From Traditional to On-Demand: GATRA's Evolution in Transit
In this interview, I sat down with Stacy Forte, Director of Administration and Compliance, from the Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) based in Massachusetts. Through its fixed-route, GATRA GO microtransit services, and paratransit services, GATRA plays a pivotal role in connecting the cities of Attleboro, Taunton and many towns in the community to neighboring city, Boston. Stacy shares how the GATRA GO services have evolved since first partnering with Spare in 2020.
Jenna: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Stacy. Let’s dive right in: can you start off by giving us an overview of your service?
Stacy: So, we cover a territory of 29 communities, offering traditional fixed-route service and ADA paratransit. Some of our communities don’t have fixed route service and we have traditional ADA paratransit services there.
Since 2020, we've partnered with Spare. Starting in the Franklin area, we successfully reintroduced microtransit to underperforming routes. We improved a struggling Pembroke commuter shuttle as well as expanded to Plymouth's southern part, using microtransit a few days a week. We hadn’t been able to service the southern part of Plymouth with traditional transportation. Recently, we switched another small fixed route, Scituate, to microtransit, with positive responses, including long-distance medical transportation. So we have four microtransit services: GATRA Go United, GATRA Go Explore, GATRA Go Seacoast, GATRA Go Coastline and we have our ADA Demand Response or paratransit Service, serviced in collaboration with Council of Agents, which runs everywhere except for the United service area. Most recently, we went out for procurement to update our paratransit scheduling software, and we are going to be utilizing Spare. So, we're in the middle of working on that project right now.
Jenna: You mention that you previously weren’t able to service the southern part of Plymouth with traditional transit; why was that?
Stacy: The service area is massive: it takes around 20-30 minutes by car just to reach the center of Plymouth. It's a very rural and unusually large area – the biggest town in Massachusetts in terms of land mass. This was a challenge as dedicating a vehicle there tied up resources for a significant time. Eventually, we managed to offer service a few days a week using extra vehicles. We were then able to give service, not only to people that would be only eligible for paratransit due to disability but also to anybody else living down there without access to a car.
Jenna: On the topic of challenges, what were the other kind of the challenges GATRA faced, whether they were operational or relating to riders, for example, that led you to move to a microtransit model?
Stacy: We had traditional fixed routes, and some areas weren't suitable for them due to being more rural and having less activity. We’re really a transit dependent service, so we don’t have a lot of choice riders. Initially, we took over two routes: one in the Franklin area that was a convenient circular shuttle for downtown shoppers, and another Norfolk shuttle with minimal ridership due to the vast area and limited activities. With microtransit, people had more flexibility to travel beyond those routes. During COVID, we could gauge passenger numbers on the shuttle and expand their access. This resulted in increased ridership in that region.
Jenna: Right, and you mentioned that your riders are very much transit dependent rather than choice riders. Could you elaborate a bit more on what kind of riders GATRA GO serves?
Stacy: When I say transit dependent, we mainly are serving people over the age of 60, people with disabilities or people who don't have cars for other reasons. We run what we've always called lifeline services; our headway is on our fixed route and we try to hit the major destinations. We're seeing more choice riders with microtransit, especially around the colleges. I think the fare, and the ease of being able to schedule on the app and the convenience of microtransit has definitely helped increase ridership.
Jenna: Was there a big rider education piece that had to take place to move riders onto the new system? How did your agency go about that?
Stacy: Yes, every time we've stepped into a new area, we've made an effort to hold some community meetings. We would hold specific meetings for transportation, explain that this is what we're doing, this is how to use it and just showed them that way. We'd connect with the Councils on Aging and give them a rundown of how the app works. But I think the biggest thing with this was that we did not require anyone to use the app so they could still call, especially in that Franklin Service area and that was very helpful for the older ridersOlder riders are sometimes more resistant: they fear it, they can't use t, they just can't figure it out, so we did do a lot of education.
Jenna: So from the rider side, I know you mentioned earlier that it's a lot more convenient for riders to be taking GATRA GO as they have better access to get to where they need to go. Are there any other impacts on your overall transit network?
Stacy: Overall, it's been quite positive, and another great aspect is the ability to access reports and real-time comments. This part I enjoy because previously, if riders had complaints, they'd call the dispatch center handling the vehicles and so, we wouldn't be aware of those issues. But now, we can see them in real time. If there's a problem, we can pull up reports right away if we need to, and that's really helpful. On the whole, we've actually observed that we're now needing to boost the service. It's become more efficient, but at the same time, it's gained popularity.
Jenna: What would you say has surprised you the most about on-demand transit and its implementation?
Stacy: I kind of had a feeling it would catch on, so that part wasn't really shocking. It just makes sense since it gives riders a smoother experience and lets them go where they actually want to. It's more personalized, you know? Our systems here were a bit old-fashioned and they've been that way for ages. So, I wasn't totally taken aback because I was expecting a huge improvement compared to our current dispatch setup, which relies on maps and hasn't seen updates in ages.
"I'm excited for things to get more streamlined, and we've already noticed better efficiency in both our vehicles and scheduling. It's helping us see how we can make the most out of what we've got. Honestly, we’ve had nothing but good luck with Spare."
Jenna: Let’s come back to that initial question: though there might not have been too many surprises, what would you say have been the main learnings so far since deploying Spare?
Stacy: In the beginning, we believed we were offering a better service, so we didn't put as much effort into laying the groundwork with the towns, which was a bit of an oversight. Towns really do need some prior knowledge and education about this. That aspect was significant. Educating the communities ahead of time is crucial before just flipping the switch and saying, 'Hey, we're giving you this great thing.’
As we got deeper into it, we realized how many different service rules we had set up, some going back maybe 10 years for unknown reasons. Now, we're sifting through all that, which is a good thing. It's a chance to streamline and update things for efficiency.
Jenna: Last question for you, what would you say about your Spare-powered service? What's your experience been like?
Stacy: We haven't had any issues that haven't been resolved right away and I have nothing but good things to say about it. What I have seen with other software companies, is every change is a cost. You call them and ask them to pull a separate report, then what's on the system and they charge you. And that's just so frustrating. I haven't seen that with Spare. The Support Team is great. That’s been amazing because transit agencies are usually small and we are running very lean, fast and everything's last minute. So, we just want something really easy to work with, and Spare is really easy to work with. As we expand the Spare software into the paratransit side of things, we’ve found that it’s as easy for the dispatchers to work with it as it is for us.