The last 10 years have been nothing short of revolutionary in the ground transportation industry. The days of simply “hailing a taxi” with your hand are considered antiquated as transportation network companies (TNCs) monopolize the streets of New York City and other cities across the United States. Waving a hand has been replaced by using an app, and – with thousands of vehicles on the road at any given time – congestion is at an all-time high. Congestion, in conjunction with the negative environmental impact of so many vehicles on the road, has led lawmakers and concerned citizens to seek out solutions. However, with so many TNCs on the road in every state, and regulators differing from state to state, there has been little in terms of a uniform approach to dealing with these issues. In such a time of increased congestion, and with the TNCs seemingly more concerned about financial success and creating disruption in this gig economy, it is reasonable to question whether it is possible for everyone to “play nice in the sandbox.”
In 2016, the ITS JPO and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) partnered to launch the $8 million Mobility-on-Demand (MOD) Sandbox grant program with 11 projects approved for funding last October. The FTA enacted the MOD Sandbox Program in support of the ultimate goal to promote innovation with data analytics among transit agencies and cities. The FTA was granted the authority to fund this grant program under the Public Transportation Law. The law specifically allows the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to “make grants and enter into contracts, cooperative agreements, and other agreements for research, development, demonstration and deployment projects, and evaluation of research and technology of national significance to public transportation.”
The FTA Sandbox Program projects all have a common theme of testing – in real-time and diverse settings – the concepts of shared mobility and Mobility as a Service (MaaS), as well as integrating taxicabs and other for-hire services with the public paratransit system while providing incentives to those who participate. The problems to be solved or service enhancements that will be tested involve the common themes of promoting environmental goals, multi-modal integration, equity, and accessibility in a public-private partnership setting. The projects and programs selected encourage the applicants to implement original business models to deliver innovative and equitable mobility options.
MaaS is the integrated combination of sustainable mobility services through the use of smartphone technology. To meet a user’s request, a MaaS platform offers a diverse menu of transportation options. These may be public transportation, ridesharing, car-sharing, bike-sharing, taxicabs, car rentals or any combination thereof.
Shared mobility describes transportation services that are shared among users, such as the shared use of a vehicle, bicycle or other low-speed travel mode. The goal of shared mobility is to encourage more mobility and less ownership of vehicles, especially personal motor vehicles. As FTA Sandbox projects continue to evolve, it is essential to remember the importance of shared mobility and its positive impact on the environment and economy. Some ways in which shared mobility is thriving include app-based platforms created to link people to a carpool – a true rideshare service – in a particular area. Incentives for carpooling include high-occupancy vehicle lanes and lower gas costs. Much like car-sharing, bike-sharing allows a passenger to rent a bicycle for a certain period of time (the rental may be hourly or even by the minute), which usually requires membership to the program or credit card to use. Designated stations can be found on mobile apps.
What follows is a synopsis of the 11 unique FTA MOD Sandbox grants across the country, almost all of which contain elements of shared mobility and MaaS, as well as other programs designed to help achieve better service in underserved areas, equitable and affordable integrated transit solutions, more accessible service and data platforms working with smartphone apps and related technology.
LA Metro & Via
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in California was awarded $1,350,000 to partner with transit agencies in Washington’s Puget Sound on a dual-region pilot using Via – the rideshare service app – as a first mile/last mile connector for transit. The agencies will experiment with payment structures and support telephone dispatch to serve unbanked customers. Via has partnered with Metro for this 12-month pilot program that will commence in the summer of 2018.
“The fares will be subsidized by Metro and riders will be able to pay with their TAP account – LA’s public transport fare card. The project and its reduced fare rates are funded by a $1.35 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration.”
The Metro program will use Via drivers in their own vehicles to transport customers from one transit station to another station at an affordable price. Customers will ride with other passengers going to the same station – including those with disabilities. Unlike most other TNCs, which operate exclusively through a smartphone app, the Metro program allows for calls to be processed over the phone, thereby opening up the program to those persons without smartphones.
Arizona Valley Metro Rail & Ridekick
The next grant was given to Valley Metro Rail, Inc. in Arizona. Valley Metro Rail was awarded $1,001,000 to build an app available for free on most smartphones that will provide mobile ticketing and multimodal trip planning. The app will be “open-sourced” to other agencies and will require two phases to complete. Phase I focuses primarily on improving the Ridekick app to include mobile ticket purchasing using wireless capabilities. Phase II will expand mobile ticket purchasing options to include TNCs. This “one stop” type application would allow users to search for bus and rail schedules, as well as TNC availability and social bicycle options. The Mobility Platform will consolidate all trips using public and private transportation choices to allow riders more flexibility when choosing their travel mode. Additionally, users can see the environmental benefits as well as route travel-time comparisons. Ridekick launched its improved version of the app after receiving the grant in May 2017. Though the agency partnered with RouteMatch to design improved software for the app, some users have been critical of the program in their online responses.
Palo Alto – Bay Area Fair Value Commuting
The City of Palo Alto was awarded $1,085,000 in grant money for its innovative solution to the Bay Area congestion. The Bay Area Fair Value Commuting (FVC) project involves support for employer commute programs; workplace parking rebates, commute optimization analysis, increased cross-county collaboration, and a new trip planning app. FVC is a public/private sector partnership program that has the potential to reduce single occupancy vehicle commute share from 75% to 50%. The program focuses on Enterprise Commute Trip Reduction software that automates employer commute programs and provides a real-time commute dashboard to integrate with public transit. The software works in conjunction with Mobility Aggregation (MobAG), a mobile multimodal trip planning app that combines public/private transit, bike, car and rideshare services, electric scooter/bike loans and integration with on demand services such as Lyft, Scoop and Zipcar. The program offers a “revenue neutral workplace parking feebate” that charges a fee for single occupant vehicle commutes, and rebates that revenue to non-SOV (single occupancy vehicle) commutes. The program also uses “Gap Filling” to improve options such as low-income transit subsidies, first/last mile connections with public transit, e-bikes for eight-mile commutes, telecommuting and other strategies.
Florida – PSTA Taxi/TNC On-Demand Paratransit
Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority in Florida (PSTA) was awarded $500,000 to introduce on-demand paratransit to the county. PSTA partnered with Uber, Lyft, United Taxi, Care Ride and Wheelchair Transport to provide cost-effective paratransit service. PSTA is using TNCs to serve the public by using entities such as Lyft to provide vehicles as on-demand ambulatory and wheelchair-accessible modes of transportation. PSTA is the sole recipient of the FTA grants that integrated TNCs and taxicabs into paratransit services.
Texas – DART GoPass App
Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) located in Texas, was awarded $1,204,000 for its innovative ridesharing solution: the GoPass Ticketing app. DART also plans to use ridesharing-style mobile technology to overhaul its existing public demand responsive service. Through the GoPass app, users are able to choose first and last mile route options which are ranked by price, travel time, and wait time. DART reported that most people resort to TNCs when they are approximately one mile from a transit station. Through the GoPass app, one can see all available commuting options and easily switch to GoPool if a ridesharing option would be faster or GoLink if a shuttle is close by. Then, the user can pay through the one app with the GoPass, interactive wallet. GoLink has been successful thus far and is expected to expand to even more areas in the coming months. Additionally, GoPool is expected to officially launch soon. These applications are fueled by growing technology and utilize TNCs to accomplish their goals.
Chicago – CTA & Divvy Bike Share App
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was awarded $400,000 for a project that incorporates the local bike-sharing company, Divvy, a 580-station bike-share service, into CTA’s existing transit trip planning app. Through this app, users are able to identify the availability of bikes or docking stations near their transit stops, and pay for those bike rentals. The Divvy stations are within one eighth-of-a-mile of a CTA or Metra commuter rail station, reducing congestion on the busy Chicago streets.
Arizona – Pima RTA AMORE MaaS Project with Metropia
The Regional Transportation Authority of Pima County Arizona was awarded $669,158 for its Adaptive Mobility with Reliability and Efficiency project (AMORE). Through the RTA partnership with Metropia, users can request multiple types of mobility services. Essentially, Metropia serves as the MaaS provider to facilitate the service delivery to users. Metropia acts as the centralized app where users receive credits which can be subscribed, purchased, earned and transferred. The subscription-based ridesharing service, RubyRide, will serve as an affordable option for commuting or first-/last-mile service for transit operations, hoping to achieve higher utilization and occupancy (e.g. reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled at a lower cost than other TNC services).
San Francisco – BART Scoop Technologies Car Pooling
San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) was awarded $358,000 for their partnership with Scoop Technologies, Inc. to improve ridesharing in San Francisco by utilizing technology to create a carpool system. The night before each workday, a person would check in on the app and confirm a workplace destination and time for the following morning. The app would then match this person with another commuter intending to travel in the same direction at a similar time. Through this ridesharing/carpooling program, congestion is expected to be reduced significantly, and users will be incentivized with free parking permits. The program experienced an extremely successful debut in January 2017, whereby the app matched close to 2,000 carpools in just one BART lot.
Oregon – TriMet Open Trip Planner
The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District in Oregon (TriMet) was awarded $678,000 for its innovative plan that integrates shared mobility providers into its existing OpenTripPlanner (OTP) app. At its inception in 2009, the goal of OTP through TriMet was to incorporate biking and walking in transit. With the growing needs of commuters in a vast and fast-paced environment, OTP partnered with TNCs Lyft and Uber, as well as bike share company, Motivate, to help users navigate the available transportation systems.
Vermont – Vtrans Open Trip Planner Open-Source Data Platform
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (Vtrans) was awarded $480,000 to create a statewide trip planner covering both fixed-route and flexible transit. The software will be built on OpenTripPlanner and will “enable flex-route, hail-a-ride, and other non-fixed-route services to be incorporated in mobility apps. The online trip planner for both fixed and flexible transit services particularly benefits non-traditional rural transit system users, allowing universal access to transit information, including to people with disabilities.”
Ideally, using an open-source platform and releasing transportation data will improve the transit industry while creating more accurate real-time information, analysis, and integration of services.
Washington – Pierce County Transit Ride Home Service
Lastly, the Pierce County Public Transportation Benefit Area Corporation in Washington was awarded $205,922 to pursue its three-pronged Limited Access Connections program. The project uses rideshare for the first mile/last mile connections, will guarantee ride home service, and will provide rides to and from park-and-ride lots. Pierce Transit partnered with Lyft recently to kick start this program, which provides students enrolled in Pierce College Puyallup a grant-funded ride home in the evening, after transit services have ended, to select locations near campus. The new project will commence on Monday, May 21, 2018.
MOD Sandbox 2 on the Way? – Lessons Already to be Learned
While the FTA MOD Sandbox Program does not involve a tremendous amount of subsidies and grants, it is a very important symbolic and practical experiment with new mobility paradigms that will set the stage for the future of urban, rural and suburban mobility. The various programs will not only test the shared mobility and MaaS concepts, but will also set the stage for how automated and connected vehicles may be deployed, and how future Federal funds may be allocated and funneled to states and localities. There are opportunities here not just for bike-share providers, TNCs and microtransit, but for the incumbent paratransit, taxicab and for-hire vehicle industries, who can all benefit and participate.
The FTA has already announced that they are thinking about a MOD Sandbox 2.0. The ability for the Federal government to collect data from private Sandbox participants, which so far has delayed the program and provided some challenging legal issues and concerns in terms of how transport data may be subject to the Freedom of Information Laws, will be critical to determining whether the programs were successful in achieving their goals- setting the stage for further funding. But for now, it is important for new and incumbent mobility providers to start interacting with local transit agencies, transportation regulators, and the FTA to strategically identify other localities around the U.S. to test different applications and concepts. The time to engage is now, before the next RFP grant document is released.
The primary lesson learned from winning Sandbox 1 grant recipients, who jumped into the sandbox after FTA announced it planned to launch this program at the Transportation Research Board two years ago, is to explore the partnerships and ideas sooner rather than later. The future of mobility, building that perfect transportation sand castle with others, may very well be decided in the FTA Sandbox!