Transit experiments like on-demand, shared rides in small bus-like vehicles could become one of the numerous changes to public transit in a post-COVID-19 world.
Officials in Johnson County, Kan., have announced plans to continue a march toward more flexible options for riders, expanding on an existing pilot program.
“Our interest at this point is to address the COVID-19-induced loss of ridership with flex service on low-ridership routes. If we use on-demand flex service instead of running fixed service all day, we believe we can continue to meet essential mobility needs and also conserve resources,” said Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County Government.
The intent, said Powers, is not to replace all fixed routes with flex service — where riders hail a transit vehicle generally with an app, much like interfacing with Uber or Lyft — or even to necessarily make the move permanent.
“To begin, we would likely only to be looking at one or two routes for this pilot,” said Powers.
Johnson County has a population of about 600,000 and is part of the Kansas City metro region. Public transit in the county is served by RideKC, the transit provider for Kansas City, Mo., and the rest of the region.
Operationally, Johnson County contracts with First Transit, a private transit provider often used by universities, airports and others, for staffing, while the county owns about 50 full-size buses. For its on-demand flex service, the county uses five Ford transit vans. Johnson County is able to supplement this service with WHC Worldwide, based in Kansas City, Mo., and operator of zTrip, a national taxi service. TransLoc, a Ford company, provides the public interface for booking and executing the rides.
“Our desire with our micro-transit pilot is to address first- and last-mile challenges while keeping the wait-time at about 15 minutes,” Powers explained. “When demand goes up and the five vehicles that we own are unable to stick to the wait-time threshold of 15 [minutes] — 20 at the outside — we can then flex the WHC taxis into service to take the pressure off of our five county vehicles and keep wait times down.”
“It’s also more cost-effective, as it costs less to provide a micro-transit trip on a per-trip basis than it does to deploy a vehicle for 15 hours a day,” he added.
The geographic service area for the flex, micro-transit service is about 40 square miles, operating Monday through Friday, and expanding to 60 square miles on Saturday. Fares for the flex service follow those of the fixed-route buses: $1.50. This amount may be adjusted later by county officials.
Moves like this one mark just one of the trends, started in the pre-coronavirus days, that is likely to shape transit as it moves forward, with pressure to operate leaner and more efficiently.
“It’s fair to say, transit is evolving,” said Alex Gibson, innovation manager at TransLoc, during a Wednesday webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds. “And it was doing so well before the crazy events of the last eight weeks.”
Service structured closely around the needs of the rider has already been demonstrated as a success.
“If there’s anything Uber and Lyft taught us, if people can press a button to get somewhere, they’re going to do it,” said Gibson, adding, flex-transit service technology “is allowing us to really focus on the experience of the end user.”
Johnson County began its flex service pilot in January 2019, and prior to the coronavirus crisis, was completing about 200 trips a day, said Powers.
“I think this is also an opportunity for cities and transit agencies to push through reforms and look at their systems in a comprehensive way that they hadn’t been able to before,” said Dillon Twombly, chief revenue officer at on-demand transit provider Via, during the Shared Use Mobility Summit last week.
“Technology is really the only way you’re going to be able to do this,” he added. “I think whether you’re looking at dynamic and flexible networks, tracking riders, giving proper physical distance and seat spacing, you’re not going to be able to do that without putting technology on the system.”