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7 Most Helpful Takeaways from our interview with Ben Schutzman

Ben Schutzman, VP of Fleet Operations and Chief of Staff at Boston’s Highland Electric Fleet, takes us through how to improve paratransit service and how to ensure customers get from A to B efficiently.

Jeff Swan

In the second episode of our new podcast, Transit Innovators, we chat with Ben Schutzman about the current challenges and the future of paratransit operations. Having led and transformed the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's (MBTA) paratransit operations and delivery, he shares his insights on designing an ideal paratransit system.

In case you missed the full podcast on Rethinking Paratransit, here are 7 key takeaways from our conversation.

Takeaway #1:

Demand for tech-enabled paratransit services is increasing
“As the population gets older and people grow up with smartphones attached to their hands, a minimum expectation that's been set even for some of the older riders that we were working with as their grandkids get them more comfortable with technology.”

Takeaway #2:

From vendors to operators, teams that emphasize diversity create better solutions
“We are able to recruit from some really diverse, interesting backgrounds. People have really good data analytics backgrounds and policy backgrounds. One of my favorite people I've ever worked with on the team, and she's still with me now, actually in transportation engineering.

And so you put all those pieces together and you end up being able to tackle some really interesting, challenging problems for customers, which are 'I don't know where my vehicle is at now. I'm spending time on hold with a call center who doesn't know where my vehicle is either.' Like, that's a real-world challenge. And to go tackle that, you need to think about how my operators are performing? Are they hiring the right people? Do I have the right technology in place to be able to go track the vehicles in time?”

Takeaway #3:

Information sharing and transparency are key to customer satisfaction
“If you look at customer satisfaction, why are there less complaints even though people are unhappy about a red line train being made versus a paratransit rider who couldn't get matched by the driver and got stuck on hold with the dispatcher and couldn't figure out what to do there. Some amount of it is just like democratizing the information and getting that data out to customers so they know what's happening and they're not assuming the worst case scenario.”

Takeaway #4:

Riders are capable of using technology, they now demand it
“The number of customers who instantly adopted it who you know, if you spoke to critics or people who were skeptical to start with this about people with disabilities and seniors, they don't have smartphones or they don't know how to use these forms of transportation that very quickly found out like, no, not only did they know how to use it and many of our customers who were blind or visually impaired were just using Uber anyway because they have voiceover and they had the ability to like perfectly work through the app and they didn't need all the other services that paratransit bring to you. But again, not only are they capable and interested, but now they're starting to demand that. And it actually makes transit gaming to be stepped up a little bit when you start to see the alternatives that come into play as they communicate directly with you at all points in time and you feel like you are in much more control of your transit journey.”

Takeaway #5:

We need to invest in technology and resources to improve paratransit “When you pull all these pieces together, like the physical hardware, the software, the routing data, analysis, and all those pieces of technology are what has gotten me interested, and transit is an amazing space and application for it. When you go into public transit and even paratransit, in particular, that's when it really goes on steroids, where they become places that are really being neglected for having better technology and neglected in the sense of being able to have people and the resources to go crunch that data and redesign their services. And it couldn't be for a more, better cause at that point when you're directly serving the public in this narrative.”

Takeaway #6:

When designing an on-demand paratransit system, start with the basics
“[Paratransit] is not a place where you want to turn a system completely, upend it. Right. These are some of the most vulnerable populations in the city. People that are not just going to work. Work is extremely important, but they're going to doctor's appointments are going to chemo treatment. They're going to things that must be that must go on every single day.

And so there's an amount of the way that paratransit rules and regulations have been designed that puts those extra safety factors, two or three safety factors in there, going back to the engineering conversation, right where they knew they need to exist there to make sure the population gets to where they are on a regular basis.”

Takeaway #7: 

Engage your stakeholders, early and often
“How do we make sure the system is designed to meet people where they are currently and then continue to get smarter and automate over time? We're just not making the assumption that the computer knows best, but that we can have some of that human element, that humans part is that human judgment that both helps retrain the software in the first place and get smarter over time too.”

“Bringing [the] business case to the agency and having the, you know, the support from riders, all of that kind of stakeholder communication and coordination is also a piece that's missing in the puzzle to make sure that people are not trying to make major technology improvements on a shoestring budget without thinking about the change management aspects.”

Ready to learn more? Listen to the full podcast below.