By Marcela Moreno

Looking Back for a Better Future: Data Driven Decision-making

July 7, 2021

This past month, CTAA staff traveled to visit Cape May Fare-Free Transportation on the New Jersey coast. Cape May Fare-Free Transportation provides demand-response, and subscription transportation service in Cape May county. Staff met with Dan Mulraney, the director of Cape May’s transportation program to learn more about their pilot program to provide a mobility on-demand service via Routematch by Uber.

This past month, CTAA staff traveled to visit Cape May Fare-Free Transportation on the New Jersey coast. Cape May Fare-Free Transportation provides demand-response, and subscription transportation service in Cape May county. We met with Dan Mulraney, the director of Cape May’s transportation program to learn more about their pilot program to provide a mobility on-demand service via Routematch by Uber.

The Search for On-demand Transportation Solutions

In our meeting, Dan provided us with his thought process that ultimately led the agency to explore on-demand transportation solutions. By thoroughly reviewing historical data, he was able to identify patterns that prompted some agency soul searching. At the time of their organizational review, their data revealed that 13 percent of trips were cancelled, and 3.3 percent of trips were no-shows. Agency leadership found themselves asking themselves what factors were leading to these numbers. Ultimately, no-show or cancelled trips meant that the agency was losing the opportunity to provide service to a rider. After considering external challenges, such as possible flaws in data and demographic changes , the agency began to look inward. Cape May Fare-Free Transportation also had a three business day advance notice requirement to book a demand-response trip followed by requiring riders to call in the evening before to confirm their ride and receive their estimated pick-up time. Dan and his team understood that three days was a lot of time for something to come up. Was there too much of a burden on a rider to take their trip? A rider could reschedule a medical appointment, get a ride from a friend, or have their needs change. How could Cape May County’s transportation services change their operations to give riders the flexibility that they needed?

Ridership Survey

An important follow up the agency took before making changes was to conduct a ridership survey, where they asked their riders some about their experiences and wants while using the service. Was the three day booking period a barrier to ride? Generally, riders were okay with the booking period, which Dan later concluded was because they were used to it. However, when they asked whether passengers would prefer same-day booking, riders responded with a resounding yes. Cape May’s transportation staff hypothesized that a same-day booking solution with the flexibility to accommodate riders without access to a smartphone could improve their cancellation and no-show rate. Fare-Free Transportation had already been using Routematch software for their demand-response services. When Uber acquired Routematch in July 2020, mobility on-demand became a module that Routematch customers could explore. Sensing a good fit, plans for a mobility on-demand pilot began.

The Pilot

The pilot kicked off in Cape May County on April 1, 2021. It took off slowly, but after the first month, trips began to pick up. During the pilot, riders would apply through Cape May Fare Free Transportation to become an eligible rider for their mobility on-demand pilot – from there, they could either book their ride through the Uber application on their phone, or call in to the dispatch offices. Preliminary data showed about 20 trips were taken per day, per bus. The wait time after booking a ride was 15 minutes, and if someone has the Uber app, they can track the location of their bus on their phone. Other insights were that while their rider base did not grow significantly, their existing ridership began taking more trips per day. They are now able to accomplish multiple things in one day because of the flexibility that the new model provides – a level of mobility that is competitive with taking a personal vehicle or TNC.

Vehicle Utilization and Public Outreach

Operationally, vehicle utilization (the time the vehicle was actively performing trips) was 80 percent, with a deadhead of 20 percent. The pilot resulted in about 53 new clients, and a 35 percent growth of trips. Survey collection data on the lack of smartphone usage was validated by the sheer number of people calling in. Ninety-six percent of passengers were booking their trips by calling the dispatch offices – although additional outreach may change those numbers. Public outreach was difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on in-person meetings, but efforts are on-going. The agency experienced no job loss from the implementation, although their scheduler’s duties shifted as a result of the software’s algorithm to assign vehicles to trips. They are able to focus on scheduling Cape May’s subscription trips, as well as focusing on travel training.

Lessons

Cape May Fare-Free Transportation plans to continue their mobility on-demand service for the foreseeable future. All in all, the Cape May mobility on-demand pilot demonstrated some important lessons for other agencies that are considering incorporating system changes after the pandemic. The first is the importance of collecting data on the services that you already provide – whether through pen and paper, or passive data collection methods (PS: if you want to learn more about data, the National Center for Applied Transit Technology recently released a guidebook all about data collection, management and decision-making, linked here, and is available for your data questions at carpenter@ctaa.org or moreno@ctaa.org) . This information is a powerful tool to guide planning and operational decisions, as well as provide evidence that supports changes to your service. The second is to understand your ridership and truly put yourself in their shoes. What changes could improve the livelihood of your ridership? Where should you invest your dollars to make the biggest impact on your community? The final takeaway is to be willing to act on your data insights – the transit landscape in 2021 is much different than 2019. With a wealth of information at our fingertips, we can understand our communities better than ever and implement mobility technologies or methods that can better serve our customers, neighbors, and friends.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.