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Levelling the transit playing field: The game-changing impact of demand-responsive transportation

Transportation equity is top of the agenda for many public transit agencies. For decades, a variety of marginalized populations have had limited access to reliable and affordable transportation options, but today, innovative uses of data and technology are starting to level the playing field. Demand-responsive transportation (DRT) – Spare’s bread and butter – is a key part of the story.


Jerome Mayaud

In this blog post, we'll explore the transformative impact that DRT has had on transportation equity, as revealed by unique datasets we’ve collected through Spare's software platform. Over the last three years, we’ve sent anonymous travel survey data to hundreds of thousands of riders across dozens of Spare-powered DRT services. By analyzing the survey responses and pairing them with actual travel patterns, we’ve gained valuable insights into the ways DRT is addressing historic inequities by allowing millions more people to travel more conveniently, safely and cheaply than they ever could before.

Let’s dive into the data together!

New opportunities for people with disabilities

In our travel surveys, we found that 30% of those who'd never used transit before riding with our DRT service have a disability, compared to the average prevalence of disability at 18% among those who've used transit before. This suggests that we're creating new opportunities for rides with DRT, specifically for those historically excluded from transit.

Championing safer transportation for women

When it comes to gender, our survey data tells many interesting stories. Let’s focus on how men and women switch their walking trips to DRT. Men replace their walking trips fairly evenly throughout the day, whereas women increasingly replace their walking trips with DRT as the day progresses. Although this shift could create additional road congestion, it does also mean women are now able to replace potentially unsafe walking trips at night. The tradeoff is worth it, because it redresses an important safety issue for women in the transportation system.

Unpacking the influence of income

As you might expect, income also has a noticeable impact on travel patterns. An interesting trend we spotted is that high-income riders tend to ride in much ‘peakier’ ways than low-income riders. For commuting, shopping and healthcare trips, high-income riders are much more likely to ride at peak times, whereas low-income riders use the service evenly throughout the day. With these differences in mind, our public transit agency partners could use strategies such as variable pricing throughout the day to preferentially subsidize trips by low-income riders. This could make a big difference to transportation equity in any city.

Redressing historic ethnic inequities

We can also use our survey data to look at travel behavior through the lens of ethnicity. When analyzing the data from one of our partner cities in Canada, we noticed that suburban riders saved significantly more time with DRT than those in the downtown area, compared with equivalent trips taken on fixed-route transit. In fact, some suburban residents saw time savings of more than 60 minutes thanks to DRT!

Crucially, owing to the ethnic geography of the city and its suburbs, Black and African American residents experienced much greater savings thanks to the introduction of DRT. This case study demonstrates how DRT can be an important tool for redressing historic ethnic inequities in the transportation system.

Spare Open Fleets: A gamechanger for transit equity

It’s all well and good using travel surveys to understand how DRT affects transit equity, but a question we often get is: how does Spare use this data to supercharge the equity benefits of our software?

Let’s use the City of McKinney in Texas as an example. A journey from McKinney to the neighboring town of Melissa typically takes 8 minutes to drive in a car. But if you don’t have a car, you have a choice between a 2.5-hour walk or… nothing, really, because there isn’t any public transit.

To address this gap in public transit, Collin County Transit (CCT) and Spare launched an exceptionally popular DRT service for the residents of McKinney and surrounding towns in January 2022.

Around the same time, Spare had just finished developing a unique new software product, Open Fleets, which integrates all non-private vehicles on the road into the transportation system. By deploying dedicated vehicles on high productivity routes and sending inefficient trips out to non-dedicated providers, Open Fleets helps to provide better DRT services to more people.

Open Fleets was a huge success when we deployed it in McKinney to make use of the local Lyft fleet. We saw wait times halve from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, which boosted the rider experience. What’s more, Lyft drivers could be deployed to cater to trips that would otherwise be inconvenient or expensive to service using a dedicated vehicle, which led to an incredible 47% reduction in average cost per trip. In turn, these savings could be used to reduce taxpayer expenditure, or to expand service coverage to more areas around the county, thus spreading the benefit to more people.

Leveling the transit playing field

DRT, when underpinned by meaningful data and clever software, can clearly deliver huge benefits for marginalized populations. By shifting the needle on inequities around disability, gender, income and ethnicity, we’re helping our partner agencies to create more inclusive, affordable, and equitable transportation for everyone. It’s a winning combination!