10 ways to automate paratransit booking, matching and scheduling

In part two of Spare’s three-part series on how tech can enable better paratransit, we delve into the most complex part of the passenger journey — booking, matching, and scheduling — and share how automating these processes is the key to a modern, efficient and user-friendly on-demand system.

Kristoffer Vik HansenTuesday, July 21, 2020

In a paratransit system that relies exclusively on call-ins and spreadsheets, booking a ride, figuring out how to match available vehicles to service requests and scheduling those rides, is time-consuming. That’s why transit agencies require paratransit passengers to book their transportation in advance — anywhere from 24 hours to a week ahead of time. Dispatchers simply cannot manually optimize bookings, vehicle capacity, scheduling, and routing in real-time. But a machine can.

By running all trip requests and available fleets into a fully automated software platform like Spare, which uses up-to-date mapping tools and geolocation, we can considerably shorten the booking, matching and scheduling portion of the paratransit passenger journey — from days down to minutes.

This opens up a whole new world of possibility for riders who no longer have to plan their lives days in advance. They can say ‘yes’ to that last-minute lunch, impromptu trip to the museum or sunny-day picnic, without worrying about transit. More importantly, they get access to a public service that’s truly equitable.

In part one of this series on the role of tech in paratransit, we saw how automated solutions can be used to make sign-up and travel planning more efficient and enjoyable. In part two, we dig deeper and discover how the same set of tools transforms the part of the passenger journey leading up to the actual ride.

Ride request in Spare Rider

Serving same-day bookings

With a few taps on our smartphone, we can have a taxi or ride-hail at our doorstep within minutes. So why can’t paratransit riders have the same experience? With the technology available to us, the advanced booking via telephone requirement in paratransit is antiquated and unfair.

By equipping paratransit users with smartphone apps like Spare Rider, they’re empowered to book transit themselves. Similar to a ride-hailing app, they can select their desired pick-up location and time, as well as their destination, and instantaneously receive feedback about their trip.

Through the app, they can also indicate whether they want to bring a companion along and if a wheelchair accessible vehicle is necessary or any other special requirement. If users don’t want to use an app or are unable to use an app, a dispatcher can do the booking for them. With Spare, regardless of the booking method, the request is logged on-the-spot and evaluated with all the others in the system, rendering same-day bookings possible.

Recurring bookings on Spare Platform

Enabling recurring bookings

Just like all other transit users, paratransit riders have routines — jobs or appointments they need to get to regularly. In a manual system or one with limited technology, standing reservations are logged by the dispatchers. But they are difficult to access for the riders and a change request requires them to call in.

Spare allows riders to easily create standing reservations. All they do is set up a booking in the Spare Rider app and label it as recurring (this can also be done by calling the dispatcher as well). This one-time action results in significant time-savings for both the rider and the agency. And if the customer decides to go on vacation, it’s no problem: they just cancel that week’s bookings and upon their return, pick up where they left off; no future instances are impacted.

Customer service agent working alongside AI

Streamlining the call center

When paratransit users call in bookings, they are phoning the transit agency’s call center. Within that process, there are many low-value tasks that don’t require the expertise of a real person.

Automating the call-center allows agencies to redirect costly human resources to higher-value tasks so that agents can concentrate on providing excellent customer service and taking care of customer’s needs. For example, instead of inputting data into Spare with a call-in booking, users can be guided through the process by a virtual agent. The experience would replicate the flow in Spare Rider by presenting a series of prompts that can be answered via keypad or voice command.

Activated payment methods in Spare Platform

Simplifying payments

Cash may be king but in transit, cash payments slow down the boarding process and put the onus on the drivers. In a manual system, paratransit users can also pay by credit card at the time of booking, however, to pay by card, call centers must be PCI-compliant, adding complexity to an already complex process.

In an integrated system, customers can decide to add payment types and choose a favorite through the Spare Rider App — anything from credit card to Apple Pay, depending on the agency’s and rider’s preference.

For users that call-in a booking, agencies can use Spare Pay IVR (Interactive Voice Response), an automated system that securely collects credit card information without requiring an in-person intervention. To ensure the process runs smoothly, call center agents can follow the payment progress in real-time through the administrator interface.

Possible far calculation in Spare Platform

Diversifying fares

Transit fares are generally set in stone. There are certain discounts for seniors or students and passes of course, but outside of that structure, fares cannot deviate. Ticketing is mainly an analog space, despite the use of smart card technology, which is basically a way to store tickets.

In a true on-demand paratransit system, agencies can take advantage of mobile ticketing and create many fare categories, including one-offs, like a discount to riders who use paratransit to connect to a fixed-route bus. They can also implement flexible pricing such as a base fare and a per/km traveled model. That’s possible because the back-end recognizes the journey and can apply fare rules accordingly.

Automated matching and scheduling on Spare Platform

Re-inventing the schedule

Matching and scheduling are two of the most important phases of the pre-service journey. That’s when agencies decide what resources to dedicate to different requests and when to dispatch them. It’s a giant puzzle where an endless number of pieces keeps getting added to the table. Dispatchers do their best to make them fit without seeing the full picture.

An automated system like Spare is constantly analyzing all trip requests as they come in — both on-demand, scheduled and recurring ones. This means that schedules are reflective of an ongoing reality (in other words the system can take all the moving puzzle pieces and slot them into the right place). Events like last-minute cancellations have no impact on schedules or the remaining passengers in the vehicle because Spare re-optimizes routing on the spot, allowing schedules to be made on the fly instead of days ahead of time.

Delayed matching on Spare Platform

Finding the right fit

In order to enable efficient real-time paratransit, or true on-demand, it's also important to be able to rematch trips when things change. In a non-automated system, trip requests are matched to vehicles when they come in. Accommodating a last-minute request is difficult because the dispatcher would have to reshuffle the already matched trips and somehow communicate any last minute changes to drivers (more on that in part 3!).

By waiting to match any scheduled trips — called delayed matching — until just before it’s set to take place, an automated system can take the parameters of those trips as well as the on-demand ones into consideration and assign vehicles to passengers accordingly. Essentially, for the software, delayed matching treats all trips as on-demand but gives passengers the flexibility to book in advance if they want to.

Predicted demand on Spare Platform

Waving goodbye to guesswork

In an on-demand system, whether paratransit or microstransit, it’s hard to predict demand without easily consumable data. Resource allocation is often made in the dark and as a result, vehicles tend to travel more kilometers with fewer passengers.

A data-driven system can leverage historical data and machine learning to actually forecast demand giving agencies concrete information that helps them to better allocate resources. For instance, if the system predicts that every day at rush hour, paratransit demand for pick-ups in a suburb to downtown surges, Spare can pro-actively dispatch the right number of vehicles to these hotspots.

Consistent trips on Spare Platform

Building-in consistency

There’s comfort in the familiar — especially for paratransit riders who might need help boarding, might prefer to always ride in the same type of vehicle or with the same driver, and at the same time of day. Dispatchers can do their best to accommodate requests but with the multitude of information they are already juggling, it’s difficult to offer these riders exactly what they want.

Riders seeking this type of service configuration can, by checking off a box in Spare, tell the system to look for patterns in their rides and when possible offer transit options that mimic those patterns without further passenger input. It won’t however book someone on a trip that doesn’t make sense from an efficiency or cost point of view, or if the driver is sick, even if it resembles a past preferred one.

Pop-up notification in Spare Rider

Staying informed

In the standard paratransit journey, passengers don’t receive much feedback throughout the booking/scheduling process. They are given a pick-up window and that’s it. There’s few mechanisms to remind them of an upcoming trip, which can be an issue when a trip is booked a week in advance.

Spare keeps passengers informed throughout their entire journey. They receive in-app booking and/or email confirmations so that they can be sure their trip request was logged and as they prepare to board, are privy to service notifications in real-time, including reminders of upcoming trips. For users that book through a dispatcher, an agency can decide to opt-in to automated calls so passengers receive the same level of notifications as if they were using the Spare Rider app.

Before switching to Spare in April, Lincoln, Nebraska’s StarTran had a full-time dedicated employee just for booking and scheduling paratransit. “It was too much,” said Assistant Travel Planner Carla Cosier. With Spare, the agency was able to shift that full-time position to a customer-facing one, providing their users with real value. It’s also allowed StarTran to provide a truly equitable service for the first time, giving customers the freedom to live their lives like everybody else, she adds. And that really has no price.

Our series on the role of tech in the paratransit customer journey traces how passengers interact with this service from the very first touchpoint until the very last and how we can improve this process through real-time, automated software.

Part 1 examines journey planning; everything that happens before a rider books.

Part 2 digs into the complexities of booking, scheduling and dispatching both from the rider and transit agency perspective.

Finally, in Part 3, we see what happens during and after the ride.

To connect with Spare and find out how our paratransit solutions can bring your transit agency’s operations into the modern age, reach out to us at [email protected].