Service Strategies, Automation and Privatization in Public Transit

Private enterprise involvement in public transit declined precipitously after WW2. Despite efforts by Congress and the FTA to re-engage the private sector during the 1980s and early-90s, fixed-route service is typically owned and operated by public transit authorities with only about 6 percent being contracted out. The picture is somewhat different for paratransit demand-response service that proliferated with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Roughly two-thirds of ADA-funded services are contracted out (NRC Special Report 258). Significantly, fixed-route and paratransit operations for the same service area are generally funded, planned, scheduled, dispatched and operated as separate entities.

This situation is likely to change soon, although there are still significant legislative, attitudinal and political barriers to be overcome in the process. First, the FTA legislation affecting transit is to be renewed as of 2009, and the jockeying of interests has already begun. More importantly, there are deep and fast-paced societal changes that will force new approaches to service.

An aging population will increasingly demand “accessible” service, while most likely generating less revenue for it. Demand for new transit service to low density suburbs designed for cars, not buses, will cause a rethinking of how that service can be provided. Increasing fuel and labor costs will motivate the drive for operating efficiencies. For these and other reasons, it is probable that the separation of fixed-route and paratransit operations will continue to break down, and that there will be a rethinking how the private sector can be re-engaged in contract service. At the same time, automation of many areas of transit management, scheduling, dispatch, operation and rider information will continue.

While the norm in many other countries for quite a while, combining fixed-route and demand-response service in an integrated plan is catching on in North America.

Typically, a combined service plan operates transit vehicles on predetermined schedules along fixed routes, serving corridors with significant ridership. Meanwhile, privately owned smaller buses or vans bring passengers between the surrounding areas and exchanges along the fixed routes.

Essentially, these privately owned demand-response services function as “group taxis.” In much of Latin America, they are known as “colectivos” and in some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, colectivos handle a major share of total transit trips. Similar services carry large volumes of riders in Africa and Asia, in many places competing with fixed-route service. Pick-ups and drop-offs are arranged informally, often with the driver for the next trip, although cell phones are increasingly used for making reservations. Although the fact that this kind of service is pervasive throughout much of the world speaks for its fundamental viability, there is a wide range in the quality and safety of service, determined to some extent by the local regulatory environment.

The fixed-route component of combined service in other countries is much more of a mixed bag than in North America. In many cities, there is a combination of publicly and privately owned transit, with varying degrees of regulation in the private side of the industry.

The transit improvement project for South Lake Tahoe that began in 2002-2003 is an example of integrated service and a fully contracted operation of both fixed-route and demand-responsive service. The project was a P3 (public-private partnership) started in response to the need to mitigate traffic impacts on the environmentally sensitive Lake Tahoe Basin in California. BlueGO’s home page summarizes it well:

“BlueGO is a coordinated public/private transportation system that combines the resources of previously offered services under one management, designed to streamline resources and offer an easy, convenient, personalized transit option to locals and visitors. South Lake Tahoe is the first community in the United States to offer computer-networked multi-system transportation.

In the past, riders had to navigate a maze of various transportation services to figure out the most expeditious route to their destination. Now, customers can access comprehensive information from dedicated hotline phones, telephone info line and this Web site. BlueGO now offers riders a seamless travel experience. With one centralized management center in charge of coordinating all vehicles, software to track locations and progress, and a host of different services from which to choose, riders benefit from improved timeliness, easy-to-use ride request options and an environmentally friendly service.”

All services are operated by a private contractor, Area Transit Management, under several contracts. A board of directors manages BlueGO and?approves operational changes to the system. Fixed-routes cover South Lake Tahoe on both the California and Nevada side. Curb-to-curb and?paratransit?on-demand services are offered to the general public, although ADA customers are given priority. The services are well used, particularly after hours by shift workers in the tourist entertainment industry.

Technology for the project included CAD/AVL equipment on all vehicles to track their location and to communicate work assignments in real time; scheduling/dispatch software that could modify vehicle routing dynamically in response to trip requests; and kiosks and automated telephones for making trip requests, cancellations and confirmations directly into the scheduling/dispatch software.

Five years into the project Nick Haven, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) transportation programs manager, talked about some of the lessons learned. “In retrospect, some of the technology was overkill for the size of the system and the cost of maintaining it was not anticipated.” This resulted in a return to manual dispatch and?transition from expensive CAD/AVL?to more economical equipment. However, integrated operation out of a single dispatch/call center has sustained a significant increase to ridership on most fixed-routes and demand services. TRPA has made use of EPA, ITS and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funding to?limit the use of FTA grants. This was done because FTA grants treat the two types of service separately and put some restrictions on?operations and maintenance contracting.

Drawing from the experience of South Tahoe and other transit agencies that are moving into integrated service delivery, two ingredients are important to success. First, planning, scheduling, dispatch and on-street management of the two types of service must be coordinated. Second, the approach to service must be “customer-centric,” establishing a direct connection in real time between customers making trip requests, and the deployment of vehicles on the street.

The process of integrating service starts with a new look at how fixed-route and paratransit operations are managed by public transit authorities. Most public transit agencies have two separate divisions. The paratransit division often provides service exclusively to ADA customers, rather than offering it to the general public as well. However, in the last few years there is increasing coordination between the two. For example, New Jersey Transit is one of several properties where the paratransit call center uses automated trip-planning software running on the fixed-route database to try and find ADA customers a trip on an accessible bus. More small and medium-sized agencies are planning and contracting out both fixed-route and paratransit to the same private operator, although often these are separate contracts. Still, among larger systems, union resistance to contracting out fixed-route operations remains an obstruction to delivering integrated services.

Automation can play a large part in the effort to integrate services. Vendors of scheduling, dispatch and operations software have generally supplied different products for fixed-route and for demand-response services, but this situation is also changing.

Fixed-route software still mainly deals with generating schedules, translating these into pieces of work for vehicles (blocks) and drivers (runs), and then managing and tracking deployment on to the street. Paratransit software manages a client group, and processes client trip requests and cancellations into a pick-up/drop-off schedule, or manifest, for each vehicle.

Many paratransit operators “batch” process trip requests into vehicle manifests hours before they are dispatched, and make trip cancellations or inserts manually while the vehicle is on the road.

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.

Although the technology and how fixed-route and paratransit demand-response services are managed is moving in the direction of integrated service, several challenges will have to be overcome to fully accomplish the objective.

The current legislative and funding environment do not make it easy to pay for and operate blended services. The rewrite of FTA legislation mandated for 2009 is an opportunity for the industry to press for both regulations and funding that support integrated service delivery. Emerging standards for information technology procurement are of particular interest, as these will define what can be funded by higher levels of government. For example, agencies are now required to be compliant with TCIP standards, as well as the federal IT architecture and state/regional IT plans. In addition, agencies, particularly small and medium-sized ones, can also take a page from BlueGO and make creative use of other funding sources.

Along with an effort to change the federal environment, changes to motor vehicle legislation governing taxi and private carriers at the state level will be needed to provide a more open playing field for the private sector to offer colectivo-type group taxi service. In any case, much is to be done to overcome the taxi industry’s view that this type of service is bad for their business, including looking at how the current practice of contracting taxis for ADA service can be expanded to the general public with new procedures and larger vehicles.

Larger properties are making an effort to include greater ability to contract out in their labor agreements. Given the fact that the majority of paratransit services are contracted out now, it may be possible to open up these services more to the general public rather than negotiating entirely within fixed-route agreements.

The conditions of dramatic socio-economic change affecting the public transit industry, the pace of the response, the very rapid evolution of technology and how it is being applied all combine to make it difficult for transit agencies to keep up.

Often the fastest way to do so is to take a careful look at “best practices” of the many transit authorities that do blend service, do contract operate and do use automation effectively. Share the vision!

Douglas Spaeth is product manager for TranSched Systems — Ontira Communications Division.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Public or Private?
Whitepaper: Asset and Service Management in the Transportation Industry