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Scheduling and Dispatching Deployment and Broadband Expansion in Rural Ohio

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources, Transit

In 2015, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and project partners were selected to receive $6.8 million for a project called Transit Tech Ohio (T2O) in federal funding to improve rural transportation through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) VII competitive grant program. The funding supported the state’s efforts to work with rural transportation providers for software access and to improve rural broadband. Without connectivity across their service area, transportation providers cannot get the full benefit of software.[i]

Project Purposes

ODOT assessed the transportation services and software of each partner rural transportation agency and the availability of broadband within its service area to assist with developing estimates of the need. Some agencies had scheduling software already, but many did not.  Several areas were found to have insufficient broadband access. Most rural transit agencies provide demand response service, but two provide fixed route service.[ii] 

To minimize the burdens on individual rural transportation systems for procuring new technology, ODOT developed a set of minimum standards for hardware such as tablets and GPS, software for scheduling and dispatching, and services such as installation, maintenance, and training. ODOT then issued an invitation to bid (ITB) to select approved vendors who meet those standards as well as federal procurement requirements, from which rural systems could choose to procure services through the project.[iii]  A similar ITB was developed to select vendors to provide software to support fixed route service.[iv]

Demand-Response Software Specifications. The required minimum safety standards developed by ODOT and the T20 steering committee included data elements that the software applications would need to collect about clients and trips, communications ability to update manifests and connect drivers and the base, real-time tracking, hardware requirements for in-vehicle tablets, and reporting. Certain software functionalities were listed as necessary in the specifications, such as auto-scheduling demand-response trips, editing records, and calculating pick-up times and fares. In addition to the software requirements, the standards addressed a minimum amount of initial and annual training to be provided by the vendor, maintenance including software upgrades and technical support. Source: ODOT ITB 142-17: Transit Scheduling and Dispatching Software

To maximize the benefit of acquiring new software, ODOT worked with Connect Ohio, a subsidiary of Connected Nation operating as a nonprofit to expand broadband in Ohio.[v] Connect Ohio mapped broadband speeds in the counties served by participating rural transportation agencies. This was achieved by conducting drive tests with a cell phone in a car that was used to test connection speeds on the major cellular networks in the state. The project also identified state- and other publicly owned assets such as water towers or land where wireless broadband towers could be placed. The asset data were overlaid with locations identified through the drive tests as having no signal.[vi] This allowed Connect Ohio and ODOT to identify that there were several locations where towers could be placed on public land or facilities to improve broadband access. Connect Ohio and ODOT issued an ITB for wireless broadband service; however, it has been more difficult than anticipated to incentivize private partners to invest in wireless broadband infrastructure in rural areas of Ohio, even with subsidy and the use of public facilities such as water towers to install the wireless infrastructure.[vii]

The T2O project has supported transportation providers’ licenses to access the software offered by the vendors who met the requirements through the ITB and contracting process for demand response and fixed route. It also supported the agencies’ access to mobile routers that provide cellular connectivity to two cellular providers, which the transportation agencies were able to choose based on coverage that had been mapped in their service area. 

Outcomes

Some rural transportation providers around Ohio already had been using ITS to support scheduling and dispatching, but the T2O project has opened new opportunities for many agencies. South East Area Transit (SEAT), one of ODOT’s rural transit partners in the T2O project, serves Muskingum, Guernsey, and Noble Counties and went live with CTS software, obtained through the T2O project, to support its demand-response service in January 2018. New staff hired in mid-2017 brought in prior knowledge of other software with similar functionality, which was of benefit to the agency in making the transition from older software. 

SEAT Operations Director Andrea Dupler credits the progress SEAT has made to work in the months leading up to going live with new software: “Our success with CTS is because we prepared for the software, cleaned out old data, and spent months with Executive Director Howard Stewart to really get to know the business.  That allowed us to know what we wanted, so when CTS techs were on-site, we could tell them what we wanted to customize and knew what to ask for help with.” 

Riders receive reminder calls notifying them of an upcoming transit pick-up with SEAT's demand response software. Image courtesy SEAT

SEAT Dupler and Stewart analyzed the agency’s operations and goals.  This led to new operational decisions about where and how to deploy the agency’s own vehicles for fixed route and demand response trips, which locations would work better contract out the trips, as well as how to better coordinate trips to maximize efficiency. Once the software was live, SEAT staff relied on trial and error for a few months to set up parameters within the software, being willing to change their approach in order to use the software as fully as possible to improve scheduling, dispatching, communications, data validation, reporting, and other functions.[viii] 

Together, the changes that SEAT underwent along with adopting CTS have led to significant transportation outcomes. Prior to using the new software, SEAT was scheduling 2,300 trips per month.  By December 2019, SEAT scheduled 9,300 trips per month, more than a 400 percent increase in two years. Over the same time period, SEAT’s passenger per hour rate increased from 1.6 to 5.3, and the operational cost per passenger decreased by $2 per passenger. Previously, most calls for demand-response trips came in 72 hours in advance, but now SEAT can accommodate same-day requests. No-shows for trips have decreased from 17 percent to 2 to 3 percent.[ix] 

SEAT has shared its successes with other agencies, having conducted outreach and trainings to about two dozen other rural transportation agencies to share lessons learned such as analyzing business operations in order to determine priorities for using new software, and using block scheduling rather than open scheduling.[x]

Tuscarawas County Mobility Manager Shannon Hursey has identified several promising outcomes from launching CTS with Horizons Rural Public Transit, including wayfinding and customer service. “Some people don’t have mailboxes, or they might live on a dirt road with little signage, so GPS has been very welcomed by the drivers.” Hursey continues, “It’s very helpful that clients are getting alert calls the night before or morning of a scheduled ride to know when their pick-up times are. If they call in to check on their ride, they are getting the most up-to-date information.  You can see exactly where the driver is.” Being able to use farecards that the drivers can scan has also simplified the need to have exact cash for certain riders using transit for employment, education, or other institutions.[xi]

Hursey, Dupler, and Stewart all identified a lesson learned for other rural regions considering a similar transition of identifying training opportunities to better align software capabilities with transit operations. The agencies all received training in how to use the software but felt training provided by individuals with transit operations experience could have helped to optimize their use of CTS early on.  Initially, some drivers did not find the system intuitive for tracking trips, so data validation became a large task until everyone became comfortable with the new processes.[xii]

Rural transportation agencies have had varying degrees of success with using the auto-scheduling function of the software. SEAT has seen major efficiency gains from using auto-scheduling, particularly with rides provided on the agency’s buses, which carry more passengers than many of their vendors’ vehicles and are used most heavily in Zanesville, Ohio, a city of 25,000 that serves as a regional hub.[xiii]  In contrast, Horizons Rural Public Transit has not used the auto-scheduling feature as extensively.  Hursey describes that Horizons Rural Public Transit sees many clients needing non-emergency medical transportation to destinations outside of Tuscarawas County. With a small fleet, it has been more difficult for the auto-scheduler to handle from an operations perspective to manage the number of vehicles on longer trips at the same time and the number of miles traveled.[xiv] 

Ohio continues to prioritize broadband expansion through ODOT’s work, and a state broadband strategy adopted in 2019, but there are still gaps in coverage. These gaps in coverage cause hiccups in the agencies’ use of new technology, Hursey says, but the vehicles’ tablets do catch up when signal is restored.[xv]

Despite these challenges, opportunities to increase mobility are continuing to grow. SEAT staff outreach to area medical offices has encouraged many to also begin using CTS to schedule their patients’ transportation, a major change from an earlier survey where health partners indicated a lack of knowledge about transportation options. Dupler says, “I was on a mission. If someone said transportation didn’t exist, I was going to prove them wrong.” With a new focus on mobility as part of the medical offices’ business model, Stewart says, one facility has even purchased four vehicles and plans to partner with SEAT to deploy them, and other medical offices have begun to pay for clients’ trips if they are not eligible for other funding support.[xvi]

Hursey notes that mobility managers across Ohio have seen their partners become much more open to possibilities to improve transportation outcomes. Not all of the changes are tied to accessing new software, but accessing ITS solutions have been part of the change.[xvii] Tuscarawas County, the three counties served by SEAT, and several other neighboring counties are all part of a regional coordinated transportation planning pilot program conducted by the area’s RDO, Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association (OMEGA), funded by ODOT.[xviii] ODOT’s support of this and other related mobility pilot projects such as a regional call center pilot project partnership between SEAT and Tuscarawas County Mobility Management Program and other rural efforts enhances transportation providers capacity to learn from peers and innovate. At the state level, efforts are underway to harmonize requirements across state agencies and simplify the process of providing transportation.[xix]

Resources

ODOT and its partners received $6,839,860 in federal funds to support the project and used $466,000 of state funds. Local match of $34,000 statewide included a $1,000 paid by each rural transportation agency to access the software.[xx] The grant funds and state match provided the remaining support for software licenses, hardware installation, data subscriptions for mobile routers on the vehicles, and other expenses related to procuring the software and accessing broadband. Where trips have increased, many of the additional trips are eligible for non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) funding through Medicaid or other public and private sources, which supports operational costs. Ongoing efforts are being made by state and local governments, as well as their RDO partners, to secure additional capital funding for rural broadband from multiple sources.[xxi]


[i] ODOT (nd). Transit Tech Ohio Overview, http://www.dot.state.oh.us/Divisions/Planning/Transit/Pages/Tiger-Grant.aspx

[ii] ODOT (2016). Invitation to Bid 142-17: Transit Scheduling and Dispatching Software

[iii] ODOT (2016). Invitation to Bid 142-17: Transit Scheduling and Dispatching Software

[iv] ODOT (2017). Invitation to Bid 405-18: Fixed Route CAD/AVL, Real-Time Passenger Information

[v] Connected Nation (nd). About Connected Nation Ohio, https://connectednation.org/ohio/about

[vi] Chuck Dyer (2019). Presentation at the 2019 National Regional Transportation Conference, June 2019

[vii] Chuck Dyer (2019). Presentation at the 2019 National Regional Transportation Conference, June 2019

[viii] Personal communication with Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[ix] Personal communication with Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[x] Personal communication with Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[xi] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019

[xii] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019, and Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[xiii] Personal communication with Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[xiv] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019

[xv] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019

[xvi] Personal communication with Howard Stewart and Andrea Dupler, January 2020

[xvii] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019

[xviii] Personal communication with Sean Sammon and Kevin Buettner, March 2019

[xix] Personal communication with Shannon Hursey, December 2019

[xx] ODOT (nd). Transit Tech Ohio Overview, http://www.dot.state.oh.us/Divisions/Planning/Transit/Pages/Tiger-Grant.aspx

[xxi] Chuck Dyer (2019). Presentation at the 2019 National Regional Transportation Conference, June 2019

This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.