In October, Austin, Texas’ Capital Metro announced an unprecedented move to replace its paratransit management system with Spare's modern ADA paratransit platform. With this significant shift, Capital Metro made history by implementing one of the world's largest automated ADA paratransit systems.
With the shift, riders now enjoy real-time notifications about their upcoming journeys, allowing them to plan effectively and stay informed. They can receive trip notifications via voice, text, email, or app and have the convenience of hands-free boarding with an enrolled photo ID and credit card for auto-pay fares. The system also enables dispatchers to now closely monitor day-to-day operations, proactively address challenges, and take measures to fill scheduling gaps or reduce cancellations.
METRO’s Executive Editor Alex Roman spoke to Spare CEO/Co-Founder Kristoffer Vik Hansen and Chad Ballentine, VP, demand response & innovative mobility, at Capital Metro about the new partnership, the benefits the agency has seen in a relatively short amount of time, the need for further innovation in the public transit industry, and much more.
Can you talk a bit about how this partnership came about?
Chad Ballentine: I have been at Capital Metro for 17 years and think for that entire length of time we have been looking to better our ADA paratransit software system. Honestly, year after year, we would look around, but there was nothing that really worked or that really fit with our agency. A few years ago, though, we finally put out an RFP, because we felt like the industry had finally propelled itself far enough to where there would be more options, mainly predicated on the whole on-demand service model, which we hoped could then be converted to an ADA paratransit model. It seemed a pretty logical step to us. Surprisingly, the technology is significantly more intense for an ADA system. So when we put out that RFP, the responses we got back didn’t compel us to pull the trigger on a new system, so we gave what we had one more shot.
Finally, we found that Spare had a really good product that was almost there, which was enough to push us over the line and jump in with both feet. We planned on keeping our old system live as our backup plan, but we really took the leap with Spare. Frankly, it’s been a lot of work, but they put in a ton of time and energy into their program’s development and really listened to everything that we needed to be successful. Because we have gone through a lot with the FTA’s compliance issues in the past, we feel like we have a solid ADA paratransit program that follows all the necessary rules and requirements. The Spare team did a really good job of listening to our needs and then building things around that, which also supported the legal side of everything like trip denials, extended trip times, and all the other things that people don’t often think of.
Kristoffer, can you talk a bit about where you come in? How has Spare’s technology evolved to be able to meet the needs of agencies like Capital Metro?
Vik Hansen: From the day we got started, we thought paratransit would be a cool thing to get into, but we also realized it would be quite hard to get into because of the accuracy that is necessary. But that stayed a goal for us to figure out how we could become a player in that space. We started out with a microtransit piece, where we learned a ton building up both small and large services, as well as everything in between. As the years went by, we started to introduce the concept of comingled services, which is a concept we invented in early 2020, just as COVID-19 got started. The funny part of the story is that one of our customers mentioned that they thought it would be cool if they could use the same system, we were already providing for microtransit for their paratransit services. At that point, honestly, nobody cared about really keeping up with the rules because everything was so up in the air. So what we ended up getting by experimenting with our customers at that time was a great starting point for us to finally make the transition into the paratransit market. It was quite difficult, but we learned a ton because we listened to what our customers needed and implemented those changes as quickly as possible. And, we continue to build on our system based on that feedback.
Can you discuss some of the benefits Capital Metro is expecting and maybe already seeing through your partnership with Spare?
Ballentine: We only just started but the benefits have already been noticeable. Normally, when you just get started with a new system you expect a rough time, so we expected for the rest of this year to be in struggle mode until we got everything dialed in. Overall, though, it’s been surprising how easy it was to put in, and all the algorithms are working just as we had hoped. Within our first eight or nine days, we were able to hit an on-time performance of 98 percent, which we hadn’t hit for quite some time. It’s amazing, frankly, to be at that level of performance right after implementation.
We truly didn’t expect it to go like this, because we have put in enough software systems over the years at Capital Metro to know that you often get a lot of promises but not much follow-through. What was helpful for us was that the Spare team, including Kristoffer, was there with us when we launched. Like, they were literally there with their laptops sitting with our dispatch team in the call center. And that was just when we went live. Before that, we did a lot of development and worked together to sort out a bunch of things, and they had a ton of patience with us. We are very picky, and I don’t know how they were able to put up with us, really. But because we were picky and Spare worked so closely with us, we got a really solid finished product in the end and that doesn’t happen often in the transit industry.
And from your perspective Kristoffer, what are the benefits of using Spare for paratransit?
Vik Hansen: We feel there are many different things. Our holistic program, for instance, has the ability to mix both the scheduled and on-demand sides, which can bring future opportunities to merge those two programs together. For the internal staff, we can automate the things that are tedious for them on a daily basis, which gives them the opportunity to work on issues in a more proactive manner as opposed to being reactive. That’s been a huge piece internally. For the end users of the system, it’s really about keeping them more informed. Allowing them to get notifications that their trip was successfully booked, as opposed to having to take a reservationist’s word for it. In addition to that, as they get closer to their trip, they are able to see their vehicle is on its way, as well as who their driver will be, which gives them peace of mind. Because many paratransit users have limited options, it’s all about eliminating as much stress as possible for them when they use the system.
Ballentine: A good user interface is something that has always been lacking. ADA paratransit is always a burden for some agencies because it’s typically the most expensive service to provide, but it also has the lowest ridership, so the technology has kind of always reflected that. Now, with a nice, clean user interface, the customers can actually feel like we want them to be customers, right?
Then when you look at our dispatchers and reservation agents, they have been working on systems that are so antiquated that they just assumed that’s how things work. So, it’s nice to give them something that is easy, especially for adult learners. They now have something that is map-based and very easy and clean without a lot of junk, which makes it easier to train folks. And, I think our employees are really excited about this switch to Spare because they feel we are making improvements for them because we recognized that it’s always been a struggle to work with our former systems.
Does the agency expect financial savings as well?
Ballentine: We didn’t get into this as a way to save money. But I know we will likely be able to find more opportunities, because if we spend less time spinning our wheels, we can ultimately find ways to provide better service, such as grouping trips more efficiently. Overall, this partnership really opens the door for us to focus on improving the business and not just on doing the same things over and over again.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of making a project like this work effectively, so other agencies can feel more confident not only to partner with Spare but to test new technologies on the market as well?
Vik Hansen: I’m not going to lie; it is hard to be a startup when selling to government entities. They have concerns about all kinds of things from how small your team is to how long you’ve been in business to how much experience you have in the industry, right? I really hope that if more and more projects like this can be proven, then there will be more opportunities for startups in the public transportation industry, which isn’t a bad thing. Companies like ours can bring ideas that are maybe smarter than what’s existed before. We’re not going to have all the solutions, but hopefully, this partnership can bring more of an appetite for the industry to search for ways to do things differently.
Ballentine: There is room in this industry for startups; we need it. There are a lot of big providers and consolidations that have happened over the years, but when you’re buying a product, you buy whatever it has historically been. There hasn’t been as much innovation as we’d have if there were more startups in public transit, because when they come on board they are typically out there talking to the frontline staff who do the day-to-day work rather than the agency’s executives and board members. When you talk to the frontline staff, you are going to get a better product, which is the most important thing. In the end, all of us in transit think like transit users because many of us are transit users. When startups come in, I think they shine because they take that feedback and are flexible enough to adapt their product to our needs.