Transit agencies across the country are experiencing explosive growth in demand for accessible transit ridership. A key driver of this increased demand is an aging population that is bringing new mobility challenges and a greater need for public transit agencies to address accessible ridership in a sustainable and community-focused way.
Over the last five years, accessible transit ridership is up 150% in the U.S. and is projected to grow at a rate of about 8% per year. The over-65 age group is growing at a rate nearly four times that of the U.S. population as a whole, and by 2030, it’s estimated that one in five people will be age 65 or older. For many transit agencies, this means a new approach is necessary to address outdated demand-management models, a generally low bar for eligibility to access paratransit services, and a reliance on traditional “ADA” vehicles that make it challenging to keep up with accessible transit demand.
At the same time, public transit agencies are laboring to keep their general market share. The enticement of low pricing by automobile manufacturers, a generally strong economy, and the meteoric rise in private microtransit models, such as Uber and Lyft, have led many reliable public transit riders to consider other options. The decrease in overall transit ridership and the addition of rising costs is creating an acute strain on agencies as they simultaneously grapple with the need to modernize and optimize their systems to become more attractive to riders and the realities of the bottom line.
There is significant opportunity for transit agencies to leverage the excitement for these new alternatives to the single-occupancy vehicle into “new” offerings to maintain — and potentially grow — public transit ridership. While microtransit offers a toolbox of options to update and optimize paratransit systems, many transit agencies are still in the process of understanding how to best implement cost-effective changes that will meet their riders’ needs now and in the future. Complicating everything is the sheer speed at which technology is changing and fueling significant shifts in the way people travel, along with riders’ expectations for the experience of getting from one place to another.
Across the board, decision-makers and planners are looking to the world of private microtransit to glean best practices and lessons learned to optimize their existing service. The goal is to integrate microtransit more effectively to support the needs of all transit riders.
Some agencies, such as Innisfil Transit in Ontario, Canada, are experimenting with simply integrating private microtransit into their spectrum of service options, using rideshares as contractors within the larger agency structure. This kind of a solution might make sense depending on factors such as an agency’s existing collective agreements and the costs associated with outsourcing the service versus capacity of the existing vehicles in the fleet.
In other cases, agencies like Golden Empire Transit District (GET) in Bakersfield, Calif., are looking at ways to revamp their own operations. GET is interested in taking a leading role in piloting new and innovative ways to deliver mobility to improve financial sustainability and grow ridership. This includes looking at the methods by which it designs and delivers services, including offering services that are not traditional to transit, but will allow the agency to meet local travel needs with the most effective and efficient mode of service. By taking a more holistic view of their entire transit system, Stantec is supporting GET in identifying where an integrated approach using microtransit solutions as one part of a family of services will benefit both riders and the agency.
In this new series for METRO, we’ll explore system and service planning approaches to optimize paratransit systems and share some specific examples of how transit agencies are currently employing or piloting strategies to incorporate microtransit and family-of-services models to better meet the mobility needs of the communities they serve. We’ll also look at the role of consumer-friendly technology and how it is being used in transit markets both large and small across the country.
The landscape in which transit agencies are operating is rapidly changing, but there are a number of new and innovative approaches we can look to for inspiration to integrate and increase mobility in communities of all sizes. We look forward to sharing some of these examples with you in the coming months.
Sasha Pejcic, PMP is Managing Senior Associate, Transportation (GTA) & Transit Advisory Lead at Stantec.