5 ways technology can radically improve paratransit journey planning
Welcome to our three-part series on how technology can enable better paratransit. In Part 1, we’ll cover how riders can use technology to plan their journey. In parts two and three, we’ll tackle how they can make their journey, including the onboard and post-ride experiences, more delightful.
By 2030, seniors will account for 20 percent of the United States population, up from 15 percent in 2017. This demographic shift will have major repercussions for public transportation, as demand for specialized transit that addresses the needs of seniors, as well as others with special mobility needs, rises.
The increased need for paratransit services, which already come with a hefty price tag, poses a real threat to transit agency budgets. In New York, for instance, paratransit costs the Metropolitan Transit Authority up to half-a-billion dollars per year. And yet for that money, the passenger experience is generally described as poor.
Long registration processes, advanced booking requirements, difficulties in matching the right vehicles to demand, inabilities to alter the trip routes once a vehicle is in motion, and few feedback mechanisms are some of the pain points that render the paratransit customer journey frustrating and antiquated (and not just for passengers; for agencies and their employees too).
That’s because the process hasn’t kept pace with the evolution of technology; it is by-and-large manual (think calling in rides, paper driver manifests, vehicle matching via spreadsheets). From the pre-service to the post-service, modern technology is largely absent from the customer journey, despite the fact that advances in open data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and real-time information/mapping, which would make it more fluid, have been helping to improve the standard transit experience for at least a decade.
In part one of this series on the role of tech in paratransit, we’re looking at how automated solutions like Spare Platform, can be used by transit agencies of all sizes to make the early pre-service part of the customer journey — sign-up and travel planning — more efficient and a delight for everyone involved.
Registration goes digital
Users must qualify to receive specialized public transit services. That’s especially true in the United States where paratransit is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In a manual system, prospective users fill out a form, visit their doctor for medical evaluation and sign-off, and send the form to be approved by the transit agency. It’s a process that can take weeks, especially if an in-person assessment is required.
Instead, what if the entire registration process were integrated into an agency’s software platform? Users could fill out a form online and the system would take care of notifying the doctor and potentially booking the appointment. Video assessments would be the norm and the application could be evaluated with the help of optical character recognition software, cutting wait times for potential users, and streamlining operations. Manual verification could always be used as a backup in case of rejection.
Eligibility management becomes manageable
Automated systems can also help when it comes time to renew a user’s eligibility. Currently, agency administrators must export lists of customers, check when their eligibility expires, and communicate this status to the user. There’s a lot of room for error.
By using group memberships in Spare Platform, admins can be alerted to this fact instead. When a person is assigned to a group (e.g. ADA paratransit), their group membership could be set to expire when their eligibility does. As that date approaches, the system would send out a series of notifications either by phone, email, SMS, notifications in the Spare Rider App and/or mail. It advises agencies and riders that action needs to be taken and ensures that no one falls through the cracks.
Kickstarting the journey through onboarding
In a manual process, once a user’s eligibility is confirmed, they call up their agency’s call centre to book a ride. The call center agent handling their request would also be able to verbally educate the potential rider how to use the service.
Wth Spare, users can continue to call in. But they are also empowered to schedule a ride themselves through the Spare Rider App. This self-serve option might suit certain types of riders better such as those who have trouble hearing. Once in the app, they are guided to create their first booking through a series of explanatory prompts, which continue during all phases of the paratransit journey, such as tracking their ride in real-time.
Planning with and beyond on-demand
Users with special mobility needs don’t always have to take on-demand paratransit. But without the right information and tools, it’s hard for these riders to know the various options available and to evaluate which is best for them. Would it be more time and cost-effective to take a taxi to a medical appointment? Or would an on-demand ride coupled with a trip on the commuter train be more suitable? Because paratransit solutions often aren’t integrated into standard trip planning tools, paratransit users never get a holistic view of what’s possible. The fact that they have to take the time to evaluate each option separately is cumbersome and outdated.
With technology like the Spare Rider App, they can plan their transport and see all their options with a few taps at their smartphone. These options can include private third-party providers like local taxis companies, which agencies can use to expand their paratransit fleet to provide more reliable service. Spare’s open API also means that paratransit systems can be integrated into Mobility as a Service (MaaS) apps like TransitApp or DART’s GoPass, so passengers can easily evaluate if the on-demand/commuter train duo really is the best bet. By giving paratransit riders more ways to move around their towns and cities, they can explore new social opportunities and access vital services that were previously out of reach. And agencies, which have invested millions to make their trains, bus rapid transit and express buses more accessible, can finally start to see a good return on their efforts — a true win-win for everyone!
Paratransit users do it for themselves!
The standard paratransit paradigm relegates trip planning to the agency. Dispatchers are responsible for determining the routes, based on vehicle availability, demand and time of day. Often this is done hours, even days in advance completely removing any flexibility for riders. This type of paratransit is usually A to B, with no ability to add a stop in between. Paratransit systems that are governed by manual processes simply aren’t flexible enough to accommodate this type of request.
With integrated trip-planning apps, users can self-serve. A person can decide, for example, to use the app and see what transit gets them to the shopping mall for lunch in between two medical appointments. This might mean that from home to the hospital, they ride on a paratransit van, from the hospital to the mall they grab a low-floor bus and return to the hospital via a brokered taxi. They’d know the cost of these options upfront and receive real-time information about their trip.
By digitizing even the earliest parts of the paratransit customer journey, we can ensure that riders are met with a smooth and efficient experience from the get-go. Continuing to use tools that promote efficiency and network optimization in the booking, scheduling, and matching phases of the paratransit journey allows users to see how data-driven transit technology can positively impact their movements but also their ability to life fuller lives, full of things like last-minute lunches!
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].