The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) hosted a virtual press conference July 28 to highlight its report, “Mobility Innovation: The Case for Federal Investment and Support,” which features six case studies from transit agencies across the U.S. that are taking a unique approach to providing transportation services for those most in need outside the traditional fixed-route offerings.
The report focuses on innovation specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic and comes as Congress considers provisions in the surface transportation authorization and infrastructure bills. With this in mind, APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas explains the association will leverage this report by sharing these success stories of innovation across the industry, as well as with key stakeholders, such as legislators and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
“Too often, I think we look at this as an industry that is slow to change. Well, the truth of the matter is there’s a lot of change going on throughout the industry and we need to bring attention to that. And we want to share it as widely as we can, so that’s our intent behind this,” Skoutelas said during the press conference.
The programs included in the report all built upon successful pilot projects that required a willingness to experiment and learn, as well as having funding flexibility that encouraged new service ideas. Thanks to innovation, the programs demonstrate how transit can create more equitable and inclusive communities.
Most programs started by a transit agency identified specific needs for individual communities. While a handful of these needs were on the radar prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 highlighted systemic issues that needed to be addressed, such as off-peak service hours and first-and-last-mile connections.
MTA, Flint, Mich.
The Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) of Flint, Mich., identified medical transport that went beyond the traditional paratransit service as one of the highest priorities for the community.
In 2015, the agency partnered with Valley Area Agency on Aging and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) to address this need by building off existing pilot programs. In 2016, DHS came back to MTA asking the agency to change the original service to an on-demand daily service. Over the next few years, as the agency went through the learning curve, MTA ended up partnering with 16 local agencies providing 13,000 trips per month up to the pandemic.
The service then expanded to provide trips for veterans, whether that be for groceries, doctor’s appointments or even a 60-mile trip to the VA hospital.
“That is all through partnerships that we’ve been able to develop,” said Ed Benning, general manager, MTA. “We recognize that for us to meet the needs of the future, we must provide special on-demand type services that better address the needs of the community.”
PSTA, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Down in Florida, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) created TNC partnerships with Uber, Lyft and taxis to provide low-income workers with late night trips after PSTA’s fixed-route service ended for the night.
“We identified a few years ago that there is an enormous need for transportation to and from the tourist-based economy on the beach,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller.
TD Late Shift Program started in 2016 and was designed specifically for the hospitality community, which has early morning shifts or late-night shifts that fall outside of PSTA’s normal operating hours. Because of this transit service, Miller says 57 percent of riders say they were able to accept their jobs because they had a guaranteed way of getting home.
In 2020, PSTA expanded the program to what Miller describes as the Essential Worker Program. When the agency decreased its traditional transit services due to the pandemic, PSTA recognized there were still essential workers that needed to get to their jobs but couldn’t because of the limited service. So, the agency expanded its TNC program to include all essential workers, regardless of time of day.
“To have this complimentary service to our regular service, this innovative partnership, was a great help to [hotels and restaurants] to keep their businesses open,” Miller said.
Miller also notes this innovation has affected the entire organization, especially its paratransit service.
“We’ve been able to take this outside the box thinking about how we can create more partnerships and expand that to our whole paratransit program. We’re now using partnerships with Uber and Lyft in a bigger way with that community as well,” Miller added.
Greater Dayton RTA, Dayton, Ohio
The Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (RTA) began its on-demand service in 2017, which started as a way to reach underserved and unserved communities with transit access.
“What began as a small first- and last-mile pilot program has since expanded into six service areas serving over 500 unique customers who have taken over 100,000 trips to date,” said Brandon Policicchio, chief customer and business development officer, Greater Dayton RTA.
Now, the on-demand program is a regular same day service offering for customers provided 24/7, seven days a week currently at no charge.
The Greater Dayton RTA’s on-demand service provides greater access to jobs, medical facilities and educational institutions, along with increased connections to the fixed-route bus network. Policicchio notes that more than 70 percent of trips either start or end with a bus.
RTC of Washoe County, Reno, Nev.
For the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Washoe County, on-demand service was implemented to provide transit access to areas with low density that were not being adequately served by a fixed bus route, to replace two under-performing routes and to serve paratransit riders.
The service launched in November 2019 using RTC-owned vehicles and existing trained ADA drivers, as well as dispatching and maintenance facilities. Mark Maloney, RTC director of public transportation, notes that about 50 percent of trips were connecting to the fixed-route system. In the opening month of the on-demand service, ridership more than doubled compared to the fixed bus route that was replaced, bringing cost savings to the organization.
Even when the pandemic hit in May 2020, RTC continued ahead with its planned expansion thanks to popularity and cost effectiveness of the service. As elected officials noticed the positive results from the service, they began advocating for their constituents to also have on-demand transit in their area.
The service zones continued to expand up to May 2021, when RTC launched a summer pilot program with on-demand transit running from the Reno Park and Ride station to Lake Tahoe, which previously never had a connection.
“The way we deliver transit to our community is changing,” said Maloney. “To remain competitive, we need to be innovative and flexible in developing solutions to best meet the needs of our customers, especially post-pandemic, that is more convenient and welcoming.”
Johnson County, Kansas
Johnson County, Kansas, built a microtransit program based on Kansas City Transit Authority’s RideKC Bridge on-demand service. The challenge for the county was having both densely populated and rural areas that needed easier access to the fixed-route system, as well as better access to community services.
The program launched as an on-demand curb-to-curb service in partnership with Via. It started in January 2019 and has continued to meet the challenges the county set out to address. Since launching, the service area has expanded to areas with vulnerable populations.
“One of the priorities for the Board of County Commissioners is to provide improved services for vulnerable populations, and the recent expansion of our service area does just that by focusing on areas of lower income, disability and households with fewer transportation choices,” said Janeé Hanzlick, 4th District Commissioner of Johnson County.
Now, as the county is starting to come out of the pandemic, ridership on microtransit is trending ahead of the fixed-route system, with ridership levels at 50 percent of pre-COVID-19 numbers.
L.A. Metro, Los Angeles, Calif.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) identified the critical need of people wanting to use the existing rideshare services to connect to fixed-route transit, but not being able to afford it or have ADA access.
L.A. Metro worked with Via to open an on-demand transit option to everyone. At the launch, the on-demand service provided shared rides connecting to either a bus rapid transit, light-rail or heavy-rail station.
When the pandemic hit, L.A. Metro was able to quickly pivot the service. Rides were switched to single occupancy and instead of ending at a transit station, riders could go anywhere in the service zone, which led to a zone expansion.
The authority also created a new service the provided food deliveries during the pandemic, which now continues as its own service.
“The goal to see if these things work is to fully integrate them into what you do and be a part of the services you offer, not have them as a separate test trial, but really to be a part of the full suite of services,” said L.A. Metro Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Josh Schank.
APTA’s full report can be found here.