow to change.” However, this viewpoint overlooks the reality that a lot of change is happening in the transit world.

“[W]e need to bring attention to that,” he said. “And we want to share it as widely as we can.”



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