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Rising Costs, Growing Ridership: How Technology Addresses Paratransit’s Big Challenges

Aug 14, 2019
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As a paratransit scheduler, Abby had her work cut out for her. Designing runcuts manually took weeks pouring over complicated spreadsheets, going back and forth between receiving trip requests, working random (one-time) trips around subscription, or fixed trips and preparing the vehicle and driver assignments. Getting out the most efficient schedule possible was a tough act, a repetitive process of finetuning until the schedule could no longer be improved upon.  

Yet, Abby always seemed to end up with too many or too few vehicles on the road. It was also challenging to avoid requiring drivers to operate a lot of overtime. On top of that, the day’s schedule could be markedly different from the next. 

This kind of workload is unsustainable in today’s paratransit environment, which has grown both in ridership and costs, demanding ever-increasing efficiencies. APTA statistics show a 2.1% increase in paratransit ridership in 2018, only one of two public transit modes (the other being commuter rail) with positive ridership gains last year. At the same time, paratransit costs are increasing, on average between US$45 to $50 per trip.  

With declining overall ridership, rising paratransit costs are eating into agency budgets. Agencies now face a double quandary. How do you help improve service for a growing customer base while improving productivity to reduce paratransit costs?  

Making the Most of Today’s Paratransit Technology 

Utilizing paratransit technology to help agencies manage schedules, streamline operations, and enhance the customer experience addresses both challenges effectively. “With the cost of administering paratransit service increasing, we need to make sure our resources are used in the most efficient manner,” says Jeff Zarr, Trapeze Industry Solutions Manager for Demand Response. “Reliance on technology increases year after year as we expect people to do more with less funding.” 

The unique dynamics of paratransit operations make technology even more relevant in today’s competitive paratransit environment. With the need to satisfy many requirements, from passenger safeguarding and worker welfare to fleet optimization and operational cost savings, paratransit operations benefit immensely from technological solutions that can improve the quality of life of paratransit passengers and deliver innovative paratransit services.  

Say Goodbye to Spreadsheets and Guesswork 

Traditionally, paratransit scheduling is a complicated exercise and a difficult balancing act involving multiple factors.  

While fixed route service can be planned for months in advance in one go, with few adjustments over time, the on-demand nature of paratransit makes each day’s schedule unique and subject to late changes. The paratransit scheduler becomes an artist of sorts, adept at finding the most efficient schedule that accommodates passengers’ specific needs, complies with ADA and union rules, and reduces costs for the agency. What’s more, he recognizes that tomorrow likely requires an altogether different scheduling solution.  

Developing an efficient schedule is a tedious, manual process of compiling information into spreadsheets and iteratively working out an optimized plan. This can take weeks of work and involves a deep understanding of an agency’s paratransit operation, a good deal of common sense, and expert problem-solving.  

Innovative runcutting software such as Trapeze’s ParaCutter promises to take most of the guesswork, and effort, out of paratransit scheduling. Now, someone like Abby can schedule the day’s paratransit service in four easy steps at a fraction of the time she used to spend on it.  

ParaCutter allows schedulers to account for the multiple service scenarios that arise in daily paratransit provision, so you can allocate available resources in the most efficient manner to meet expected demand. The software can analyze historical trends, predict future service requirements, define shift rules, and enable schedulers to devise the most optimal runcuts.  

By automating the process and leveraging algorithms and historical data, schedulers create a more efficient and accurate operation, ensuring enough paratransit vehicles are on the road to meet riders’ needs while avoiding excess vehicles during off-peak hours.   

“It’s a matter of effectively and efficiently allocating our resources. Why not make sure our paratransit resources are optimized?” says Jeff. “Our runcutting tools have been popular in conventional transit for decades, why not paratransit?” 

In effect, what was once a ton of work has been niftily reduced to a short, breezy operation. Kitsap Transit is one agency that can attest to this. After implementing ParaCutter, schedulers clawed back four to five hours into their week, now spending just 15 to 20 minutes on administrative tasks. What’s more, they were better able to control where buses actually start, cut certain ones down on the next scheduling, perform daily add-ins, and monitor bus overages and shortages.  

 No More ‘Money’ Problems 

On the customer side, technology has made it easier for paratransit passengers to pay their fares. Cashless faring solutions such as Trapeze’s EZWallet offer demand response passengers a pre-pay option at the time of booking by using an easily replenishable virtual wallet. Where customers previously would need for their checks to reflect in their accounts within business hours to book a trip, with a virtual wallet they can immediately pay online, any time, through a secure web portal.  

 A virtual wallet also lets them top up their account using their credit or debit cards or through e-checks, or automatically replenish when the balance dips below a predefined threshold. They can also keep track of their account balance, get a transaction statement, and view their trip history. 

For an agency, the cost savings of a cashless solution can be transformative. As Jeff says, “There’s a saying, it costs money to collect money, so if we go cashless to the fullest extent possible, we can cut the cost to collect money.” 

Giving passengers or their representatives a self-service payment option allows you to eliminate time-consuming manual fare reconciliation, which adds considerably to an agency’s paratransit costs. You also save thousands of dollars more with no in-vehicle hardware or smartcards to worry about.   

Implementing a cashless solution such as EZWallet yielded considerable savings for Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. VTA had used an honor system that allowed customers to book rides even before the agency received payment, when customers’ checks hadn’t reflected in their accounts at the time of booking. This practice had put VTA about $30,000 in negative balances. The problem was eliminated with the adoption of EZWallet. 

Like in fixed route transit, technology has proven to be a great enabler of paratransit, improving service and empowering passengers with more choice and independence. With on-demand technology becoming central to the debate on what future mobility will look like, paratransit technology is more important than ever to transit agencies.  

How can the right technology help you reduce paratransit costs while improving service? Watch the ParaCutter and EZWallet videos to find out how. 

Joyce Fernandez is a contract Content Marketing Writer for Trapeze Group. She has written content for B2B and B2C companies in the financial services, technology, and design fields in Canada, UK and Asia. She studied journalism under the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master program, at Aarhus University (Denmark) and City, University of London (UK), and Digital Experience Innovation at the University of Waterloo.
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