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Paratransit Evolved: 5 Insights from our interview with Sharad Agarwal

Sharad Agarwal, Spare’s advisor and a veteran of paratransit, shares his insights on the evolving state of paratransit and the trends transit agencies need to be aware of to plan for the future.

Jeff Swan

In the first episode of our new podcast, Transit Innovators, we chatted with Sharad Agarwal, Spare’s strategic advisor and a veteran of paratransit, about the trends in paratransit, which he says is "the one area of transportation that has the most opportunity for disruption."

Read on for his top five takeaways from the podcast episode.

Takeaway #1:

Paratransit needs better and more scalable systems
On the supply side, it's just if you look at the market trends, you know that fuel prices are very high. We know that electric vehicles are going to be coming, which is going to reduce probably fleet supply because the costs are there and then driver shortages, which is not a new thing, but it's even worse now. That's the great resignation. In some ways, it's like there's less people, but there's also so many jobs that people aren't necessarily driving anymore. It's pretty much common across every industry that drivers are in shortage. So we need to create models that are better and scalable.

And I think one of the things that Spare has done is called co-mingling. And you shouldn't have three different vehicles going the same direction half-empty carrying passengers. And so with software, we can start to co-mingle everything into the same vehicles. And then having this added supply of TNCs and taxis and local providers that are not paid for by the city just increases in supply. And if you look at this geographic area, the transit agents, hundreds and hundreds of square miles, you can't really effectively cover that kind of ground and give riders a good experience with just dedicated vehicles. You really have to have a much bigger supply. And with the technology, you can manage that whole supply and not have new capital costs for the agencies. And I think that's a huge improvement for agencies. And then ultimately the rider benefits because they won’t have long wait times.

Takeaway #2:

Smartphone-friendly experiences for riders
"It's important to create a very equitable opportunity for anybody that wants to use smart technology, they should have the option. The smartphone has been around for 12 years now. So the population that's typically riding Paratransit, they're probably a good portion of them now are used to having that interface as part of their daily lives. And so I think adding this piece in from a transit perspective will be expected. I think there's still going to be a number of people that like the call and they like the camaraderie of the call centers.

Takeaway #3:

One platform for managing rider, driver and transit operators
"Bringing this overall experience with the driver app and the rider app and the scheduling software all in one package. We haven't seen that before. You had a lot of software companies that had one or the other and you were kind of combining them, integrating IT companies, developing their own apps to go into software. It wasn't a seamless experience, which is where now we have every component all in the same modules, all the modules in the same platform. And that's a big step forward for the industry. And then I think this final evolution is with open fleets (trip brokering) and bringing in now not just the fleets that are dedicated but the non-dedicated fleets have the entire system on the same apps to the same platform optimized by the same algorithm."

Takeaway #4:

Move to cloud technology to reduce costs
You can't have On-Prem upfront capital cost because the changing technology is so fast that technology has to be virtual, has to be subscription based, it has to be on cloud. It has to have the ability to integrate with other software. And those are the main things that are required and those are things that weren't there in the past.

So if you think about it, putting a seven-figure number down to have software on your premises, to buy a server, to buy the backup server, to buy everything, right? And so it just brings the cost down and technology becomes a much smaller portion of the overall delivery costs. And I think that's important because we all know that technology is cheaper in general. So we shouldn't see anything different in Paratransit, right?

And I think there's another big chunk that's coming through, which is our big mandate with electric vehicles that's going to be coming through. So there's a lot of money that's not accounted for that's going to require more clean energy policies that are going to be there.

Takeaway #5:

Real-time optimization will improve efficiency
Real time optimization has been a goal of the entire industry for forever and it just didn't exist. I think this optimization in real time where if there's a lot of the high cancellation rate in Paratransit, so finding out ways to kind of continue to optimize your fleet and you have 20 or 30% cancellations every day is going to be a big part of the Spare’s future too is just reducing that kind of cost from cancellations and then integration of other fleets and regions with smaller vehicles and kind of optimizing what we have out there.

Bonus Takeaway

Technology enables planning for future growth
Planning has always been a big topic in transit. I mean, how do you plan for ridership that doesn't exist and plan for the growth? And how do you match demographics and where do you want to add new rides? And then same with Paratransit. How do you manage growth, which has typically been the case over the last 20 years, is growing every year.

We have some great tools in Spare around demand analysis so we can input existing trip data and geographically determine where the best optimum ride is from the best modes. We put a lot of effort into making sure that we can change, that we can really analyze before we implement. So we have a lot of tools around creating those scenarios, the simulation. So you can essentially decide what to do before actually putting it into place. I think in the past that was always done by hand or we had big systems that took only limited people that were trained on it that could do that kind of analysis where we now we've created into a fairly simple with pretty powerful algorithms that can generate that information in a matter of minutes that's needed.

Ready to learn more about trends in paratransit ? Listen to the full podcast below.