Reinventing the Wheel

Sept. 24, 2020
Agencies pursuing bus redesign projects during the pandemic have had to reassess project goals, reform outreach methods and recommit to providing service where and when their communities need it.

Creating and implementing a redesigned bus network was a big enough task prior to the pandemic. Now, agencies are juggling with carrying out these plans while also responding to the health crisis, dealing with reduced budgets and navigating new norms and rider expectations.

With agencies such as the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), Rock Region Metro and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) forging ahead with plans to complete a bus network redesign, they’ll have to rethink how their staff balance priorities, how they gather public input and how they can reach new market segments.

Creating Community Partnerships and Building on Staff Dedication

TANK began working on its network redesign in August 2019 with the public process of vetting recommendations for the draft plan. This concluded February 2020, right before the pandemic hit. Once COVID-19 arrived, TANK reevaluated the recommendations to see how they would hold up in a “new world order as it relates to operating mass transit within a pandemic,” explained TANK General Manager Andrew Aiello.

Luckily, the agency found the three core goals included in the plan still aligned with adjustments needed due to the pandemic. For instance, the first goal focuses on increasing frequency on core local routes, which helps with spreading out peak loads to prevent crowding. The second goal looks at consolidating suburban park and ride services, which again holds up in the better half of 2020 since there is less demand with more people teleworking instead of commuting to the urban core. And lastly, the third goal aims to boost frequency on reverse commute express services, which provides access to essential service jobs like the airport, shipping and food production.

With the draft plan still applicable, the timeline of rolling out the redesigned service in January 2021 has remained unchanged. Aiello explains the “number one” factor of staying on schedule with the rollout is community partnerships created with people that will benefit from the redesigned network.

“We built a strong base of communication and transparency and trust at the beginning of our analysis, and that has carried through, and it has allowed people to openly ask questions about the plan, feel comfortable in the direction that we're heading and help us get to that start line here in January,” Aiello said.

Staff dedication is another key factor that has allowed the agency to stay on schedule with rolling out the redesign plan, despite them having to pull double duty with managing the agency's response to the pandemic and managing the public’s response to the redesign process. The people working out the details on the plan are the same ones evaluating changes in ridership patterns and necessary safety measures, explains Aiello. To balance this workload, the agency has been focused on constant communication to keep the high level of trust amongst the team and to ensure an open dialogue that questions the norm and challenges one another.

“We have definitely improved the way we communicate and collaborate, both internally and externally,” Aiello said. “And the pressure of both the redesign and the pandemic has provided that opportunity for us to get better in that area. And I think that will be something that we will benefit from long term.”

Service Cuts Lead to Expedited Timeline

At Rock Region Metro, step one of three has been completed in the agency’s R.I.D.E. 2020 process, which was the operational analysis of all fixed and express routes that required more than a year and a half of public engagement. This created the budget neutral transit network that features longer service hours, increased frequency and expanded service area, which received board approval Aug. 25, 2020. For the first step, Charles Frazier, Rock Region Metro executive director, explains the “number one goal” was to show the agency is being as efficient as possible with taxpayer dollars. Step two implements a 10-percent growth plan on the budget neutral system, which includes increased frequencies, expanded hours and larger microtransit zones. And step three will be the full build out of the system, which is about 70 percent complete.

By the time COVID-19 hit, it was time for the agency to engage with the public to get feedback on the budget neutral network. But the agency could not rely on previous successful methods, such as riding the buses or setting up tables at transit hubs, due to social distancing. Instead, Rock Region Metro had to pivot its efforts, relying on Zoom meetings, web conferences and phone calls.

“[COVID-19]' really changed the amount of effort and the time that we were doing the outreach for public engagement,” Frazier said.

Although the agency spent more time gathering feedback due to the pandemic, it expedited the overall schedule for getting the budget neutral plan approved. Because the board was aware of the service cuts and reduced ridership, it agreed this part of the plan needed to be approved as quickly as possible so it could be part of the agency’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

“The strategy is that as COVID-19 starts to resolve itself and we can start easing up on social distancing, and we have employees coming back to work, we can start implementing the new design immediately as part of that come back process,” Frazier explained.

And because of the timeline of the planning process, Rock Region Metro can continue full steam ahead with the budget neutral plan that is in place since it already considered new norms that have come from the pandemic, such as building upon on-demand microtransit service to areas with low performing fixed routes. Frazier shares that even though COVID-19 forced some service to be shut down, the agency was able to implement temporary on-demand microtransit service zones that will look quite similar to the final plan.

“I feel really good; I feel like we’re aligned with where the service is going to be needed and where the frequencies will be needed,” Frazier said.

New Commuter Habits Reveal Nontraditional Market Segments

In 2019, DART began the process of evaluating its current bus system as part of its DARTZoom project. By January 2020, the 13 cities that comprise the DART service area were completing face-to-face planning exercises and by March 2020, DART was also ready to gather public input on the two concepts that were developed earlier in the year. Like Rock Region Metro, DART had to quickly pivot its efforts to get feedback from traditional methods such as face-to-face meetings to virtual events such as Zoom meetings. DART also encouraged customers to go to its website to complete a digital survey since riding the bus system was not an option. The agency also had to ensure measures were in place to engage with the Spanish-speaking population and low-income population who may not have internet access.

“COVID-19 clearly had a big impact,” said Todd Plesko, DART vice president for service planning. “It’s made it more challenging to talk to our customers. [Since] ridership is lower, we have to use more extraordinary efforts to make sure we find those people that were previously riding and people that don’t ride at all to give us their feedback.”

While gathering feedback required a more substantial effort compared to previous public engagement processes, DART learned, in some cases, it could expand its outreach through virtual events, explains Plesko. Instead of hoping people attend one in-person meeting or transit forum, offering several virtual meetings attracted people that are not normally involved in this process.

But collecting feedback is just one piece to the puzzle. Plesko says the agency had not expected this “economic shock” and the reduction in riders and revenue will “trickle through the system” over DART’s 20-year financial plan, affecting how much money can be spent on vehicle replacements, capital projects, state of good repair, and of course, rolling out the new service plan.

“That’s a critical decision the board will have to work on when they give us direction on the percentage of ridership versus coverage,” Plesko said.

Because of this, DART is also examining if it can expand its GoLink and UberPool services as these can be more cost effective than running various bus routes.

As the agency moves forward, it will need to rethink how it wins back both traditional and new riders. Not only will DART highlight the improved frequency and better speed of the redesigned network, but it will also need to demonstrate how safe and clean the system is and what the agency is doing regarding these efforts.

“Those are things that we had never even thought of before, quite frankly,” Plesko added.

Another tactic to win back riders will focus on attracting a market segment that hasn’t been targeted before. For instance, Plesko explains the percentage of work trips that are done in Plano, or other suburban areas, there’s relatively few trips that are done by public transit, making this an ideal market to identify new potential riders.

Additionally, DART is coordinating with cities within its service area to concentrate on Transit Oriented Development around its rail stations so that people who already want to live in a walkable and transit-friendly environment can do so around high frequency bus and rail hubs.

“We feel that we may end up losing some of our traditional market, but we feel that there’s an opportunity to bring a new market in,” Plesko said. “That remains to be seen whether we will accomplish that, but that’s our objective.”

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.