Case Study: Vermont Flexible Trip Planner: Bringing Fixed and Flexible Transit Together on a Single Platform

  • Author: Shared Use Mobility Center

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), in partnership with Trillium Solutions and Cambridge Systematics, developed an online trip planning tool that provides statewide options that include flexible transportation services such as dial-a-ride, hail-a-ride, and deviated fixed-route trips. The tool allows users–and in particular, rural transit system users–to gain a more complete picture of their mobility options when planning a trip. The online platform was developed as a pilot project within the Federal Transit Administration’s Mobility-on-Demand Sandbox program. Since its launch, several other transit agencies have taken steps to replicate the initiative’s resulting technologies.

This case study explores how VTrans developed and marketed this tool, as well as its implications for the future of multi-agency, one-stop-shop trip planning platforms.

History of the Program

Mobility on Demand (MOD) is commonly understood to be the integration of emerging shared mobility services and technology–such as on-demand data, real-time data and predictive analysis–into existing transit services. These emerging services can be requested on demand, which, according to the Federal Transit Administration, makes for a more “traveler-centric” approach. As these services and the technologies that enable them become increasingly sophisticated, so too do the ways in which transit operators work to integrate them into more traditional services. VTrans’ online trip planning tool provides MOD service by increasing access to both traditional fixed transit and flexible mobility options.

In 2014, all ten of Vermont’s transit agencies adopted the Google Transit platform to publish their public transit data, using the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format used by most transit agencies across the country. With Google Transit, travelers could search for the different services available to them for specified trips. However, this platform only shows fixed route service; it does not include the more flexible services offered across the state, including dial-a-ride, hail-a-ride, and deviated fixed-route services. Open source platforms, such as OpenTripPlanner (OTP), are also available, but traditional OTP software also shows fixed route services only. This is because the GTFS format they use only supports fixed-route service data.

In response, a number of contributors in the open source software community developed GTFS-flex. GTFS-flex is an extension of core GTFS specification, built to communicate information about flexible, non-scheduled services. It is particularly important that these flexible services are discoverable on trip planning tools in rural areas like much of Vermont, because fixed route service is often less prevalent in areas with lower population density. However, at the time it was developed, neither Google Transit nor OpenTripPlanner could consume GTFS-flex feeds.

In 2016, VTrans applied to take part in the FTA MOD Sandbox program, which provided grants and technical assistance to support public agencies pursuing innovative MOD projects. VTrans proposed developing a mobile and desktop platform that uses OpenTripPlanner software that can also read GTFS-flex data, meaning that both fixed and flexible services would be discoverable within a single application. In October 2016, VTrans was selected as a Sandbox grantee.

To develop the application, the agency chose to collaborate with Trillium, a company specializing in transit data development and focused on open-source tools, and Cambridge Systematics, a transportation consulting firm. The partners successfully adapted the OpenTripPlanner code to read GTFS-flex data, and in late 2017 and early 2018, they conducted testing on the platform. They also developed a plan for its integration into the state’s various transit agencies. In spring 2018, the platform was officially launched statewide as the “Go! Vermont Trip Planner”; via a single search, a traveler could now see a menu of hail and ride stops, deviated fixed-route trips and ADA areas, and the platform was capable of showing carpools, hotel shuttles, ridesourcing and other services that were not yet incorporated into the application. Where appropriate, contact information is also made available to set up a ride. An independent evaluation by the FTA is ongoing, but other agencies (including the Oregon DOT and several agencies taking part in the Valley Flex/Vamos Mobility project in California’s San Joaquin Valley) are already working to replicate VTrans’ technology. Furthermore, there is now an emerging marketplace surrounding flexible trip planning platforms.

Man holds tablet displaying Go! Vermont Trip Planner in front of bus

Source: VTrans; man holds tablet displaying flexible trip planning tool in front of bus

Program Goals and Outcomes

The primary goal of the initiative was to create and deploy a state-wide online platform that included itineraries for both fixed and flexible public transit modes in Vermont, but it was also key that the resulting technology could be replicated (and scaled) elsewhere. With Google Transit, when someone searches for a trip route and distance to transit is too far away, no results are returned. The Go! Vermont Trip Planner was intended to provide some alternative trip options in its results in those cases.

Although the independent evaluation of the pilot has yet to be released, this primary objective seems to have been successfully executed. The first iteration of the planner was developed on time and on budget, and it integrated traditional transit, demand-response services, flag stops and ADA service. Importantly, this version of the platform – released in spring 2018 – increased trip planning access from less than half of the geographical area of Vermont to nearly 100%.  A traveler can now use the Go! Vermont Trip Planner on a computer or smartphone to find route options that include fixed and flexible services. The second iteration of the planner, expected in early fall 2019, will incorporate carpooling and vanpooling services in its results, while the third iteration is anticipated to incorporate taxi companies, airport shuttles, and other transportation options.

Screen shots of VTrans trip planner

Screen shots of Go! Vermont Trip Planner

The trip planner is completely owned and managed by VTrans without any ongoing licenses and can be updated as services change. Another beneficial outcome of the initiative is that GTFS-flex data was created for all the public transit agencies across Vermont. Furthermore, the changes made to OpenTripPlanner code were then submitted back to OpenTripPlanner’s main branch and to the GTFS-flex Github repository, meaning that these adaptations are now available for use by any party, which helps accelerate duplication efforts among other agencies going forward.

However, the vast majority of Vermonters still use Google Maps for trip planning purposes; state officials are hopeful that going forward, Google will also work with them to incorporate the revised code. Although the service is popular among call center employees, as of summer 2019, only dozens of people use the trip planner daily, instead of the hundreds that had been anticipated. To increase use, VTrans is planning a statewide marketing campaign surrounding the platform in fall 2019.

Budget and Planning

For project funding, VTrans applied for a grant from the Federal Transit Authority’s Mobility-on-Demand Sandbox program, launched in 2016. VTrans was one of eleven agencies that received federal funding through this program. In sum, VTrans received $480,000 from the FTA, and contributed $120,000 of its own funds. An additional $10,000 from the state was spent on outreach activities, and another $35,000 spent to promote the tool through media buys and additional outreach through fiscal year 2020.

Broadly speaking, VTrans served as the project manager, coordinating efforts between the private sector partners and Vermont public agencies and providing progress reports to the FTA. Trillium was responsible for developing the GTFS-flex data and the OpenTripPlanner software, while Cambridge Systematics provided programming expertise. (See the signed contract between VTrans and Trillium here.) The project kicked off in early 2017 with concept sketches presented by Trillium, followed by subsequent meetings to refine the design and development approach through spring 2017. Beta testing and presentations to regional community members for feedback took place fall 2017 and early 2018, and the platform was officially live on the plan.govermont.org website by spring 2018.  Community and special-interest groups were also engaged, with particular attention paid to ensure that organizations such as the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, and Vocational Rehabilitation were aware of the platform and its benefits to their clients.

VTrans continues to pay $30,000 annually to Cambridge Systematics for maintenance of the online portal.

Program Operations and Marketing

Throughout the development process, VTrans and its private sector partners kept interested parties abreast of their progress. VTrans sent periodic updates to a list of 60 contacts in the sector, and Trillium blogged on the process regularly.

VTrans conducted extensive user testing in fall 2017 among agency professionals, riders, and social service agents, and staff traveled to all public transit providers to participate in public meetings. It also presented on its process and progress at conferences, including the Rural Intercity Bus Transportation Conference in 2016, the Transportation Camp in 2017, and the Shared Use Mobility Center Summit in 2018.

The agency also promoted the platform on the Go Vermont website, and engaged with several social service agencies and advocates to ensure that their clients were aware of the tool. These groups included the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, and the Vermont Center for Independent Living. By engaging these groups and introducing them to the flexible trip planner, VTrans helped promote awareness of the tool among people who have the most mobility challenges.

Photo of VTrans presentation to advocacy group

Source: VTrans; presentation of trip planner tool to advocacy group

Nevertheless, use of the platform remains low. Most Vermonters still use Google for their trip planning needs. As a result, VTrans has a state-wide marketing campaign set to roll out in fall 2019 to increase awareness among the general public, and detail other Go! Vermont services. This campaign will launch after the carpool and vanpool services are incorporated into the platform, and it will include video, banner and web advertisements and some print coverage.

Accessibility

The Go! Vermont Trip Planner was intended to be beneficial for all Vermonters, as the majority of the state is comprised of rural areas that do not have access to extensive fixed route services that traditional trip planners are developed to show. However, by incorporating GTFS-flex data, this new trip planner is of particular use to people who have mobility challenges. For example, when people with physical disabilities use the Vermont platform to plan their trip, their results include paratransit services that do not appear when they use the Google platform. By including services like dial-a-ride and wheelchair accessible vehicles into the results, the trip planner offers individuals with mobility challenges greater transportation options.

Importantly, groups like the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living were engaged in the rollout of the trip planner to ensure that their community members were made aware of the services. VTrans conducted approximately 15 informational sessions where they projected the trip planner website and went through a series of searches with the group audiences. They also received some feedback that they incorporated into the overall Go! Vermont website which helped it reach “AA” level according to ADA Web Content Accessibility Guideline standards. Feedback from many of these groups and their members since the launch has been extremely positive.

Challenges and Lessons

In general, this project was executed without significant challenges; the public and private partners worked well together, deliverables were ready on time, and the objective was achieved. Much of this success could be attributed to the project’s participation in the FTA’s Sandbox program, which required extensive planning during the grant process, and provided technical and strategic assistance.

Nevertheless, one unanticipated hurdle for the VTrans team arose when beta testing began. Initially, VTrans had planned to use the OpenStreetMaps map display for its trip planner software. However, users were so accustomed to the display of Google Maps that they did not feel comfortable with the OpenStreetMaps display. VTrans determined that it would likely take years to achieve the same level of specificity on OpenStreetMaps that Google displayed, so they decided to switch to using Google Maps for the map display to better meet user expectations.

This is an important lesson for other public agencies looking to replicate VTrans’ efforts: regardless of the service being offered or the agency offering it, many users have come to expect private sector best practices and standards in all their online interactions.

The other major challenge for the agency has been to increase use of the trip planner now that it is live. VTrans hopes that the marketing campaign scheduled for the fall of 2019 will increase awareness – and ultimately use – of the tool.

Future Plans

Because VTrans manages the website application, future changes to service and mobility offerings will need to be updated by the agency. For example, the application software is already capable of integrating vanpool and carpool trips into its results, but such trips are not expected to be discoverable in the application until fall of 2019. Airport shuttles and taxi companies are expected in the application’s third iteration in subsequent years.

Furthermore, the Go! Vermont Trip Planner application currently does not incorporate eligibility into its discoverable results. In future iterations, it may also offer search filters such as “wheelchair accessibility” or “mobility-impaired” so that people with disabilities can more easily find the transit services best suited to their needs. However, the current agency preference is to present a user with all their mobility options, and then allow the user to make their own decisions on what modes are most appropriate for their needs.

Lastly, VTrans chose not to build trip-booking capabilities into the application at its launch. In part, this was because incorporating ticket purchasing into the software would have required significant cooperation among participating agencies and private operators, as well as additional financial investment. Currently, overall use of the platform would need to increase greatly in order to justify such a development. However, the ability to purchase tickets for trips on multiple transit agencies via a single application would certainly increase mobility, and other regions are working towards payment integration across multiple agencies already (ex: NEORide ticketing platform for agencies in Ohio and Kentucky). It is likely that, as the market surrounding flexible trip planners grows, trip booking will be an increasingly common component of the tools.

Conclusion

The VTrans initiative to develop a state-wide online trip planner that incorporated results for both fixed and flexible transit options began with its application for a FTA grant in 2016, and the first iteration of the deliverable was made public in the spring of 2018. During the intervening months, VTrans and its private sector partners took the first steps toward standardizing such capabilities across the country.  Although the knowledge and technology developed through the creation of the Go! Vermont Trip Planner are of particular importance to other agencies that serve small and rural communities, these tools have set the stage for accelerated improvements in MOD approaches for all agencies going forward.

For Vermont, the launched Go! Vermont Trip Planner meets the needs assessed at the outset of the development process: the planner displays travel routes for trips across Vermont that include dial-a-ride, hail-a-ride and deviated fixed-route options. This is a critical service for Vermont, as much of the state is rural, and therefore not well-served by fixed route options alone. For people with mobility challenges in particular, this trip planner is especially beneficial. However, for this service to make a significant difference to residents, awareness and use of the platform needs to increase dramatically. Until then, Google Maps and its limited transportation results remain the default.

Nevertheless, many other public and private agencies are eager to continue down this road. In their effort to standardize flexible transit into trip planning results, they must also look ahead to what the next iterations might entail. VTrans is already working to incorporate carpools and vanpools into its results, and it envisions iterations down the line that also incorporate airport shuttles, taxis, and other private operators, including TNCs and shared bike or scooter systems.  Although there is currently no single application that can show all public and private, fixed and flexible transportation offerings within a single platform, the development of the VTrans flexible trip planner pushes the entire market closer to the day when such a platform exists.

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