Are multimodal systems the future of public transit?

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: August 8, 2023

Low ridership on fixed route buses. Lots of taxis waiting around. Communities in need of transit. The Socially Aware Mobility Lab at Georgia Tech thinks better systems could be developed.

Professor Pascal Van Hentenryck and his team at Georgia Tech discovered that one of the largest impediments to using mass transit is the first and last mile problem. When customers need to walk more than ¼ a mile to access public transportation, ridership decreases by 90%. The team focused on designing first and last mile solutions for mid-sized cities.

To do this, they’ve worked with transit authorities and software developers to create an app that allows riders to input their location and destination. The app synthesizes micro-transit and fixed-route data to create an on-demand curbside pickup and a fare for the full trip.


Successful multimodal pilot

After initial simulations in Canberra, Australia, Prof. Van Hentenryck and his team launched the Reinventing Urban Transportation and Mobility program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The vision was to create a system that would use real-time data to adjust how their fleet would be used as demand quantity and locations shift.

Using funding from the Michigan Institute in Data Science (MIDAS) and organizations such as Ford, the team successfully launched a pilot on the campus of the University of Michigan. The pilot was successful with significant ridership, mode shifts from buses to on-demand services, and an average waiting time of about 3.5 minutes.


Efficiency, and obstacles driven by community needs

Following their success in Ann Arbor, Van Hentenryck and his team were excited to scale up their On-Demand Multimodal Transit System to serve Atlanta. Together with MARTA, the transit agency in Atlanta, they developed the MARTA Reach pilot that took place in four different zones in the city. Some were low-income residential neighborhoods, others were mixed used or job centers. The pilot was highly successful with ridership continuously increasing over time with a 40% increase in the last month.

“The level of satisfaction of the riders in MARTA Reach was amazing,” said Van Hentenryck. “About 70% of the rides that MARTA Reach served were riders who weren’t using transit before.” Most of the riders used MARTA Reach for first and last mile transit, using an on-demand shuttle service instead of Uber/Lyft/Taxi, personal cars, or the underutilized existing fixed bus system. More than 70% of riders were connecting with rail service.

The team needed to do community events to reach populations beyond existing ridership. To educate communities about MARTA Reach, MARTA used social media platforms. Communities also used platforms such as Next Door to let residents know about the service. Word of mouth and seeing the shuttles with the MARTA Reach branding also help attract more riders. The team also spent time educating the operators about how to use the ride-sharing driver app, which was different from traditional services. While the ridership increased progressively during the team’s Atlanta pilot, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is evaluating whether to continue with the project.


Proving multimodal solutions city-wide in Savannah

Savannah, GA, a rapidly growing coastal city, is the site of the Georgia Tech team’s next pilot, all funded by a SMART Grant from the US Department of Transportation.  Because of Savannah’s manageable size and its centralized governance structure, the team will be piloting the multimodal model for the entire system, with the goal of showing that this could work for an entire city now. Savannah’s Chatham Area Transit Authority (CAT) boasts a strong relationship with its unions and currently has enough drivers to fully staff the project. The pilot will also feature electric vehicle, ultimately providing a transit system with zero greenhouse gas emission.

The multimodal system, Van Hentenryck explained, can be more sustainable and cheaper than the current model of a transit agency with primarily fixed routes. “We’re placing the capital expenditure of buses with much smaller vehicles, which gives you much more flexibility with how you’re deploying. When you save money on the vehicles themselves, it allows you to have more drivers,” he said.

Advice for communities

  • Community driven. Make sure that the community is involved in the planning and messaging process and have a clear understanding of what it will mean to actually use the new system.
  • Reach out to new riders. If you’re just advertising to existing ridership, you’re missing potential riders. Do community events and explain why this service is better than traditional systems.


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