In order to bolster their existing services, public transit systems across the United States are beginning to roll out mobility on demand services on which riders can easily book same-day trips.
These transit options employ the routing and scheduling technology of app-based ridesharing services like Uber to provide riders with more flexibility when it comes to scheduling and using public transportation. By giving local residents access to simplified mobility on demand services, public transit systems are hoping to improve ridership, bridge gaps in their operating schedules, and cut down on the advance notice that is often required to secure transportation.
Recently launched pilot programs in both Oklahoma and New Jersey are working to implement the principles of same-day, on-demand service by providing residents with access to greater mobility. These burgeoning initiatives—some of the first large-scale geographic rollouts of their kind in the U.S.—are already providing valuable information about the need for modernized services in local communities.
On-Demand Transit Solutions Benefit Rural Communities
Starting in June 2021, PICK Transportation—a transit pilot program operating in eastern and central Oklahoma—began offering residents access to after-hours public transit. As part of the ongoing project, which will ultimately serve 21 communities across the region, local riders can book evening transportation through a public transit dropdown option within the Uber app.
PICK—powered by the Uber/Routematch software—is utilizing a fleet of new ADA-compliant vehicles to provide transportation for any riders who request the service, which operates from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The extended service provides residents with greater mobility, allowing them to go shopping, visit friends, and travel to and from their residences outside the normal operating hours of other public transit providers across the region.
Kendra McGeady, the transit director of Pelivan Transit—which provides demand-response transportation service for six counties in northeastern Oklahoma—said the program came together after Pelivan and several other rural and tribal transit providers surveyed their riders and found a clear need for more flexible after-hours transit options. In order to better serve local residents, Pelivan partnered with three other providers—Cimarron Transit, JAMM Transit, and the Ki BOIS Area Transit System—to apply for and receive a $1.5 million Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant from the Federal Transit Administration to launch PICK.
“I think this is a real gamechanger, particularly in rural America,” McGeady said. “We provide a significant number of our trips to non-ambulatory individuals, and they’ve really been restricted in scheduling their own lives. We’ve had a number of people reach out and tell us that they really appreciate their loved ones or themselves personally being able to travel after 4:30 p.m. It’s really opened a lot of doors.”
The communities in PICK’s service area range in size from 2,000 to 36,000 residents, and the pilot is operating across a wide swath of Oklahoma—an area that covers roughly 29,000 square miles. But McGeady says that the service has seen a steady increase in rider usage since it launched, and she hopes that the pilot program will lead to a broader adoption of similar mobility on demand services across the state.
“Ultimately, we would like to see a rider in the northeast corner of Oklahoma be able to book a trip on their app, and then be able to go all the way down to the Texas border if they want through one seamless booking process,” McGeady said.
High-Demand Necessitates Careful Rollout of Services
In Cape May County, New Jersey, the local paratransit system—Cape May Fare-Free Transportation—launched a pilot program in April to give residents the opportunity to book same-day public transportation. While the public transit system has been providing demand-response services to local residents for more than 45 years, the program’s scheduling software required riders to schedule trips three business days in advance. Because of this requirement, the provider was seeing a decrease in service along with a high rate of cancellations and no-show riders.
The new Uber/Routematch software lets riders book a trip, and then county buses stop by to take the residents on their way. Although Fare-Free Transportation has not seen a significant increase in new ridership since the launch of the on-demand pilot, residents who previously used the paratransit service are taking more frequent trips—sometimes using the service three or more times a day to go to the grocery store, to the supermarket, or to the post office.
Daniel Mulraney, the director of Fare-Free Transportation, said he believed that moving to a same-day, on-demand process would reverse the decline in ridership and give residents “some freedom and flexibility in their paratransit service.”
The countywide rollout of the program came after Fare-Free Transportation conducted a smaller pilot in Ocean City, a small island community, last year. After receiving positive feedback from riders, the provider decided to implement the on-demand model across all 252 square miles of Cape May County. Since the broader launch, however, Fare-Free Transportation has faced some struggles with the effectiveness of the program—including a shortage of drivers as a result of the pandemic, which led to longer than expected wait times for many riders.
In order to address some of the challenges that have cropped up, the provider has decided to temporarily pause much of the on-demand service towards the end of August in order to work out the kinks, moving back for the time being to its advance booking process. A smaller pilot program will continue to operate in the Wildwoods—a group of five communities on the coast of New Jersey—to help inform and improve the countywide initiative. Mulraney said Fare-Free Transportation’s intention is to go back to full on-demand service at the beginning of 2022.
“I’ve seen some real positive results from the usage of the service, and it’s reinforced my belief in on-demand transit,” Mulraney added. “We just need to nail down the process and get it right, and then I think we’ll be off the charts.”