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Why Paratransit Service Planning Matters

Jun 18, 2019
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At ThinkTransit this past April, I asked a room full of 75 paratransit folk if any of them did paratransit service planning. Only two raised their hands. While this is unscientific and more of a symbolic gesture, it still gets my point across: Why does the industry think it’s acceptable to ignore the strategic planning of its paratransit service? 

The Daily Grind – Paratransit Is Always Changing 

“This all sounds great, but I have to get tomorrow’s schedule out,” I hear you say. And it’s a legitimate statement – you aren’t running a traditional fixed-route service, you aren’t planning for three to six months’ worth of service. Transit planning is traditionally about bus stops, headway, and route speed, not door-to-door service. When demand is unique and often dynamic, planning also gets complicated. How do you account for unpredictable, single-passenger trips that often change on the day of service itself? 

But the industry needs to shift its mindset – paratransit service planning is a key strategic activity that can reduce costs, improve productivity, and enhance the quality of service. Planning for paratransit may not have the scale and design of fixed-route. But the idea is still the same – think about scheduling as a way to achieve crucial performance goals. 

What Does Paratransit Service Planning Do for Me? 

Often, likely due to the nature of paratransit and ADA services (the ¾ mile), it’s assumed that paratransit is predicated on the fixed-route service. Therefore, you likely don’t need to plan. But using some operations management 101, you can gain the following benefits. 

Accurately Forecast and Allocate Resources 

Planners should conduct trip analysis by the hour and day to be able to match demand. They should track cancellation rates to understand where and at what time of day trips are canceled. These factors determine how long shifts last, which, in turn, dictates the number of vehicles and drivers needed. Obviously, you don’t want to be wasting the precious and limited funding you have. 

Determine the Best Vehicle to Purchase 

These vehicles aren’t cheap – and are often million-dollar investments. This is an important business decision that should be evidence-based and not left to guesswork by the maintenance department. By accurately understanding your ridership and current resources, when the need for investment arises, you’ll have a better understanding of what your operations need daily. Do you need large, dedicated paratransit buses? Or do you think more ambulatory passengers and a smaller vehicle (like a sedan) will do the trick? 

Reducing Vehicle Wait Times 

Vehicle staging is another important operational aspect. Instead of picking up passengers all at once at 3:00 PM when they leave group homes, sheltered workshops and adult daycares, shifts could be effectively staggered to manage vehicle deployment and scheduling. Some passengers could be picked up at 2:50 PM, some at 2:55 PM or 3:00 PM, or 3:05 PM. This reduces vehicle wait times and problems around on-time performance and onboard violations.  

Strategic staging also eases the logistical challenge involved in vehicles simultaneously leaving the garage at peak times such as 6:00 AM, causing major bottlenecks. With better planning, deployments can be staggered and be more orderly, ensuring a smooth operational flow.  

Take it Step by Step  

It’s no secret that paratransit ridership and the cost per paratransit trip is increasing. Service planning creates a more scientific approach to demand response delivery that can significantly improve the bottom line. With planning, optimal vehicle speed and dwell times can be calculated, helping reduce costs. Many planners today rely on gut feel to estimate dwell times – the time it takes to load and unload passengers. Inaccurate estimates can severely impact the cost of service delivery. For example, if you’re off by 30 seconds on your dwell time estimate and you make 2,000 trips in a day, you’re going to be off by a lot, and that will cost your agency.  

Implementing this might seem like a daunting task. But set daily and weekly goals. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. The more you can start to tackle and start to see positive gains, the more you’ll understand the value of paratransit service planning. This is in your agency’s best interest. It’s something you’ll be glad you did. In terms of ROI, it’s an activity that pays for itself. If you can increase productivity by five percent every day because of proper planning, in a year that adds up to significant cost savings.  

Take advantage of Paracutter to help automate some of your scheduling processes so you can focus more on the overall planning of your paratransit service. Learn more about it here.   

Jeff Zarr has over 30 years of transit experience and 20 years of project management experience in the public transportation industry, as well as providing Paratransit consulting services for over 100 Paratransit agencies across North America, Europe, and the UK. As the Industry Solutions Manager for Trapeze Demand Response, Jeff shares his Paratransit expertise and experience throughout the North American Demand Response industry.
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