20 minutes Author: Shared-Use Mobility Center Date Launched/Enacted: Mar 1, 2023 Date Published: March 1, 2023
Description: Video interview with Bruce Demeter, Chief of Performance and Innovation with the Delaware Transit Corporation.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC)
This pilot project is part of the Mobility Innovation Collaborative (MIC) program, a partnership between the Shared-Use Mobility Center and the Federal Transit Administration. The MIC program provides a comprehensive suite of technical assistance resources, promotes knowledge sharing activities, and captures stories and lessons learned from nearly 50 innovative mobility projects across the United States.
For many people around the country living in rural communities, lacking a personal vehicle often means being cut off from employment opportunities, social services, education, and more. On-demand microtransit has emerged in some areas to bridge that gap as an accessible and affordable form of public transportation. Sussex County, in southern Delaware, has a large rural population, with many residents living in poverty and without access to a car. The county is largely agrarian, with a booming poultry industry, but many in the community face mobility challenges accessing the large employment centers in the area.
Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC), which operates as DART First State, is a quasi-public entity that is a subsidiary of the Delaware Department of Transportation to oversee the operation of public transportation throughout the state. DTC also coordinates with Amtrak and SEPTA for passenger rail service, and oversees public carriers like taxi services and limousines.
On February 25, 2020, Delaware’s Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan spoke at an event entitled “Mobility as a Right and How We Close the Equity Gap in Transportation” hosted by WST-DC in partnership with ITS America. The conversation focused on the challenges faced with implementing mobility on-demand service models. In light of Secretary Cohan’s commitment to providing access to public transportation to all Delaware residents, especially those traditionally denied access to private and public transportation, DTC became more rigorous in its evaluation of its services to determine what impediments existed that were keeping people from accessing mobility.
While DTC already operated some fixed-route, flex-route, and paratransit services throughout Sussex County, the agency recognized that many people in the community had first and last mile transportation barriers, and made it a priority to work to remove them. To address these barriers, DTC implemented DART Connect, an on-demand microtransit pilot through a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) grant.
In 2020, DTC’s Chief Executive Officer John Sisson and Chief Innovation Officer Veronica Vanterpool (who now serves as the FTA Deputy Administrator) led the application for the FTA’s AIM grant, recognizing the grant as a good opportunity to test an on-demand microtransit service in Delaware. The project saw bipartisan political support, and the grant application included letters of support from U.S. Senators Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.), as well as U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del. at-large). DTC was awarded the AIM grant and received $317,692 to launch DART Connect.
DTC chose to focus the service area for the DART Connect pilot project within the rural towns of Georgetown and Millsboro. This area had already been designated by the State of Delaware as an opportunity zone, an economically distressed area targeted for investment, revitalization, and community development. Because of this designation, DTC recognized the potential for economic development that a microtransit service could bring to these communities. In particular, the area hosts a number of large businesses, particularly poultry farms, with employees that needed affordable and dependable transportation to get to work to facilities located outside the town’s urban core.
There were already flex-route services in the area, and while those routes had decent ridership, it was not as high as DTC wanted. Furthermore, the rides were not as convenient as they could have been; it was taking too much time to pick up passengers, routes were long and inefficient, and people were stuck on buses for too long. DTC decided that DART Connect could replace routes 901 and 902, the two existing flex-routes, and be more convenient and accessible to Sussex County residents.
Once awarded the AIM grant, DTC leadership selected Via as the technology partner. To avoid a lengthy procurement process, DTC did not publish a request for proposals, but went through a single-source procurement with approval from DelDOT’s legal department and the state’s Attorney General.
DART Connect officially launched in April 2021, and has provided over 34,000 total rides as of January 2023, with an average ridership of 70-80 passengers per day.
In 2021, the DART Connect operations team received a Governor’s Team Excellence Award, an annual award presented to teams of state employees for excellence in leadership, customer service, and team dynamics. This recognition emphasizes DART Connect’s role in promoting innovative and community-focused public transportation in Delaware.
DTC’s main goals for the DART Connect pilot involve correcting service challenges identified with the previous fixed-route or flex-route services in the area, particularly reducing wait times for buses, time spent on buses, and distance needed to walk to get to a vehicle. DTC set quality standards for the DART Connect to monitor how well the new service was addressing the issues. The first quality standard set was for short wait times for on-demand service. DTC wanted a 15-minute window from the time a rider requested a DART Connect ride to when the vehicle arrived. The second quality standard was for short rides. DTC noticed that passengers were previously spending too much time on the vehicles, as passengers using flex-route service may have been subject to delays en route to their destination as the flex buses deviated to pick up other passengers. Thus, DTC aimed to set up the service so that passengers were on buses for no longer than 10 minutes. The third quality initiative was to reduce peoples’ travel to pick-up and drop-off points. DART Connect is not a door-to-door service, but DTC still wanted to ensure minimal walking distance for passengers, and set the quality standard to less than 100 feet between the pickup point and the location where the ride was requested. DART Connect has been able to meet and maintain most of these goals; as of January 2023, the average time between requesting an on-demand ride and pick-up is 11.3 minutes, the average trip time is 16.8 minutes with an average length of 6.6 miles, and the average distance a rider must walk to a pick-up location is 108 feet.
Another critical goal was to have riders use the mobile app to book rides rather than the call center. DTC offered tutorials and information to users on how to use the app, and as of January 2023, 55% of all rides are booked through the app.
DART Connect riders can access the service using the Via app or by calling the DART Connect call center. Currently, and for nearly every month since its launch, over 50% of DART Connect users book rides through the app. Fares for the service are the same as on DTC’s fixed bus: $2 per ride, or $.80 per ride for seniors. Once booked, DART Connect riders are directed to virtual stops nearby where they can meet the vehicle within 15 minutes.
First Transit is DART Connect’s service contractor operating the 3 cutaway buses that DTC owns and uses for the DART Connect service. Additionally, in low-peak service hours, DTC contracts with local public carriers who use their own taxis and smartphones to integrate into DART Connect service. Customers cannot decide what vehicle will pick them up, and rides cost the same even when service is deferred to public carriers. Either the Via app or the DTC reservation center notifies the rider at the time of booking the type of vehicle that will arrive. This allows the rider to be able to look for a specific vehicle and be comfortable that the right vehicle is picking them up. At any time, a rider may access DTC through the app or telephone to confirm their ride.
DTC collects data on every DART Connect trip to monitor performance, and analyzes that data to find ways to improve the service. Data is collected through the Via app and is available to DTC staff from the Via Operations Center (VOC). DTC is also able to collect data and verify VOC data through daily management of the program. By reviewing average pickup times, miles traveled, rider numbers, and other metrics, DTC can determine where changes can be made to improve efficiency, and works with Via to implement those changes. For example, after reviewing ridesharing data, DTC worked with Via to add a slight buffer of a few minutes for pickup times, which allowed DART Connect to aggregate more passengers on vehicles, thereby reducing miles traveled and fuel costs. DTC’s data analysis also highlighted times where ridership was consistently low, prompting the agency to find ways to switch to using vans or taxis during those periods to avoid having larger buses sit idle. Diligent data collection practices not only provides another perspective on DART Connect’s benefit, but also helps highlight ways to improve the service for both passengers and DTC staff.
DTC recognized a need in the community to connect people to employment centers. Sussex county has one of the largest poultry industries in the United States, and various farms near Georgetown and Millsboro employ a large number of Sussex county residents, many of whom have limited access to private transportation. Mountaire Farms near Millsboro is the fourth-largest producer of chicken in the United States, the largest in the area and a major contributor to Sussex County’s economy. DTC reached out to Mountaire Farms as well as some of the other larger businesses in the area to coordinate. Local businesses needed their employees to have dependable transportation, so DTC works with them to provide shuttles through DART Connect between the key workplaces and residential areas. Local business centers communicate with the DART Connect call center to help coordinate how many passengers need rides and from where, and additionally help with communicating to their employees about DART Connect as a transportation option. Some of the larger businesses, including Mountaire Farms, now have regular meetings with DTC to figure out a subsidization plan for rides, and to ensure that the DART Connect program gets built out and adjusted to be as beneficial to the needs of the community as possible. Mountaire Farms is also working with DART Connect on aligning rides across multiple shifts. DART Connect has set up a pre-booking plan through the Via app where the farm or its employees can make one call to book weekly services. Pick up locations and times are set for the week, and a DART Connect vehicle shows up at the specific locations and times as requested.
Another local partnership that DTC takes part in is with the Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI) near Georgetown. Prior to DART Connect, SCI gave single DART First State tickets to people transitioning back into the community from being incarcerated. People leaving SCI would take flex-route transportation to work release programs and back, to transitional housing, or to parole appointments. Once the service transitioned to on-demand microtransit, vehicles stopped taking tickets in lieu of DART Connect app purchases or cash. Work release program participants are both a major source of ridership and transit dependent, so DTC needed to find a way to keep providing rides. As a solution, DTC worked with SCI to create a special account within the app. SCI communicates with DART Connect’s call center every morning to let them know how many individuals are leaving from SCI in the morning for work release and arriving back in the afternoon, and DTC provides shuttles accordingly. Most of these trips are funded through DTC’s Get a Job/Get a Ride program, which offers free 30-day transit passes to new employees anywhere in the state. This program is operated by Delaware Commute Solutions, a consultant of DTC. People on work release are already eligible for the Get a Job/Get a Ride program, so incorporating free rides into the partnership was straightforward. The program is now being expanded into the local poultry industry.
DART Connect only uses 3 cutaway buses, and faces some gaps in service, particularly during non-peak hours. Given the fact that one of DTC’s roles is to oversee public carriers in the state, DTC has the authority to contract with taxi companies to fill in gaps in DART Connect’s service. As part of this process, taxi drivers are required to use the Via app for set periods of time to serve DART Connect customers instead of taking their own fares. The COVID-19 pandemic severely hurt the taxi industry in Delaware, so this partnership has benefited taxi drivers as well. Though taxi drivers may make less money when working through DART Connect, since fares must be in line with regular DART Connect service, the partnership allows the taxi drivers to pick up rides that they may not have gotten otherwise. This allows DTC to fill in the gaps in DART Connect service and helps the public carrier partners recover from COVID-19 challenges. DTC still ensures the taxi service abides by safety regulations, and monitors quality of service.
DTC established a DART Connect website to announce the program and provide direction to users. Informational materials are set forth on the site as well as a video introducing people to DART Connect, describing its intent, and explaining how to use it.
DTC published information and promotional materials to help users with the service prior to and at the time of launch. All information and promotional materials are published in both English and Spanish, as well as Haitian Creole, which engages the relatively large Haitian population in the area. These materials were distributed through the communities, placed on buses, and made available on the Dart First State website. Furthermore, DTC placed signs on the 901 and 902 fixed-route bus stops announcing the service change and introduction of DART Connect.
Since launch, most of the outreach for DART Connect happens through word-of-mouth. In addition to individual riders turning their friends and family members onto the service (one rider, unsolicited, even went to a local newspaper to extol the benefits of DART Connect), DTC’s partner businesses recognize the role that the service can have in ensuring people can make it to work on time, and thus help communicate about DART Connect service directly to their employees.
Though DTC is pleased overall with how DART Connect has integrated into the community, there are some key lessons that emerged when launching the service.
When working with a software vendor for an on-demand service, DTC advises to continuously monitor and evaluate the parameters that the vendor has in place in the app. Open lines of communication with the vendor ensure that all parties understand the service area geography, restrictions, vehicle capabilities, and other aspects of the service. Particularly when working with public carriers who operate their own vehicles, DTC needed to make sure that when people request specific services – for example, a rider requesting an wheelchair-accessible vehicle – the vehicle that arrives will be able to fulfill those requests. It is important to communicate goals, capabilities, and requirements with project partners, and make sure to capture and integrate those aspects into the platform.
Each DART Connect vehicle is equipped with a tablet to access the Via platform. The tablets send drivers information on who requests rides, where to pick up riders, and are integral for maintaining an efficient service. However, DTC operations staff quickly realized that some of the tablets installed on buses had issues connecting to the internet relying on the tablet’s data plans. DTC corresponded with other agencies who experienced similar problems, and found out that smartphones tend to work much better than tablets. Furthermore, the public carriers helping DART Connect during off-peak hours provide their own cell phones, and had not found any major issues with them. The tablets themselves had already been permanently installed on the DART Connect vehicles, so DTC is unable to replace them with smartphones, however the agency plans to use smartphones going forward as expansion plans become realized.
DTC also notes the importance of having a technology contingency plan in place in case of outages or emergencies. The DART Connect platform runs using Amazon Web Services (AWS). While there are rarely issues with AWS in general, the service does encounter nation-wide outages at times, which effectively disables the DART Connect app. After experiencing the first AWS outage, DTC staff recognized the need for a detailed emergency response plan to temporarily handle ride requests without computers. Since the first outage, DTC has put in place such a contingency plan involving operations staff working hands-on with the call center. There have been a few outages since, and each time DTC has been able to provide 100% of the rides requested until AWS got back online. Despite being able to meet the demand, having an emergency plan in place when the service launched would have saved time, effort, and energy.
Residents of Georgetown and Millsboro, as well as people from across the state, are seeing the benefits of microtransit, and how it can be an alternative to flex-route services. DTC is exhausting the funding obtained to support this on-demand pilot project through the AIM grant in April 2023, but DTC intends to continue the DART Connect program supported with funding from the DTC’s operations division.
DTC has plans to bring microtransit to other communities in Delaware, specifically the City of Newark in Northern Delaware and the semi-rural areas around it. Newark already has fixed-route services provided by DTC, University of Delaware, Cecil County, Maryland, and Newark’s Unicity service, which loops around the area with stops at various locations. Newark residents found Unicity to be too limited in service and too long of a ride. Implementing microtransit service in this area will provide residents greater access to employers, medical offices, public facilities, leisure, entertainment, and shopping. Unicity will be terminated once DART Connect is implemented.
In Sussex County, other large employment centers are looking to DART Connect as a primary way of getting employees into work, and are reaching out to explore starting partnerships similar to the partnership between DTC and Mountaire Farms. As it expands, DART Connect will continue to form local partnerships and continue to improve transportation access for the Georgetown and Millsboro community.
The DART Connect project began as a way to promote economic and community development in a rural area where people had few available transportation options. Though the towns of Georgetown and Millsboro already had some fixed-route and flex-route transportation services, these services were not meeting the needs of all residents. With DART Connect, Georgetown and Millsboro residents now have a convenient, reliable, and affordable mode of transportation to access jobs, social services, and other opportunities.
DART Connect serves as an example of how on-demand microtransit can work to fill transportation gaps and make communities more connected. In the words of U.S Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “This is exactly the kind of innovative program that our surface transportation reauthorization bill would support. (…) Investments in transit, clean vehicle infrastructure and rural transportation programs, including on-demand mobility services, are good for the community and good for our planet.”