Like just about all transit agencies, North Carolina's GoDurham fixed route and demand response has had to work hard to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was not just a dip in ridership that had to be addressed.
In fact, some of the ridership dip can be blamed on a shortage of operators, which spurred GoDurham Access and its demand-response contractor National Express Transit (NEXT) to explore new ways to do things, including partnering with Adaptive Transportation Network Company Uzurv to both fill the void and better serve the agency's paratransit ridership.
Along the way, GoDurham's fixed-route service also jumped into electric bus usage, focused on growing its operator pool, and implemented a fare free system for the fiscal year to help the riding public.
Operator shortage and operations
Brianna Reece, marketing specialist, and Brian Fahey, transit administrator, for GoDurham explain the agency is suffering an operator shortage that has in fact impacted day-to-day operations.
"Because of the bus operator shortage, we have had to make some reductions in the services trips provided," Reece says. "A few months ago, we were able to reintroduce some of our trips back into our service and have a plan to continue adding back trips and increasing the frequency on our more crowed routes, however, we are currently operating on a reduced schedule to make sure we can meet all the needs of our current ridership with the current workforce."
As for ways it has attempted to expand its operator pool, Reece explains GoDurham Access and the City of Durham have worked together to increase starting pay, with the scale escalating at a more rapid rate, as well as tuition reimbursement for continuing education, recruiting and retention bonuses, and increased benefit packages. The agency is also taking measures to increase the promotion of its open positions, by working with employer program NC Works and other local and national organizations. Reece adds the agency is also looking to add promotions on GoDurham's vehicles to attract some folks who ride the bus, or even those who don't ride but may see the rolling advertisements as they drive through the community. GoDurham's fixed-route operation is taking a similar approach toward recruitment.
"We are exploring every outlet possible to combat the issue, but we continue to struggle," adds Reece. "We understand that we don't have it as bad as other regional transit agencies, so we're a bit lucky in that sense, but it really is still an issue."
Partnering to combat the issue
With the agency experiencing decreased multi-passenger capacity due to social distancing rules, while also facing increased demand for ADA paratransit service, GoDurham Access and NEXT contracted with UZURV in July to help fill that need.
The UZURV technology platform delivers safe, reliable, and accessible ADA Paratransit and Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT) services — focused on the specialty transportation needs of individuals or organizations that require a "Higher Level of Care."
After being contracted by GoDurham Access, UZURV then immediately began the process of recruiting a fully vetted and credentialed fleet of independent contractor drivers who utilize their own vehicles to provide door-to-door paratransit service, with the service launching in September.
Just two weeks after its launch, the program achieved its full target daily trip volume, and by the end of the month, GoDurham Access (NEXT) further expanded service hours with the UZURV network and increased daily program service volume to support 20% more trips per day than original expectations.
"GoDurham Access is committed to a high level of service for our riders, and continually work with our partners to come up with innovative solutions to improve the rider experience," explains Fahey. "The partnership with NEXT and UZURV has been a tremendous win for Durham. It provides a flexible option for us and aligns with our goal of continuing to increase rider satisfaction."
GoDurham Access uses Ecolane, the scheduling and dispatch software, which supports direct integration with the UZURV API. The integration and "one-system" approach provides several key benefits for NEXT, paratransit riders, and GoDurham Access, including:
- The ability for NEXT dispatchers to push trips to UZURV from within the Ecolane system and receive details of the completed trips back into Ecolane.
- The ability for riders to track their UZURV vehicle in real-time via the Ecolane mobile app.
- And, added client reporting capabilities on UZURV and NEXT trips, which can all be done from within the Ecolane platform.
"Technology has improved exponentially over the years, enabling customers to track our vehicles and better plan their trips, especially today as we are experiencing service reductions," says Fahey. "That evolution has allowed us to work with Ecolane, who has created an app that allows passengers to now have all of that info right on their phones, which has helped us not only with our regular service but also with our Access program."
The UZURV supplemental service has had promising results. The average cost per trip has been about 30% less than the previous sub-contractor — about $26 compared to $41 per trip — and UZURV is achieving an average on-time percentage of 98.5% within a 15-minute window. Customer feedback for the program has also been positive.
"The savings have been great," says Fahey. "And it's not just the financial savings, because we are also saving in terms of manpower because UZURV is contracting and providing their own drivers for the program."
During a ceremony on Earth Day in April, GoDurham unveiled its first two 100% battery-electric buses from GILLIG. The two electric buses joined a fleet of 57 fixed-route buses and were expected to have a driving range of 150 miles per charge, based on a conservative 2.3 kWh a mile off a six-pack battery with a total of 444 kWh of energy storage.
"The buses are really a symbol of our exploration to home in on more sustainable transportation options, and an extension of the City's desire to go electric," says Reece. "Sound pollution is also a huge issue here in Durham, so having these quieter electric buses is helpful to our community in ways beyond just decreasing air pollution in the region."
Since being delivered in April, the buses have been tested on multiple routes and the agency plans on adding six more electric buses to its fleet by the end of this year. The electric buses are not the agency's first foray into reducing pollution, with about 50% of GoDurham's fleet currently running on biodiesel.
"The overall plan is definitely to replace our entire fleet with electric buses over time," says Reece.
Fahey adds that a major factor in enabling the agency to expand its fleet faster will come down to the charging infrastructure.
"In addition to the overnight charging infrastructure, there also catenary options and charging pads now available to fast charge the vehicles throughout the day," he says. "All of these option are things that we'll continue to work with our partners on to figure out what works best for us and allows to get the best return on investment with the vehicles."
Fahey and Reece add in addition to positive feedback from the community, the electric buses have also gotten glowing reviews from operators and the agency's maintenance crew as well. They also say that the agency will continue to explore other types of zero-emission vehicles, such as hydrogen fuel-cell buses, as the technologies continue to mature.
Like many agencies around the nation, GoDurham cut fares early in the pandemic and continues to offer fare-free service as of today.
Reece explains the agency will again examine its fare policy in June 2022.
"We are really working on what we want to do with our fare structure going forward and expect a decision on what that will look like in June," says Reece. "Personally, I feel like we are anticipating fares to remain suspended and believe there is support to continue providing fare-free service because it increases the accessibility of our system for riders."
Reece adds the idea of fare-free services is an idea that has been kicked around at Durham over the years, even before the pandemic, but as equity and inclusion have come to the forefront post-pandemic, there is support throughout the city for a fare-free system.
Fahey and Reece explain that the idea of a fare-free system to increase equity in the community is spurred by the makeup of GoDurham's fixed-route ridership.
"When you look at our fixed-route ridership, about 73 percent are considered low income, therefore they are transit dependent," says Fahey. "With those numbers so high, it's crucial GoDurham's system is equitable, and I think the City views equity as the primary benefit of a fare-free system."
Reece adds the fare-free system, coupled with the use of mobile apps, are just two of the ways GoDurham are hoping to remove barriers to access its system. The agency is also cleaning up, replacing, and adding new bus shelters; increasing frequencies and ADA accessibility on its fixed-route services; and exploring new mobility modes, such as microtransit, in areas that have been historically underserved.
"With our long-range plan, we were already looking at ways to increase accessibility and make it easier for the community to use the system prior to the pandemic," she explains. "Moving forward, we're going to continue to look at ways to do that, because that is really the key to providing opportunities for those in our community to thrive."