Case Study: Lessons from the BATA Link On-Demand Pilot, Traverse City, MI

New technologies can help transit agencies adapt their services to more efficiently and equitably serve customers. That is what the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) in Traverse City, Michigan realized when it began piloting Link On-Demand, a mobility on-demand (MOD) and non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service. Before transitioning into the Link On-Demand pilot, BATA operated a dial-a-ride program, called City Link, as part of its transit services in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. Dial-a-ride is a form of demand-responsive transportation (DRT), often provided in rural areas and small towns, like Traverse City, where customers can request curb-to-curb service, usually by phone. [1]

Like many communities that use a dial-a-ride service, the Traverse City micropolitan area in northwestern Michigan itself is an urban-rural mix, with a median age of 45.8, well above Michigan’s median age of 39.8. [2] With a high proportion of residents being seniors, BATA’s City Link played an important, but sometimes inconvenient, role for customers seeking rides to places like medical clinics and grocery stores.

Leading up to this pilot, customers reserved City Link dial-a-rides through BATA by phone, often up to a week ahead of time. However, between 25 to 30% of customers would cancel their rides, often less than an hour before their scheduled pickup, or fail to appear. It was difficult for BATA to fill that ride slot with another passenger in such a short period of time, hurting City Link’s ability to effectively serve people seeking point-to-point rides. These sudden cancellations also drained BATAs’ resources through a loss of revenue.

Upon receiving grants from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, BATA transitioned its City Link service to a new DRT pilot: Link On-Demand. Link On-Demand serves much of the same purpose as BATA’s City Link microtransit service, but in a more nimble manner. Instead of scheduling rides ahead of time by phone, customers primarily began requesting rides in real-time, much like ridehailing services hosted through transportation network companies. BATA began its pilot for Link On-Demand on August 1, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting life for all people across the United States. While the pandemic severely strained BATA and public transit agencies more broadly, Link On-Demand was successful and expanded its operations to provide free NEMT services in January 2021, through a six-month pilot program appropriately called Link On-Demand NEMT+.

This case study will explore many facets of Link On-Demand, both as a service for MOD and NEMT, along with its context, funding sources, marketing, and role in the Traverse City area as it moves out of its pilot phase into a more permanent program.

History of the Program

Leading up to the establishment of Link On-Demand, BATA operated City Link, a traditional dial-a-ride service that allowed customers to request point-to-point rides by phone within a 20 square mile boundary surrounding downtown Traverse City. BATA operated City Link as a supplement to its fixed-route bus system and made it available to all customers. While the idea of City Link was convenient, it encountered many challenges in day-to-day use. Ride appointments were in high demand, making availability scarce for potential customers. Many would often book multiple rides well ahead of schedule—then cancel on short notice. For BATA, this meant that many ride appointments were unused, negatively affecting farebox revenue and delaying service for other customers.

Timeline of transition from BATA's City Link to Link On-Demand

Description: Timeline of transition from BATA’s City Link to Link On-Demand. Click on image for full view.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center

Going into 2019, BATA staff had enough input from the community to determine that City Link needed an overhaul. BATA successfully applied for an Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant from the Federal Transit Administration, giving the agency the opportunity to pilot a new mobility on-demand program under the stipulation that they procure a new intelligent transportation system. In the process, BATA received an additional smaller grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund via the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation to implement an NEMT component for this pilot. After interviewing several vendors, BATA selected TransLoc to be its software provider for the soon-to-be Link On-Demand service. TransLoc’s ability to provide cloud-based, real-time data, its reputation as a well-established transportation technology, and its affordability factored in the agency’s procurement decision. (TransLoc charges BATA $500 per vehicle per month and gives the small agency the ability to simulate and process pre-analyzed data).

In August 2020, BATA launched the first part of Link On-Demand, giving anyone the ability to request real-time, point-to-point rides anywhere within a 20 square mile area around Traverse City for a flat fee. At the beginning of January 2021, Link On-Demand expanded its operations to include the NEMT+ pilot. Riders living within the same service area could also request rides, at no cost, to and from medical appointments at a set of 26 designated clinics, when using the NEMT+ service. While the Link On-Demand program consisted of two components—an MOD service and an NEMT service—passengers of both services rode on the same cutaway buses, making the program’s vehicle utilization more efficient. The pilot for NEMT+ ended on June 30, 2021 and the MOD pilot ended on July 31, 2021. BATA staff are now exploring how to continue Link On-Demand on a more permanent basis. As of now, Link On-Demand’s traditional MOD component will continue as a permanent service replacing City Link. NEMT+ has been discontinued.

Program Goals and Outcomes

Both Link On-Demand and its NEMT+ component were designed to address separate but overlapping problems: to make BATA’s point-to-point DRT service more efficient and customer-friendly and to provide a new mobility solution for customers in need of medical care.

BATA has seen the following outcomes since launching the Link On-Demand pilot:

  1. Only 3 or 4 vehicles are operating at a given time for Link On-Demand versus 5 or 6 City Link vehicles, saving costs for BATA while also improving the customer experience.
  2. No-show rates for requested rides have decreased from between 25 to 30% to under 3%.
  3. Average wait times of about 11 minutes after requesting a ride by phone, web portal, or app compared to the advertised time of 30 minutes.
  4. Increased ridership throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. From August 2020 to the end of July 2021, Link On-Demand’s monthly ridership increased from about 1,700 monthly rides to about 3,500 monthly rides (NEMT+ included).
  5. More rides requested by app. In August 2020, about 70% of rides were requested by phone and 30% requested through the TransLoc app or online portal. In Spring 2021, around 60% of rides are requested by phone versus 40% by app or portal. On the NEMT+ service, about 85% of customers still make their requests by phone due to the service serving a larger proportion of elderly people.
  6. About 80% of all Link On-Demand trips served reduced-fare customers (ie. seniors, people with disabilities, youth, and current and former members of the military).

As seen, the new technologies in place have made Link On-Demand perform better than City Link, while more effectively addressing the needs of its customers.

Description: Graph showing ridership on Link On-Demand (overall rides) and NEMT+.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center with data provided by BATA

 

Budget and Planning

BATA received two grants to fund the upstart costs of the Link On-Demand pilot. The larger of the two grants was through the Federal Transit Administration’s Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) program, which funds many mobility on-demand pilots across the United States. FTA’s grant amounted to $276,499 with MDOT providing additional funds of $69,125. [3] For the NEMT+ part of the pilot, BATA received an additional $50,000 from the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and Michigan Health Endowment Fund. [4, 5]

Additional funding sources for Link On-Demand include fare payment and operational efficiencies. BATA has been able to operate Link On-Demand by giving more rides to customers in up to four vehicles instead of using six vehicles with City Link. While the savings in dollars is not yet available, BATA estimates that Link On-Demand has saved the agency about 15% from the $435,000 annual cost for City Link.

Program Operations

Link On-Demand is designed to integrate the conveniences of on-demand services into the elements of a pre-existing dial-a-ride system. Like the previous City Link service, the Link On-Demand MOD program operates on the same hours: 6 AM to 10:30 PM during the work week and 6 AM to 11:30 PM on the weekends. NEMT+ operated only during the same work week hours as the MOD service. Rides on both pilots took place on the same cutaway buses as City Link. Customers can request rides up to one day ahead of time but are encouraged to do so in real-time. Rides can be requested by phone, via an online portal or with the TransLoc app. BATA states that wait times for a real-time request are thirty minutes or less. Link On-Demand drivers are directed to pick-ups and drop-offs through an on-board tablet computer.

On the traditional MOD service, a full one-way fare is $6, with a $3 reduced fare available for students, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and active members of the military. This fare structure mirrors that of BATA City Link. With the NEMT+ service, rides to or from medical appointments at 26 partner clinics were fare-free for the duration of the respective pilot. Fares can be paid through HopThru, BATA’s mobile ticketing app, in cash, or through a pre-paid ticket. The entire Link On-Demand pilot ran from August 1, 2020 to July 31, 2021, with the NEMT+ sub-pilot having begun and ended on January 1, 2021 and June 30, 2021 respectively. [6]

Link On-Demand Service Map

Description: Link On-Demand service map. Click on image for full view.
Credit: Bay Area Transportation Authority

Marketing

The COVID-19 pandemic affected BATA’s ability to market Link On-Demands’ MOD and NEMT+ services in-person. Nonetheless, BATA used its resources from other places to inform Traverse City-area residents about the pilots. BATA staff held one virtual town hall meeting in the summer of 2020. Leading into the MOD component that began in August 2020, BATA mailed postcards to all customers who used the City Link service within the previous year. BATA bus operators also directly informed their customers about the new service through word-of-mouth marketing and BATA did a large media push by distributing a press release, e-mails, texts, and social media posts. For the NEMT+ pilot that began in January 2021, BATA mailed another round of postcards to previous Link customers. Partner clinics received materials to distribute to their patients in their lobbies, while TransLoc provided BATA with a variety of templates they could use to educate their customers about using the app to request rides.

Accessibility

As a DRT service, Link On-Demand is tailored to seniors and people with disabilities. All Link On-Demand vehicles are wheelchair-accessible cutaway buses equipped with mobile lifts. Staff at BATA have determined that on the NEMT+ service specifically, 22% of riders used wheelchairs. The fare structures on both the Link On-Demand MOD and NEMT+ services have also been inviting to people with disabilities and seniors. Rides on NEMT+ were fare-free for all customers and on the MOD service, seniors and people with disabilities qualify for a reduced fare of $3 for a one-way trip—half the cost of standard fares.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Link On-Demand has made life easier for BATA customers and staff. No-show rates have decreased to under 3%, wait times average at about 11 minutes, and program ridership has steadily increased. With the use of TransLoc’s software to administer Link On-Demand, BATA has made its DRT service more flexible and data-driven. While the Link On-Demand pilot has run smoothly, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented BATA with its challenges. As with most transit agencies across the United States, ridership across BATA’s system has decreased. BATA had to postpone the beginning of the pilot originally, bus drivers have been tasked with enforcing mask mandates, sometimes creating tensions with customers, and staff had to learn a new technology.

Through the successes of the Link On-Demand pilot, BATA staff has realized that they can do more with less. In other words, the technology-driven approach the agency has adopted in partnership with TransLoc has enabled Link On-Demand to serve more customers more efficiently while also decreasing the number of buses/drivers operating at a given-time. Link On-Demand has also generated significant cost savings compared to City Link. The agency expects that Link On-Demand will cost the agency about $370,000 in its first year, a 15% savings from the City Link cost of $435,000.

Future Plans

Link On-Demand is a successful pilot and BATA looks forward to continuing its partnership with TransLoc. With the pilot phase concluding, BATA wants to see the Link On-Demand program grow into the more rural areas of Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties and potentially replace some of its lower-performing fixed-bus routes in the urban core of its service area. BATA is reviewing transit simulations from TransLoc in order to make these determinations. Either Link On-Demand will have one large service area as it does now or have certain smaller zones that its buses are limited to move through. Since the grant from the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation has expired outside of the pilot, fare-free rides are no longer available on the NEMT+ service. BATA sought to have medical clinics pay for their patients’ fares for their rides to and from their appointments and determined that such a model is not viable. Link On-Demand’s MOD service will continue to operate without the NEMT+ component. In place of NEMT+, BATA will pursue other sustainable strategies for medical clinics by offering bulk ticket purchase and non-binding contractual options.

Conclusion

As BATA moves the Link On-Demand pilot into a more permanent service, it is important to note that Link On-Demand is not a new, but transformed service for Traverse City. City Link had its clear place in BATA’s broader transit system, giving people point-to-point rides to important destinations. Link On-Demand continues to deliver these important services—using the same buses, same drivers, and same service area—but with increased efficiency for the agency and reliability for its customers.

Like dial-a-ride and microtransit services across the United States, Link On-Demand is a tool to equitably transport people not always well-served by fixed-route transit. At the same time, BATA took advantage of important grants and new technologies to design Link On-Demand into a service that works well for Traverse City. US transit agencies have experienced significant challenges recently with decreased ridership exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While fixed-route buses remain the primary staple in BATA’s system, BATA realized that in order for its transit system to best serve its customers, that its dial-a-ride system must adapt, not go away.

Listen to an interview with Eric Lingaur who oversaw the BATA Link On-Demand pilot.

Published on August 4, 2021

References

  1. Shared-Use Mobility Center: “Learning Module: Rural and Small Town Transportation”, published July 31, 2019. https://learn.sharedusemobilitycenter.org/learning_module/rural-and-small-town-transportation/.
  2. US Census Bureau: American Community Survey 1-year estimates for 2019. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/31000US45900-traverse-city-mi-micro-area/. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  3. Federal Transit Administration: “CHARTS: Comprehensive Healthcare Access with Rural Transit Solutions, Traverse City, MI”. https://learn.sharedusemobilitycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/FTA-IMI-CHARTS-Link-Description.pdf. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  4. Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation: “Community Foundation Partners with BATA on Fare-Free Medical Transport Pilot”. https://www.gtrcf.org/news/news-articles/community-foundation-partners-with-bata-on-fare-free-medical-transport-pilot.html. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  5. Michigan Health Endowment Fund: “From Here to There: Health-Related Transportation Grants and Lessons Since 2014”, published March 2020. https://mihealthfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/HealthFund_FromHereToThereTransportationReport.pdf.
  6. Bay Area Transportation Authority: “Link On-Demand”.  https://www.bata.net/maps-schedules/link-on-demand/link-on-demand.html. Accessed July 28, 2021.

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