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TC Seminar: Eric Gonzales

Modeling and optimizing paratransit in the age of TNCs.

Demand responsive transit service for people with disabilities—in the form of door-to-door pick up and drop off service in vans or taxis—is the most expensive service provided by public transit agencies today. Eric Gonzales, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, reports that the average cost per paratransit trip in the Boston area is $46.62 and $27.44 per trip in Springfield, Massachusetts.  The National Transit Database reports that paratransit customers are five to seven percent of overall demand but constitute 20 to 25 percent of operating costs. “Fortunately, future systems that exploit benefits of multiple services operating together—including using transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft---may enable providers to serve diverse demand at a reduced cost,” says Gonzales who visited the Northwestern University Transportation Center as a guest lecturer in the TC Seminar Series on April 26, 2018..   

Gonzales has been working with New Jersey Transit, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority in Western Massachusetts, and the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA) on various projects that involve optimizing ride services for customers and looking for economic efficiencies to reduce operating costs for the agencies. The key cost components being measured in the models are estimates of required number of vehicles in a fleet, vehicle miles traveled, and vehicle hours of operations.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires transit agencies to provide paratransit ride services within three-quarters of a mile of any bus or fixed route transit service. The Act also limits the additional cost that providers may charge paratransit passengers above the standard fare.

Looking specifically at the possible inclusion of TNCs as providers, Gonzales says, “There are large opportunities to reduce costs (by as much as 28 percent) through strategic partnerships with taxis and TNCs.” Although, he warns, there are still many details that agencies need to sort out before such savings can be realized. In a pilot study for the MBTA, Gonzales found that, for operating efficiency, “the best use of TNCs is on the urban fringe and during peak hours throughout the system.” The pilot study, which provided paratransit users with TNC ride vouchers, had an unforeseen outcome: demand for rides from the study’s participants spiked. They valued the convenience of the service so much they requested 43 percent more trips than they had historically with conventional paratransit. The spike in ridership undercut the system’s savings. In addition to his work on paratransit optimization, Gonzales is also researching what changes to regulations or incentive policies can be made to make the best use of both current and emerging technologies.

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