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Putting scheduled paratransit first in an on-demand transit system

We share how transit agencies can move to an on-demand system that improves on scheduled paratransit at the same time.

Kristoffer Vik Hansen

We’ve made the case before that paratransit riders have the right to an on-demand system, to make spontaneous decisions about their lives —  that last-minute lunch or trip to the grocery store —  and have access to appropriate transportation. (Find out more in parts 1, 2 and 3 of Spare’s series about the paratransit customer journey).

Legacy systems that require advanced trip planning/booking make on-demand near-impossible. So does switching to an on-demand enabled system mean high-priority passengers are left competing for space on the bus?

In an automated, data-driven environment like Spare, transit agencies can take advantage of all the promised operational efficiencies and offer on-demand and scheduled service that happily co-exist, guaranteeing both the operator and rider are better off.  Here’s how we use phased implementation, rider groups, logic-based time rules and automated negotiations to make that happen.

Phased implementation

A bespoke approach to implementation

There are many phases to the implementation of an automated on-demand system. Spare partners such as Citibus in Lubbock, TX, opted to launch commingled on-demand paratransit and microtransit at the same time. This allowed the agency to use extra capacity on its paratransit fleet to accommodate microtransit passengers without increasing operational costs.

But agencies can roll out a demand-driven system according to their specific priorities starting with automated scheduling, followed by same-day, on-demand, and then ramp up to a  commingled service (if they want). Through a phased approach, both agencies and their most vulnerable customers get acclimated to an automated system. Agencies can invest in rider education campaigns, and use the automated booking, scheduling and matching functionalities within a narrower context as a proof of concept for what’s possible as they scale.

The power of groups

Paratransit passengers aren’t a monolith. Within the group, there are different mobility needs, transit purposes, etc. In traditional paratransit systems, a rider’s status is determined by their eligibility.  Automated systems do the same thing except with added sophistication. Let’s say a passenger needs to be at her dialysis appointment every day at a specific time, she can be grouped as ‘Recurring Trip’ and ‘Dialysis’ and labeled the highest priority. There’s no limit to the different types and numbers of groups that can be created and processed by a data-driven, automated system.

Automated matching

Time rules rule

Once passengers are categorized into groups, an automated system is able to parse and assign trips based on agency-defined time rules or booking windows. Say an ADA paratransit rider labeled highest priority wants to book a trip, they can do so anywhere from two weeks to a maximum of 72 hours before their desired travel date.

Time rules

Instead of being assigned a ride on-the-spot, the system waits until 48 hours before departure to determine the best possible vehicle and routing for that passenger. A lower priority-level passenger would only be matched, 24 hours ahead of departure and an on-demand passenger would be matched first-come-first-serve based on remaining capacity (on-demand could include paratransit but also microtransit in a commingled situation). In other words, higher priority groups get first dibs on available seats.

Called delayed matching, this ensures that the system is able to evaluate the most requests possible for the same service level to guarantee space for high-priority ridership while also ensuring better efficiency.

Delayed matching

From call-in negotiations to automated negotiations

Sometimes there are more trip requests than capacity and transit agencies are accustomed to negotiating with passengers when that happens. In a traditional system, if there’s no availability in a requested time slot, dispatchers will propose another to try and meet the rider’s needs. An automated system works the same way but faster. It’s also able to evaluate a number of alternative solutions to determine which is the best one for both passenger and agency based on that passenger’s booking window and associated time rules. When customers use a smartphone app to book, they are alerted of the newly proposed pick-up time and are free to accept or reject it with the tap of a button.

Rider communications

If there is more demand than capacity, agencies are also automatically notified. With delayed matching, this means they can be alerted up to 48 hours ahead if this is the case giving them plenty of time to add drivers and fleet to the schedule or broker trips to third-party providers.

Wholly holistic

By using these approaches and techniques coupled with an automated tool, transit agencies can start to see how on-demand paratransit, or even a commingled paratransit and microtransit system, can work together with traditionally scheduled paratransit. Combined, these give transit users more options and freedom than ever before without over-burdening transit agencies.

To explore how Spare can help you improve scheduled paratransit processes and allow you to move to an on-demand model, get in touch at