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On-demand is Denver’s command

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2017
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CnR driver with tablet at a stop
A CnR driver keeps in touch via his tablet at a stop
While demand responsive transit overcomes many problems, it has been too expensive to provide for the general public but Denver believes it may have found a solution.

Cost-efficiently meeting fluctuating passenger levels within available resources can prove a serious challenge for general publicoriented demand responsive transit. There is growing US interest in this mode - as distinct from the already established use of demand responsive transit for specialised needs, such as paratransit for the disabled – to support mainstream transit, but there are financial concerns.

Faced with these, the Regional Transit District (RTD) of Denver, the state capital and largest city of Colorado, has introduced a technology-based Call-n-Ride (CnR) service, designed to cut operational and administrative expenditure. The District claims the system is the largest of its kind currently being run by a US metropolitan transportation agency.

CnR offers a network of personalised bus services within a cluster of closely defined service zones, each covered by up to four vehicles. Most of these zones focus on the version of demand responsive transit that offers ‘first/last mile’ connections to medium-distance light rail or bus rapid transit routes, where two-thirds of trips are to work or school.

In other zones, the predominant version is the ‘community circulation’ model which links residential neighbourhoods with destination and collection points such as schools, public libraries, hospitals and civic centres. A ‘flex route’ variation offers scope for deviations, allowed for by having time windows at scheduled stops.

Both types of demand responsive transit aim to support people living in suburban communities where a regular bus service would not be cost-effective due to the low to moderate residential and employment densities, often circuitous street networks, and/or dispersed geographic and temporal travel patterns. At the same time, there has to be evidence of enough demand to warrant provision.

Sufficient support has, for example, emerged in 2016 for one new and one expanded ‘first/last mile’ zone in northern suburbs around stops on the 29km-long FlatIron Flyer bus rapid transit link along US route 36 between Denver and the city of Boulder. These have complemented a recent speed-up of the Flatiron service, created under the Colorado DoT-led FasTracks initiative to boost transit across the metro region.

Demand responsive

Denver sees itself in the vanguard of the current US rollout of general public-facing demand responsive transit alongside established paratransit. RTD senior manager of service development Jeff Becker, told ITS International: “What is missing from most such efforts is service planning.”

He sees the rationale – “which, unfortunately, has not been much documented”— as being similar to that of planning a regular bus route, based on market analysis, discovery of travel patterns, service configuration and promotion. “Both ‘first/last mile’ and ‘community circulation’ are more cost-effective than regular buses for low-density suburban areas, and we have proof of this from our replacing of poorly performing bus routes.

“Demand responsive transit will still be much less productive in general. But - especially for ‘jurisdictional equity’ - if you decide that a service is needed in places where regular buses won’t work, it will attract more passengers than the conventional alternative for the available resources.”

Table 1: Annualised technology costs

 ITEM  COST (US$)
 MobilityDR development and enhancements
 100,000 
 Microsoft SQL server and licence
 3,000 
 In-vehicle IT equipment
 36,750 
 In-vehicle wireless data and skype
 21,000 
 SMS and voice messaging 1,700  1,700 
 Technical support
 37,800 
 TOTAL:
 200,250 

The one-way cash fare - subsidised by a local sales tax - is US$2.60, with a 50% discount for qualifying riders. Passengers book by contacting drivers by phone or (having once registered) online or via their smartphones.

They can also board without making prior reservations at scheduled checkpoints. A subscription option, which is well-used in the Denver region, is available for recurring trips.

Contracted bus drivers carry mobile phones and Wi-Fi-connected tablets for accepting bookings, and electronically recording passenger loads and fare transactions – using their equipment at pick-up and drop-off points along the route while their vehicles are stationary. The tablet can also help with navigation, if needed.

The RTD has developed the supporting Mobility DR technology jointly with a vendor partner, Illinois-HQ’d DemandTrans Solutions, which licenses the system out to other transportation agencies in the US, and the District received its first royalty payment in 2016. The platform is fully automated, dispensing with the need for reservations staff, schedulers or dispatchers (unlike paratransit).

Scheduling system

At its core is an automated vehicle scheduling system that can determine the most appropriate vehicle in a service zone to assign to a trip. It then uses algorithms to sequence pick-up and drop-off requests to configure the specific route to be taken. It is designed to mesh vehicle deployment schedules with drivers’ working patterns as closely as possible.

For passengers’ benefit, each service zone has its own dedicated page on the RTD website, giving contact details, hours of operation and a map of the area covered, with information on regular public transport links. Where relevant, this includes scheduled arrivals at, and departures from, major regular transit stops such as on the Flatiron Flyer route.

Guidelines published in the RTD’s ‘Transit Service Policies and Standards’ require regular evaluation of the least productive 10% of routes – based on subsidy per boarding(s) per hour – to identify needs for marketing, revision or, if necessary, elimination.

The District is currently developing a pilot to test the possibility of taxis and ridesharing/ride-sourcing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, complementing or replacing some current CnR services for greater cost-effectiveness. DemandTrans Solutions president Dr Roger Teal told a November 2016 webinar that he is working on the integration of non-standard vehicles into the system.

The RTD has yet to carry out a survey of the impact of the service on car use within the region, and thus of any environmental gains resulting from reductions in km driven. But Becker told ITS International: “As with our regular bus and rail services, CnR has lost ridership over the last couple of years.”

The annualised bill (over a 10-year period) for the technology used to run the system comes out at US$200,250 – or around 3% of the US$6,370,000 total operational cost. The items in the technology spend appear in Table 1.

Overall, the total cost is only around 25% (a comparable vehicle-hour basis) of running the region’s paratransit system to meet the requirements of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, with its high reservations, scheduling and dispatching costs and wider geographical scope.

New handbook’s evaluation guidelines

The policy framework for evaluation-based ITS decision-making is fragmented, creating an ‘unvirtuous’ circle of partial or biased results. This is clear from many of the contributors to the International Benefits Evaluation Community (IBEC)’s new handbook on Evaluation of Intelligent Road Transport Systems: Methods and Results. A chapter dedicated to the culture and needs that influence interactions between policy and evaluation spells out how common it is for experts to ‘sugarcoat’ outcomes to reflect what they believe their employer or client wishes.

The impression given is that this does not come from professional dishonesty but is mostly subliminal and a function of workplace and organisational culture. ITS is deployed in areas such as road safety, air quality, traffic law enforcement and public health where feelings run high.

The author believes a set of ‘approved opinions’ takes root within an organisation which are difficult to challenge even when the supporting facts are to hand. The lack of harmonised key performance indicators and an evaluation methodology can also make it hard to find the facts needed to challenge these approved opinions.

Political decision makers are usually ‘technologyagnostic’ and in some societies even proudly ‘technology-ignorant’, and therefore tend to favour decisions based on experience. When that experience is limited, the effect can be to hinder innovation and prevent getting the most from ITS. For ITS practitioners, ‘translating’ for such people is an important skill and the book will be a great help in this area.

In another chapter IBEC founder president Richard Mudge considers ITS evaluation from a network perspective, relating transport investments to economic productivity and competitiveness – not least in improving access to labour.

He highlights the complexity of evaluating the tangled interdependencies of many ITS outcomes.

One way of bringing order and clarity to this complexity comes from the Dutch Assessment Method for Demand and Traffic Management (AMDTM). This identifies goals and assigns a weight to each in accordance with its policy importance.

Evaluation of Intelligent Road Transport Systems: Methods and Results is edited by Dr Meng Lu. Published by the IET, London, 2016. ISBN 978-1- 78561-172-8

 

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