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MARTA’s on-demand Reach pilot program ending Aug. 31 despite rise in ridership

Collie Greenwood, MARTA's interim general manager, answers media question about the Reach pilot program. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

By Maria Saporta

MARTA Reach, a six-month pilot program of on-demand transit, ended Aug. 31 — after ridership in the program increased by 50 percent in the last month.

MARTA Reach was a joint effort between MARTA and Georgia Tech to explore ways that on-demand transit could complement an existing mass transit network. The pilot program targeted several communities in MARTA’s service area beginning with West Atlanta, Belvedere and the Gillem Logistics Center.

“Right from the beginning, we knew we couldn’t do a pilot across the whole system,” said Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s interim general manager. “The purpose of this pilot was to really to study on- demand transit. We knew there was a start, and we knew there was a finish.”

Two MARTA Reach shuttles at launch event on the Georgia Tech campus on Feb. 28. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

About three months ago, MARTA approached Georgia Tech about the possibility of expanding the MARTA Reach program, but the transit agency eventually decided to discontinue it altogether.

Anthony Thomas, MARTA’s program manager for customer experience innovation, explained that the main reason MARTA Reach was not extended was due to a shortage of bus drivers.

“In my opinion, the pilot should have been expanded so we could have seen how far it could have gone,” said Pascal Van Hentenryck, who heads up Georgia Tech’s AI Institute for Advances in Optimization, which put together the software app to run the on-demand transit system. “I find it unfortunate because the ridership was growing – 50 percent in the last month. We will never know how far it could have gone.”

But Van Hentenryck said MARTA made the decision to not extend or expand the pilot in July, when ridership was half what it was in August. Every month, MARTA Reach ridership had steadily increased.

Greenwood said the MARTA Reach pilot could resurface – especially as the transit agency looks to redesign its bus service. In the meantime, the MARTA Reach shuttles will be redeployed.

“We are going to have an unpacking of the performance and metrics in the next couple of months,” Greenwood said. “I have been watching with great joy as MARTA Reach had good response in some areas, and not so good response in other areas.”

Van Hentenryck, who spoke in a phone interview on Aug. 30 – one day shy of the end of the program, shared some of the basic results. During the six-month pilot, more than 8,000 riders used the systems with 3,000 riders in August.

Pascal Van Hentenryck, a Georgia Tech professor, describes the potential of the MARTA Reach shuttle serve at launch event. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“The response from the riders was unanimously positive,” Van Hentenryck said. “About 27 percent of the riders had been using either Uber or Lyft before MARTA Reach.”

MARTA Reach charged riders $2.50 a ride — the same price of other MARTA services — even though it operated more like an Uber carpool ride. Georgia Tech said that 58 percent of the riders ended up connecting to the MARTA network.

“It brought a significant number of new riders to MARTA,” said Van Hentenryck, who said the service was especially successful on the Westside, where the Reach program connected with three MARTA rail stations. “On the Westside, 75 percent of the rides connected to rail.”

The MARTA Reach program was announced in late February on the Georgia Tech campus with much fanfare. It began on March 1.

 At the time, an upbeat Van Hentenryck hoped for Atlanta to become a national model for a multimodal transit system by incorporating on-demand transit options. As he saw it, the shuttle service was a cost-effective way to provide greater access to people living or working in less dense areas by connecting them to high-frequency transit.

“If we can make it work in Atlanta, it’s going to be a demonstration for every major city in the United States,” said Van Hentenryck, who has been working on this type of software technology for the past 10 years.

A MARTA Reach bus. (Special: MARTA.)

Although his team is sad to see the MARTA Reach service come to an end, Van Hentenryck hopes the partnership between MARTA and Georgia Tech will continue as the transit agency designs the next generation of its bus network.

“In an ideal world, they will involve us in this bus network redesign and include components of on-demand transit,” Van Hentenryck said. “Everything is built out – the app is ready.”

Greenwood said MARTA and Georgia Tech would study the data from the Reach pilot program, and then figure out how on-demand transit could be part of the new bus network redesign.

It was Van Hentenryck who secured a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to implement the MARTA Reach pilot program, and he embraced the idea of strengthening a partnership with MARTA.

“It would be great to meet with MARTA’s planning team,” Van Hentenryck said.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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