This case study is part of a larger review of Public Transit Food Delivery Programs that have popped-up across the country in response to COVID-19. The Regional Transportation District (RTD) example below offers a large transit agency perspective and a complimentary case study featuring Charlevoix County Transit (CCT) looks at transit deliveries from a rural context.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) created a grocery and meal delivery program as part of its Access-a-Ride division to serve paratransit customers. Customers place their orders directly with participating stores and then provide the information to RTD staff to schedule delivery.
With more people working from home or taking fewer trips during the pandemic, the Access-a-Ride service saw an 80-85% decline in ridership. This service has helped to utilize RTD’s excess vehicles and drivers.
RTD regards the program as a success but faces several challenges, including staffing in periods of low demand, long pickup windows, and partnership details with participating grocery stores. RTD may continue this service but faces funding uncertainty after federal stimulus funding runs out.
The Regional Transportation District (RTD), created in 1969, is the transit authority for the Denver metro area in Colorado, with a service area of 2,342 square miles and 2,920,000 people (2018 National Transit Database). RTD’s services include fixed-route bus, ADA-paratransit demand response (branded as Access-a-Ride), and light rail and commuter rail routes. Normal Access-a-Ride fares are $5.00 for local trips (travel between 1-2 zones) or $9.00 for regional trips (travel between 1-3 zones), as well as options for ticket books and ability to ride any RTD fixed-route service fare free. Access-a-Ride operated 434 vehicles in maximum service to provide 1,226,319 trips in 2018 (National Transit Database).
RTD created a grocery and meal delivery program within its Access-a-Ride division as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to serve paratransit customers in need of a food delivery option, particularly as customers who cannot drive depend on Access-a-Ride to take trips to the grocery store and are potentially more at-risk at exposure to the virus when leaving the home. The delivery service is available exclusively to Access-a-Ride customers, available fare free since its launch in March and tailored to paratransit user needs.
RTD started the program for a few primary reasons. First, the agency’s Access-a-Ride service was seeing an 80-85 percent decline in ridership during the pandemic as people were working from home or taking fewer trips. This led to RTD having a lot of excess capacity with available vehicles and drivers. Second, RTD observed that many Access-a-Ride customers were located in food deserts, didn’t own personal vehicles, or didn’t feel safe going out and using transit to risk possible exposure to COVID-19. The program helps RTD provide essential assistance to customers in need while also keeping operators busy during a period of decreased trip demand.
RTD’s program goals were to keep drivers safe and make delivery scheduling efficient within the existing Access-a-Ride service area. Customers place their orders directly with participating stores or community organizations and then provide their order information to RTD reservations staff while scheduling their delivery trip. RTD’s program is designed to be a premium service during the pandemic that is a choice for customers who would prefer not to ride transit to get the food they need. Deliveries represent a minimal percentage of the overall trips RTD provides on Access-a-Ride service; as of July 2020, RTD staff estimates providing about eight to ten grocery deliveries a day, consistently. Every delivery RTD provides eliminates one trip for RTD that would be taking the customer to and from the store. Customer and RTD Board feedback on the delivery program has been overwhelmingly positive.
As of July 2020, RTD’s delivery program includes 10 grocery stores, food banks, senior centers, or community nonprofit organizations that customers can contact to schedule orders for pickup and delivery by RTD. King Soopers and Safeway are the two larger grocery chains included in the program and enable RTD to cover a large amount of their service area with easy delivery. These companies were picked for the program because their current ordering and pickup format allowed RTD to pick up customer orders at the store without additional modifications; anyone that would allow RTD to use the customer’s order verification number as confirmation was allowed to be a program partner. The program is open to additional vendors who can contact RTD through an available phone number.
Denver RTD provides specific instructions for the customers to schedule their order with the partner (either through the grocery store’s online ordering system or calling their local food bank) and schedule their delivery with RTD. Customers provide RTD scheduling staff with the partner address and their order verification number to pick up the delivery, as well as their home address and a contact phone number for the driver to use in case the customer’s front door is not visible from the curb. Drivers pick up the groceries outside the store, typically in designated locations used by other curbside pickup customers, then transport the delivery to the customer’s home. Drivers will not step inside the customer’s home, and customers are advised to not order frozen food in case there is a delay in their delivery.
Scheduling Deliveries: Customers are given a scheduled pickup date/time from their grocer or food bank along with an order verification number (from the grocers). Customers are directed to call the Access-a-Ride reservations phone number and book a trip for RTD to pick up the order. Customers must call RTD one day in advance to schedule these trips.
Vehicles and Delivery Blocks: RTD uses three dedicated service providers and one non-dedicated service provider (local taxicabs) for Access-A-Ride service. The dedicated service providers are used for grocery deliveries and have cutaway vehicles which can accommodate 12 passengers. RTD blocks the vehicle out for delivery trips when there are enough deliveries around the same time; RTD does not switch vehicles to provide trips or vice versa when they are assigned to deliveries; the agency adjusted their software to log vehicles in and out of revenue service mode. RTD will also add 15 minutes to the end of the delivery time in order to provide cushion to when the order will be available for pickup at the store. RTD does not schedule more than two deliveries per order and will instead dispatch another vehicle to handle additional deliveries.
Driver Assistance: The grocery store or food bank conducts any necessary purchasing and bagging needed for the customer’s order. For grocery stores, the RTD driver will arrive in the parking lot stall with the order verification number, then call the pickup phone number at the store. The grocery store employee brings out the order to the parking stall and loads the bags into the vehicle. Once the driver arrives at the home, the driver will bring the bags for the order to the front door. Drivers may also call the customer at their provided phone number to let them know their order has arrived. Drivers will not step inside the home or leave groceries at the door of an unattended address.
Marketing and Communication
Information about the delivery program is available online at RTD’s COVID-19 webpage for Access-a-Ride customers. RTD also put information about the delivery program on an audio hold message for people calling to schedule Access-a-Ride trips. At the beginning of the program, RTD conducted phone outreach to customers who had ridden Access-a-Ride in the prior 90 days to let them know about the program’s availability. Additionally, a letter announcing the service was sent to customers who had used Access-a-Ride for grocery store trips in the previous 60 days. RTD limited the amount of program information distributed in local media outlets as the agency did not want to send out mixed-messages to non-Access-a-Ride riders about a program available exclusively for paratransit-eligible customers. RTD advises Access-a-Ride customers that delivery orders may take longer than requested to account for decreased productivity and increased social distancing measures during the pandemic.
At the beginning of the program, RTD looked at all grocery stores in an index and identified any grocery stores and food banks that Access-a-Ride customers had gone to in the prior 90 days. RTD called these stores and identified those who were willing to work with the existing confirmation number confines needed for RTD drivers to pick up customer orders. RTD did not make any formal arrangements or agreements with these stores or organizations. RTD communicated directly with these stores and their general managers in order to clarify arrangements in the delivery program.
RTD designed the delivery service to be fare free – the customer pays for the cost of the grocery order themselves, but the cost of the delivery service is free. Right now, this service is eligible to be supported by emergency CARES Act funding from the FTA. Larger agencies, such as RTD, also have greater latitude with increased availability of local revenues received from tax dollars, which may help fund the program should it continue. During the CARES Act funding period, there has been no cost to customers for the service, but as CARES Act funding goes away, RTD will reevaluate whether the agency charges a fare to customers for deliveries. RTD staff has seen that the service provides an operational cost savings for the agency, as delivering groceries takes one trip for RTD as opposed to two trips to take a customer to and from the store.
Customers requesting deliveries from RTD do not need to go through a new eligibility process to have access to the program; any existing customers eligible for Access-a-Ride service are automatically eligible for the food delivery service. RTD also did not impose any limitations on customer order sizes or numbers. Customers are guided to order up to four bags (or up to around 50 pounds) so that the driver can delivery the order in one walking trip from the vehicle to their front door, but for now, RTD has accommodated orders needing multiple trips. Customers looking to use SNAP and EBT benefits to purchase their orders are dependent on the policies of the store/organization where they are placing the order. Currently, King Soopers and Safeway do not accept EBT or WIC cards as payment for online food orders.
RTD Operator Securing Groceries in an Access-a-Ride Vehicle
RTD experienced more challenges related to transit ridership rather than the delivery program. RTD asserted that the number of requested trips has “continually dropped [by nearly two-third] as rehabilitation centers and other facilities that are primary consumers for paratransit services have closed [due to the virus].” This created a challenge in staffing vehicle operators during a period of very low demand. The delivery program allowed a mechanism for RTD to assign underused paratransit vehicles and keep vehicle operators busy with a needed service.
RTD staff noted that most paratransit programs struggle with on-time performance due to a variety of factors that impact precision with pickup and drop-off times. Subsequently, long pickup windows can make a difference when travelling with groceries that are perishable or need to be kept cool. RTD works to not assign too many deliveries to the same vehicle in order to protect against negative impacts on perishable foods, and advises customers not to order frozen food for delivery because it will not guarantee to be kept cold.
RTD originally aimed to include more stores in the delivery program, particularly other larger retailers in their service area. RTD found that these other stores were not willing to allow RTD drivers to pick up customer orders or adjust their delivery program in other ways to accommodate the service need. RTD maintains a policy posted online for any additional stores or organizations interested in participating to contact the agency.
RTD may continue the delivery service provided continued support from its Board of Directors and funding availability. Staff noted that it will likely be a long time before the pandemic subsides and service returns to normal. Currently, CARES Act revenues support the delivery trips, but once CARES Act revenue goes away, RTD would need to use local money to fund deliveries similar to its current local taxicab subsidy program. RTD will also consider using its non-dedicated service provider taxi fleet during off-peak periods to help with deliveries and lower operational costs. If the program became permanent, the agency would most likely do a reboot and put further rules and requirements in place. The agency also pointed out that under National Transit Database reporting, deliveries are not counted as a trip, so any future delivery service would need to consider rules and guidance from FTA.
Currently, the program has capacity and capability to grow, and RTD sees it as a good way to provide a need to the community and keep drivers working. RTD plans to look at the data for the program and identify where concentrations of use in deliveries are located as well as places with repeat customers. RTD may potentially look at an app solution for scheduling deliveries in the future, but right now the agency is satisfied with the design of the trip reservation system for fulfilling delivery requests.
RTD’s delivery program has provided a need for the community and helped paratransit customers safely access groceries or meals while minimizing exposure to the COVID-19 virus. This program takes advantage of existing system capacity, works with local stores and partners to set up order pickup parameters, and relies on customers to arrange and pay for orders themselves. RTD regards the program as a success and may continue to provide it as an option to the community as available funding and operating conditions change.