Now software is beginning to be offered that still defines work to major “timing points” along fixed routes, while allowing vehicles to deviate or operate flexibly off-route in between these points in response to demand. Paratransit software is now available that re-calculates manifests “on-the-fly” to accommodate same-day trip requests and cancellations. Automated vehicle location (AVL) systems and mobile data terminals (MDT) send operators the location and performance of both fixed-route and paratransit vehicles, and can communicate changes in work on data and voice channels, both in real time.
However, work is still being done to fit the technology together into a fully integrated management product.
It is possible to anticipate what the components of integrated service management software will look like in the next one to three years. Paratransit software will be improved to support demand service for the general public, including: capability to handle large numbers of trip requests, not limited to registered clients; faster recalculation of manifests in real time; ability to prioritize trips between ADA clients and different categories of general riders; schedule coordination for transfers to/from fixed-route service at transit exchanges; and end-to-end trip calculation considering both types of service. The fixed-route component will still schedule and deploy work to the time-point level along routes. However, sections in between timing points where vehicles may assume “flexible” service will be controlled by the paratransit component. In addition, software dealing with work assignments, human resources and fleet management will better manage combined services. Finally, AVL/MDT systems can track all vehicles as they move around the community, and display performance in real time. Many of these features are “works in progress.” Some are actually incorporated in software products, others are deployed at beta sites, or as customizations, still others are in development. The industry has a ways to go before all are combined in a single solution.
Automation is also a key ingredient in the effort to provide “customer-centric” services. Successful operation of demand service as a collector to/from exchange stops along fixed routes depends on establishing the connection in real time between a prospective rider making a trip request and the vehicle that will take it. Fortunately, automated telephone (IVR) and the Web are increasingly used by the public to make, cancel and confirm demand trips. The use of cell phones, SMS and other wireless technology gives a majority of the public the capability to be in touch with the service provider while “on-the-move.” Overall, today’s technology provides a very efficient, low-cost, real-time communications channel between riders and the operator “base.” At base, the IVR, Web and wireless communications channels can interface directly with the scheduling, dispatch and operations software. These channels are two-way. Outbound, riders can get up-to-the-minute information about arrivals, schedules, end-to-end trip itineraries, fares, other “how-to-ride” information and important announcements. Inbound, the channels can be used by riders to request and manage their own transit service.
Putting the pieces together, the individual service requests communicated by riders are passed through interfaces in real time. As technology evolves, paratransit software will dynamically modify work assignments and pass these to the vehicles involved. Adaptations to fixed-route service between scheduled timing points and/or adjustments to the demand service so that transfers are timed will also be handled. If a trip cannot be provided at the requested time, that information, along with a suggested alternative, can be offered back to the customer without delay. Similarly, changes on the street to scheduled service, such as vehicle arrival times, can be communicated back to the individual rider.
Although technology is an important assist to integrated service delivery, all of the bells and whistles are not yet available. As BlueGo demonstrates, the software is not necessarily affordable, usable or supportable by small and medium-sized agencies. Here is where creative thinking comes in. For example, the Charlotte Area Transit System ran a public demand service prior to start-up of its light rail service, where customers could call their IVR system and be patched through directly to van drivers via cell phone. The starting point to evaluating how much technology is appropriate is a reversal of agency definitions of service so that these begin with the customer and go step-by-step back through the service delivery process, rather than defining services from an agency perspective.