A MARTA Reach bus. (Special: MARTA.)

By John Ruch

MARTA’s test run of on-demand shuttle buses this year found high satisfaction rates and riders especially drawn to last-mile connections to other transit, according to a preliminary analysis.

MARTA Reach operated from March 1 through Aug. 31 in various metro Atlanta zones. Riders used an app or phone call to hail the buses to stop at pre-set locations that acted as virtual bus stops. The pilot program was a team-up between MARTA and Georgia Tech.

MARTA has said it was pleased with the increasing demand for the service, which was expanded midway through its run and ended mainly because of a shortage of bus drivers. Ridership steadily increased and was highest on the final day of service, said Anthony Thomas, MARTA’s program manager of customer experience innovation, in an Oct. 13 update to the transit agency’s board of directors.

“Now we can study what worked, what didn’t, and how Reach may be adopted and expanded to help complement our upcoming bus network redesign,” said Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s interim general manager and CEO, in a press release following the board meeting.

The service provided more than 7,580 trips to 8,335 riders, though that includes many repeat riders, Thomas said. The trips served 739 “unique accounts” of patrons, who could bring up to three additional riders. Thomas said the steadily increasing demand led the team to believe that the potential ridership is even higher.

The service’s zones included various areas of Southwest and Southeast Atlanta, stops in Clayton County, and parts of the cities of Alpharetta, Avondale Estates, Decatur, Forest Park, Morrow and Roswell.

A “West Atlanta” zone that covered much of that Southwest Atlanta area had 58 percent of the ridership, by far the lion’s share of the zones. It also appears to be the largest, and some of the expanded services ran only three or four months of the six-month pilot.

Thomas said that zone offered many connections to existing MARTA services, making a big takeaway that such connectivity is important. That so-called “last-mile connectivity” was a major rationale for the pilot program, though one Georgia Tech member had previously said there was talk of replacing fixed-route bus services with such shuttles as well.

Riders were required to give MARTA their contact info, which served as the basis for surveying that appeared to draw 130 to 200 responses to questions used in the analysis.

Those riders reported happiness with the service — and more than the rest of MARTA. Roughly 93 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with Reach, compared to about 75 percent for MARTA overall. The “very satisfied” category had an even bigger disparity: more than 71 percent for Reach and only 35.6 percent for MARTA overall.

The survey found that a plurality of Reach riders — 46 percent — were diverted from single-occupant vehicles. Of those, 27 percent said they otherwise would have made the ride by taxi or ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft, 11 percent would have driven alone and 8 percent would have gotten a ride with someone.

Another 31 percent were diverted from MARTA itself, with 23 percent saying they would have ridden fixed-route buses and 8 percent would have ridden rail. Another 14 percent would have walked and 1 percent would have biked. Only 3 percent would not have made the trip at all.

MARTA reported the average wait time for a rider was about 7 minutes, beating a target of around 15 minutes. The average travel time was about 9 minutes.

According to the survey, the ridership was majority Black (58.5 percent) and low-income, defined as zero to $49,000 a year (56.7 percent), though nearly 18 percent of respondents declined to answer the income question.

Thomas said that a significant issue was “a little bit of confusion” with the app’s use of predetermined virtual stops that riders had to go to, rather than the bus coming Uber-style to the person’s location. He said the app was tweaked to show the rider the nearest virtual stop, but there was a learning curve.

The service used buses from MARTA’s existing Mobility program for riders with disabilities, which has a somewhat similar on-demand feature. The buses returned to Mobility service.

Similar on-demand shuttle programs have launched across Georgia and metro Atlanta with a variety of missions and amid some expert dispute about when and where they are effective.

Thomas emphasized the findings were preliminary and the team is doing more analysis of the pilot program. That analysis includes evaluating whether a permanent system might be operated by MARTA, a private company or a partnership of both.

The following are “some lessons learned” that Thomas presented to the MARTA board:

  •  “Ridership looks to be driven by connections to other reliable, high-frequency service. This should inform the development of any future on-demand zones.”
  • “Technology must anticipate real-world behavior: software should be built to accommodate potential human error.”
  • “Make sure your stops are in safe, accessible locations, both for patrons (pickup/drop-off) and operators (layover).”
  • “Number of idle/layover locations impacts service quality since operators only get updates on new trips while idle. More idle locations means more efficient on-demand service.”
  • “Word of mouth is critically important: improve community engagement to encourage community information spread.”

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  1. What was the cost? So 739 unique accounts were served (additional riders notwithstanding). What did we spend? That they’re worried about satisfaction for a free program is dangerous. Did the cost justify the effort?

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