In the past, more and more cities have piloted on-demand microtransit. Backers of this model believe that with the right technology and service configuration, it can solve first/last mile challenges, boost transit ridership, and eliminate transit deserts, while cutting transit agencies’ costs and providing an Uber-like user experience. Critics, however, label it as non-inclusive, costly, and ineffective, pointing to several failed projects that suffered from low ridership and poor unit economics.
Demand-responsive systems, such as Dial-A-Ride, paratransit, non-emergency medical transportation, and microtransit, can vastly improve a city’s transit landscape but often fall short due to siloed operating models that prevent agencies from realizing their full potential. Spare Platform, an automated software tool from Spare Labs Inc., is one solution that can manage a transit system's entire on-demand network and break down these siloes by introducing two new transformational concepts, commingling and trip-brokering.
All aboard: same, same but different
Demand-responsive services generally don’t mix, nor do they share resources like vehicles and drivers. This results in a lot of waste: almost-empty buses running parallel simply because their passengers have different needs. Commingling riders from different user categories, such as paratransit and microtransit, onto the same vehicle puts an end to that.
This means a minibus may pick up microtransit commuters at the light rail station while bringing a paratransit passenger to their doctor’s appointment. Because both services are powered by the same on-demand transit software platform, it can identify the fare structure for each person, handle the payment, and delineate a passengers’ service eligibility. All this is done automatically; the passenger and agency don’t have to do any heavy lifting.
Beyond operational efficiency and social inclusion gains, this approach allowed Citibus from Lubbock, Texas, to fill in the holes in their transit network caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent need to cut fixed-route frequency with their commingled Citibus On-Demand microtransit and CitiAccess paratransit service.
"The community has embraced it. I think it's definitely something we can continue to provide, we just got to find a way to do it and find the right fit when we get on the backside of a lot of this pandemic," GM at Citibus.
Thinking outside the bus
One of the biggest challenges of on-demand is finding the right size vehicle for every ride. Dispatching an entire minibus to pick up just one passenger is a losing proposition. But agencies rely mainly on their own vehicles because dispatching a ride to a private third-party provider is just too laborious in a manual system.
By shifting to an automated system, agencies can easily broker trips to taxi companies or other non-dedicated resources. Just like with commingling, neither the agency nor the rider must do any extra work — the software decides if it’s more efficient to dispatch a taxi based on ride requests and availability within a certain time frame. These vehicles can still pool riders onto the same vehicle, further reducing operational costs.
With trip brokering, agencies can maintain or increase service without having to invest new vehicles or drivers. That’s what happened in Palma de Mallorca during the height of Spain’s COVID-19 crisis. EMT cut service on its fixed-route lines while turning to Spare to help provide safe transit. By brokering out trips to local taxi companies, they were even able to extend their service perimeter.
“Combining buses and taxis was the hope we had when we reached out to Spare, and it works great. I am excited to finally see an on-demand service in Palma. This is what I had in mind for a long time,” said Manel Rivera Bennàssar, EMT’s technical project manager.
Taken together, trip brokering and commingling can help transit authorities to solve some of the transportation challenges cities face today. And while the private market is providing some of these services, bringing them under the purview of the public agency is a boon for riders seeking an accountable and seamless experience, as well as a plus for agencies looking to keep riders in the public transit fold.
Niklas Mey Marketing Manager and Sustainability Lead at Spare