The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), in Pinellas County, FL, launched a first-of-its-kind service with a transportation network company (TNC) and taxi company to offer joint first/last-mile service subsidized by public dollars. The case study (June 2019, 32 pages) reviews the pilot's three phases, with lessons on how to work with providers and how to construct an effective pilot project.
Benefits & Problems Addressed
Increasing the number of riders who can access transit: The routes were chosen to serve riders left without service after the cancellation of two low-ridership routes, as well as others in the neighborhood
Cost-cutting; After the agency lost a key source of funding, PSTA began to seek other revenue and service options.
Tips and Techniques
Background: The service, Direct Connect, was planned in 2015 as a replacement for two under-performing, low frequency feeder bus routes. The pilot's Phase 1 began as a $3 subsidy for rides to or from bus stops in two zones via Uber, United Taxi or the WAV provider, Care Ride. Phase II in 2017 saw several improvements to boost low use of Direct Connect: (1) expanded service area to eight zones across the county; (2) Uber made usability improvements within the app; (3) PSTA switched wheelchair service providers; (4) an increased per trip subsidy to $5; (5) increased pilot budget.; and (6) A greater marketing and outreach effort by PSTA, Uber, and United Taxi. In 2018, Phase 3 raised the subsidy for wheelchair-accessible rides and expanded flexibility through increased number of eligible intersections from which to hail a ride. In May 2019, the PSTA board voted to establish Direct Connect as a fixture of its transit operations for the near term, funding the service through 2021.
Cost-cutting versus service tension: Direct Connect's zone-based service design limited the transit routes and stops available. This required some riders to go out of their way to make an eligible trip, while wheelchair users paid a high cost due to the pilot’s fixed-subsidy (rather than fixed fare).
Data: PSTA's ability to evaluate the program arose from a lack of agency rider surveys, field observations, and detailed trip data from TNCs (the taxi and paratransit providers did supply the full array of data). AS such PSTA could not evaluation whether it was providing first/last mile access, which routes Direct Connect users are transferring to or from, or whether they were making a transfer at all.
Pilot goals: The pilot revealed the need for pre-planning. This planning needs to establish pilot goals and factor in post-pilot program evaluation and program development early in planning. Pre-planning should also include methods for evaluating a vendor's ability to conduct the pilot (e.g., capacity, technology).
Iteration: There are almost always unexpected twists when conducting a pilot. This is not the sign of overall failure, but rather an indication that pilot redesign is in order.
Project champions: This pilot featured several challenges: (1) a first of its kind arrangement with TNCs, (2) budget and service cuts), and (3) the need for new operating procedures for a transit agency. The Agency CEO and project manager provided steady leadership needed to steer a novel project.