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How simulations and prototypes benefit your transit planning

Rapid prototyping allows transit planners to imagine various scenarios for new microtransit projects before they launch, resulting in optimized services tailored to riders’ needs.

Jerome Mayaud

On-demand microtransit is a planner’s dream because it’s perfectly suited to rapid prototyping: the process of using virtual simulations to quickly estimate the benefits and drawbacks of running transit in different ways.

Transit planners can prototype various service configurations during the planning phase, generating detailed scenarios which help them understand the impact their services could have on communities. Based on the finding of these prototypes, a microtransit pilot project can be launched as a low-risk way of testing the service in the real world. Finally, with all of this data and on-the-ground-experience at hand, the microtransit pilot can be confidently scaled into a fully-realized operation.

What’s more, microtransit pilots can benefit the entire public transit system by reverse-engineering fixed-route bus lines where they make most sense to operate.

In this post, we’ll cover how to use simulation tools to investigate various transit scenarios, and how such tools can be used to create a prototype of the most optimal on-demand transit service.

1. Establish prototype zone boundaries

The first step in creating a prototype zone is to set the boundaries of the service area. This can be easily achieved using suitable Geographical Information System (GIS) software, much of which is free and open-source.

It’s best to start planning at a coarse level and get progressively more granular with the shape and design of your zone. For example, let’s say there’s a neighbourhood with a growing commuter population that isn’t currently served by any major transit stops. You might simulate a stop-to-stop microtransit service with zone boundaries that follow the perimeters of the neighbourhood, tackling the classic first mile/last mile challenge. You can then play around with the zone boundaries to include or exclude certain neighbourhoods from your service zone to see how it affects your simulation results.

Planners tend to have a helpful ‘gut feeling’ when it comes to transit planning in areas they’re experts on, so intuition should be paired with previously acquired mobility data when fine-tuning service boundaries. For more information on the benefits and process ofcollecting mobility data, head here!

To help with data collection, Spare’s simulation tool, Spare Realize, immediately equips transit planners with area-specific context by providing in-depth information such as total population, jobs and points of interest, as well as estimates of the expected demand. This allows users to determine what kinds of services may be most beneficial for the area.

Spare Tip: Make sure you have a clear sense of what your zone is designed to do before you set up its boundaries.

If you’re designing a new non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service, are all the key hospitals and clinics in your zone? If you’re planning an evening microtransit service to connect workers and customers to restaurants and shops, are you missing any entertainment hotspots? If you’re expanding a paratransit service, have you captured all the key services seniors and riders with disabilities might want to access?

2. Configure your prototype zone

Establishing a prototype zone involves more than geographical boundaries, of course. You’ll need to configure the other operational “settings” that will define your zone, such as:

  • Number of vehicles. How many vehicles, fleets and drivers will be available to service the demand?
  • Stop types. Will this service zone offer pick-ups, drop-offs, or both? Will it benefit most from stop-to-stop, door-to-door, or optimized stops?
  • Stop locations. What stop locations will be the most convenient for as many potential riders as possible?
  • Service hours. During what times of day, and days of the week, will this service be offered?
  • Potential demand. What do you expect the demand for services to be at various times of the day?

3. Examine the impact of your zone

It’s important to establish the key performance indicators (KPIs) you want to use to determine the success of a zone. KPIs will inform how you plan and continue to improve upon services, and will also allow you to measure the return on investment (ROI) for various stakeholders.

By determining appropriate KPIs, you can ask questions such as: is my prototype zone likely to solve the issues faced by my community? What are the tradeoffs involved? Who wins and who loses out from my planning decisions?

KPIs should help determine the impact on:

  • The transit agency: What costs and resources will be required to service this zone? What level of fare revenue can be expected? How will this impact spending and service levels on fixed-route transit?
  • Riders: How will wait times and on-time performance be affected by the service? What will seat availability look like? How often will riders share (or ‘pool’) their trips with others?
  • Wider society: Will this service zone lead to a lower overall use of private vehicles, such as cars and taxis? Will it lead to improved transit connections to jobs or reduced traffic congestion during rush hours? Could it reduce loneliness among vulnerable populations, and therefore reduce the burden on municipal healthcare spending over the long term?
  • The environment: Will this service result in reduced vehicle kilometers traveled and a corresponding decrease in greenhouse gas emissions?

Spare Tip: Use a blend of quantitative and qualitative metrics to best understand the value of a new service for various stakeholders.

Many transit planning platforms not only allow you to simulate various operations they can also nudge you in potentially cost-saving directions while you’re prototyping. For instance, Spare Realize can estimate the maximum vehicle occupancy of a service, allowing you to deploy only the size of vehicles you need to meet that demand. This ensures you don’t unnecessarily spend on larger vehicles that cost more money and resources to buy, run and maintain.

Ultimately, investing in on-demand transit is not only about providing cost-effective transport options to communities, it’s also about holistically improving the impact of your transit network. Spelling out the tradeoffs for different groups and use cases is key.

4. Rapidly iterate!

In the spirit of prototyping, don’t shy away from exploring various configurations once you’ve established and configured your prototype zones and settled on your KPIs.

Play around with different ridership scenarios (for instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic vs. once things have recovered) and adjust the supply of vehicles and drivers accordingly. How are services affected when you adjust the number of planned driver shifts or shift lengths? What happens to expected transit demand when you increase the extent of the zone or you take into account population decreases or increases over time?

Making assumptions is a necessary part of transit planning, but so is testing those theories and using the results to inform operational decisions for that zone. Ideally, a transit planning tool, such as Spare Realize, will allow you to change all these settings quickly and conveniently, and to blend the ‘human touch’ that you have as a planner.

Spare Tip: In addition to planning based on past and current demand, incorporate expectations of future demand. Populate these different demand scenarios with different levels of supply to give decision-makers a variety of different options to commit to.

Relying on simulation tools can allow transit planners to make a difference in the communities by drastically improving connectivity in both urban and rural areas alike. If you want to learn more about how Spare can help your on-demand transit service leverage simulations and prototypes and make data-driven decisions, or about our dedicated simulation tool, Spare Realize, drop us a line at