Cecil Transit is using an Integrated Mobility Innovation grant from the Federal Transit Administration to pilot a mobility on-demand (MOD) service, the Cecil On-Demand Mobility Platform and Service Solution (COMPASS), that serves people in rural Maryland recovering from drug addiction.
Cecil County has its share of opportunities and challenges, including a growing warehousing industry, an aging population, and a high proportion of people misusing opioids. Cecil Transit was looking to improve its transit services for its residents most in need and focused on serving people recovering from drug addiction.
Cecil County partnered initially with one recovery house and scaled up its service over time. Residents in these participating recovery houses can use COMPASS to travel to and from designated locations for work, job interviews, errands, and medical and legal appointments.
Cecil Transit hopes to expand COMPASS to serve other populations, like seniors and people with disabilities, as the agency explores sustaining the mobility service.
Description: Video interview with Suzanne Kalmbacher from Cecil Transit. Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center
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.
Transportation is a key and a barrier to economic mobility in communities across the United States. Communities with robust transit systems help people access jobs and services at affordable costs. In rural and suburban areas, many people see privately owned cars as the most practical means of transportation due to land use patterns and low population density. As a result, rural transit systems often lack the density and demand to efficiently carry significant proportions of their population. This is seen when peoples’ homes or places of employment are not within walking distance of a fixed bus route and headways between buses exceed one hour. This paradigm creates a cycle that often harms those residents most in need of public transit and shared mobility. For example, older adults with mobility impairments often use significant blocks of time to plan and travel to or from medical appointments and other errands using fixed-route buses or dial-a-ride services. People recovering from drug addiction frequently cannot rely on transit to reliably take them to treatment, legal appointments, and places of employment; in fact, the lack of adequate transportation options is a barrier to recovery from addiction.
Cecil Transit in northeastern Maryland has experienced this scenario where transit services are constrained. Like many rural communities across the United States, Cecil County has an aging population, a large warehousing industry, and high rates of people addicted to opioids. Coinciding with the need to reinvent its public transportation offerings, Cecil Transit has piloted a new mobility on-demand (MOD) service, called COMPASS, that serves residents living in addiction recovery houses. Cecil Transit successfully applied for an Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to pilot this targeted microtransit solution and has partnered with recovery houses, transportation and technology vendors, and other agencies to implement and evaluate this project. This case study explores aspects of this pilot and highlights some best practices for peer communities looking to pilot mobility solutions serving targeted populations.
Rural Cecil County, like many communities across the United States, has its share of opportunities and challenges. Situated halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia in northeastern Maryland, Cecil County’s population has grown at a considerably faster rate than other parts of Maryland (p. 60, Table 3-1), and its senior population (ages 65+) will likely grow by over 72% from 2020 to 2045 (17,289 seniors to 29,802 seniors, respectively). (Cecil County/KFH Group: p. 61, Table 3-2),  Alongside this growth in population, many residents are finding jobs in the warehousing industry, at employers like Amazon. Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic is afflicting residents at a high rate. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration designated Cecil and 27 other US counties as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in 2013. Since 2007, drug overdose rates in Cecil County have often doubled Maryland’s entire population.
Cecil Transit realized a need to adapt its services with a growing senior population, a sizeable blue-collar economy largely focused on warehousing, and many residents experiencing drug and alcohol addiction. Its legacy dial-a-ride/demand response service was not always well-tailored to the needs of specific populations. In community meetings, people expressed that the lack of adequate public transportation is a barrier to employment and health care, especially for people recovering from addiction. Cecil Transit looked to develop a new mobility on-demand (MOD) program specifically for residents in recovery houses. Routematch, a booking and routing technology vendor that had partnered with Cecil Transit for several years, agreed to extend its partnership to help with designing and implementing a new MOD program. With a new mobility service in mind and a technology partnership secured, Cecil applied for an IMI grant from FTA. On March 16, 2020, FTA announced that Cecil Transit was awarded $562,845 to support their MOD pilot. A few months later, in July, Uber acquired Routematch, allowing Cecil Transit to use the transportation network company’s well-known app. In the process, Cecil Transit staff agreed to name this service the Cecil On-Demand Mobility Platform and Service Solution (COMPASS). Staff saw this name as short, sweet, and appropriate for a microtransit service. COMPASS launched on April 26, 2021.
COMPASS is a targeted mobility program. Currently, only residents from participating recovery houses are eligible to use the microtransit service. Each recovery house determines if individuals are eligible to use COMPASS by flagging customer profiles in Uber’s back-end. Eligible residents can then open the Uber app and see COMPASS as an available service alongside other Uber services like UberX. Staff at the recovery houses can also book rides for their residents through an online portal. Like other Uber services, customers can request their rides in real-time and expect a COMPASS vehicle to pick them up in about 11 minutes.
COMPASS customers can only use the MOD service to travel to or from designated pick-up/drop-off (PUDO) locations. These PUDOs include the participating recovery houses, employment centers, medical and addiction treatment facilities, and judicial courts. The current operating zone for COMPASS is a 71 square mile zone that includes federally-recognized Enterprise and Opportunity Zones. Cecil Transit staff can alter the COMPASS zone and other parameters depending on demand and community needs. At this time, COMPASS operates from 4 AM to 10 PM, Monday through Friday. While most COMPASS rides only carry individual passengers at this time because of demand, Cecil Transit hopes that more rides are pooled in the future, achieving a vision for expanding shared mobility.
Description: Map of service area for COMPASS. Click on image for full view. Credit: Cecil County
Customers pay a $2 fare for a single ride on COMPASS, the same fare to use Cecil Transit’s fixed-route service, with prepaid, debit, or credit cards inside the Uber app. Unbanked customers can purchase Uber gift cards at many retail locations, like grocery and convenience stores and pharmacies, across Cecil County.
COMPASS has a fleet of five wheelchair-accessible Dodge Grand Caravan minivans that can hold up to four passengers at a time. Riders can have different origins and destinations, and the Uber app gives the driver turn-by-turn directions for their routes. The vans are wrapped in COMPASS branding and leased on a one-year contract from Creative Bus Sales. Cecil Transit directly employs six individuals part-time to operate the COMPASS vehicles. These employees are not required to have commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs).
Over time, a new mobility on-demand program became a burgeoning priority for Cecil County. The 2019 Cecil County Community Health Needs Assessment identified the shortage of public transportation as a significant barrier to accessing health services. Cecil County’s 2020-2024 Transit Development Plan suggested improvements to Cecil Transit’s demand-response transportation (DRT) service. To the staff at Cecil County, COMPASS was a logical outcome that simultaneously addresses separate but interrelated policy priorities.
COMPASS had a soft launch with one recovery house on April 26, 2021, and more houses two months later.
Between its launch and mid-November 2021, Cecil Transit determined that COMPASS has positive and meaningful impacts for its participants. COMPASS completed over 2,300 trips with about 50 unique customers, with an average trip length of 4.9 miles and an average duration of 11 minutes minutes for a pick-up after requesting a COMPASS ride through the Uber app and used the microtransit service for the following trip purposes:
51% for trips to and from retail establishments for errands;
28% for trips to and from potential and existing employers; and
21% for trips to and from medical providers.
In a survey to COMPASS customers, Cecil Transit found that:
75% of users’ trips were with COMPASS;
Only 19% of individuals reported missing a medical appointment in the previous 60 days, versus 75% before COMPASS was available;
It took only nine days on average to find a job compared to 31 days before COMPASS; and
79% of customers reported satisfaction with their transportation choices versus just 21% before COMPASS.
Cecil Transit also surveyed participating recovery houses and found that:
78% of residents are using COMPASS;
85% of COMPASS users book their rides independently;
COMPASS increases the rate of successful recovery from addiction;
COMPASS decreases unemployment;
COMPASS increases independence; and
All recovery houses were satisfied with the booking technology, service zone, service hours, drivers, vehicles, and wait times for COMPASS.
COMPASS addresses a transportation need that Cecil Transit’s system had difficulty managing beforehand.
Cecil Transit supports COMPASS primarily with an Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant of $562,845 from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The agency realized that the COMPASS pilot was a strong candidate for this grant based on the county’s growing economy and challenges with the opioid epidemic. With security from the IMI grant, COMPASS has become an opportunity to test microtransit as a mobility solution for people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Outcomes from this pilot can help Cecil Transit determine if COMPASS should scale up.
Uber and Cecil Transit provide a 20% in-kind match through technical support and county salaries, respectively. This 20% match is a requirement for all IMI grantee agencies. Cecil Transit is also seeking additional grants from private foundations and recent federal legislation, like the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to support the growth of COMPASS beyond the initial pilot period.
Outreach to potential COMPASS users has been a closed effort. Cecil Transit has focused on educating staff at recovery houses and its residents on how to use COMPASS with informational pamphlets and maps of the service area and PUDOs. Staff from Cecil Transit routinely host sessions at participating recovery houses to help residents register accounts on Uber and demonstrate how to use COMPASS.
Cecil Transit also hosts a COMPASS steering committee that convenes every two months. The steering committee has two residents from separate participating recovery houses and Cecil County’s Health Department and Adult Drug Treatment Court staff representatives. The makeup of this steering committee ensures that policymakers and program constituents have the opportunity to inform the continued development of COMPASS.
All COMPASS vans are wheelchair accessible. Since the pool of eligible passengers is small and limited to residents at recovery houses, COMPASS has yet to carry any passengers with mobility restrictions. For customers who do not own smartphones or cannot use the Uber app, recovery house staff also can book rides for residents through an online Uber portal.
COMPASS has been a successful pilot, but Cecil Transit has encountered challenges as the agency makes the mobility program permanent. These difficulties include:
Staffing: Many transit agencies have struggled with hiring and retaining operators for their vehicles, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this shortage. Currently, COMPASS is fully staffed, but Cecil Transit is concerned that the retention of employees can be volatile moving forward.
Uber’s acquisition of Routematch: Routematch has partnered with Cecil Transit as a routing technology provider since 2013. Moving into COMPASS, Cecil Transit was looking forward to extending its partnership with Routematch. Uber announced its acquisition of Routematch in July 2020, just four months after FTA awarded Cecil Transit the IMI grant. Cecil Transit has maintained a solid partnership with Routematch as an Uber subsidiary and has continued to use its technology platform throughout the COMPASS pilot.
Leasing vehicles with a short-term contract: Most transit vehicle vendors will not lease vehicles on just a year-long basis, and if they do, prices tend to be expensive. Currently, Cecil Transit must pay Creative Bus Sales $1,600 per van per month. In the lease, Cecil Transit can drive each of the vans up to 15,000 miles for the year–they are not concerned about exceeding this limit. Beyond this pilot, Cecil Transit hopes to use vans for any microtransit solution they might have at a lower cost.
Cecil Transit piloted COMPASS in the hopes of accomplishing two priorities: improve mobility and the quality of life for people recovering from drug addiction, and test the feasibility of on-demand microtransit as a potentially more expansive service. During its pilot phase, COMPASS has encountered obstacles with maintaining proper staffing levels amid a nationwide labor shortage and paying upfront costs to lease vehicles on a short-term basis. That aside, performance measures and community feedback indicate that this service is popular and successful. In particular, COMPASS helps customers living in recovery homes achieve self-sufficiency by transporting them to and from potential and existing places of employment and medical and personal errands. Customers and staff at recovery homes broadly express that COMPASS is convenient and pleasant to use. As a focused and flexible program, COMPASS meets the needs of a specific Cecil County population. Beyond this pilot, Cecil Transit hopes to see if COMPASS will be sustainable and replicable to other populations and areas in Cecil County.
Key Considerations for Developing a Rural Mobility On-Demand Pilot:
Are you looking to confine your pilot to specific geographies or populations? Do you want to scale up and re-define the service over time? Seek vendors and partners that are flexible.
What needs can a mobility on-demand/microtransit service address that your agencys’ existing mobility services do not?
How will your agency support this pilot? External funding sources are often available from public and private entities.
What fare structures will exist for customers when using your agency’s microtransit service? Will this draw customers away from using fixed-route transit or driving a car? Will this improve options to use shared mobility for specific populations?
How do you engage communities impacted by this service? Do you want to convene steering committees or host outreach meetings? How routinely do you engage in this outreach? How can your outreach efforts inform the development of your mobility program?
Are you able to support your pilot with existing agency vehicles, or do you need to procure them from an outside vendor? Consider the benefits and challenges of leasing or buying vehicles.
Do you need a booking and routing technology vendor? How can an external app vendor enhance your pilot? Can they offer your agency any in-kind support?
What time and resources already exist at your agency? Do you need to hire any new staff to support the pilots’ operations? How do you plan to hire and retain transit operators?