In a world of Uber and Lyft, streaming music services, and on-demand cable and movies, a test program in Montgomery County that allows transit users to schedule rides using their phones represents the way the transit industry is likely headed.
But it remains to be seen how a similar system might work in Frederick County.
Montgomery’s Ride On Flex program, unveiled in late June, allows customers to schedule their pickup using a phone app much like national ride-hailing apps to help them get to their homes, transit hubs and commercial areas, and to access public services.
The challenge with transit is getting access to the system for people who don’t live near a bus stop, said Dan Hibbert, transit division chief at the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.
TransIT Services of Frederick County is taking a look at the new service.
Nancy Norris, the agency’s director, said she’s been talking with Hibbert and watching the Montgomery program closely to see whether some version of the program would work in Frederick County.
The county’s transit system will look at larger jurisdictions such as Montgomery to see what works and what doesn’t, she said.
Frederick County’s fleet has 24 lift-equipped larger buses, 23 small buses, three hybrid sedans, one minivan and one utility vehicle.
The system had 608,220 one-way trips in fiscal 2018, down from 636,862 the previous year.
But fiscal 2018 saw a nearly 19 percent increase in shuttle routes from the previous year, and a 12 percent increase in paratransit rides.
In November, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner told Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and other state transportation officials that the county needed more funding to meet the demand for paratransit service.
Providing service to rural areas of the county that don’t have any is one of their focuses, but Norris said she hasn’t yet studied microtransit enough to know how it could be used to reach that goal.
Norris said the challenge of delivering this type of service means constantly staying ahead of the changes facing the transit industry in the coming years, including issues such as microtransit and how to handle electric and autonomous vehicles.
“It’s coming at us like a freight train,” she said.
‘This is kind of the future’
People know how to use the Uber and Lyft ride-hailing apps, Hibbert said, and he expects that the Flex app will become a success in the county by offering a similar service for transit.
Montgomery County teamed up with Via, a software developer that focuses on public mobility issues, to develop an app that combines ride requests from a common area to fill an 11-passenger transit bus. A one-year pilot program with service in the Rockville and Glenmont/Wheaton areas is underway.
So-called microtransit is an emerging trend in transit systems around the country, said Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association.
“People want on-demand everything these days,” he said.
The idea is catching on in a variety of areas, from more rural ones such as San Joaquin County, California, to urban areas including Denver and Los Angeles, and using vehicles ranging from large SUVs to shuttle buses.
In Arlington, Texas, on-demand service is used largely in lieu of a local transit agency, Grisby said.
In densely populated areas, on-demand service can help get people to and from bus or train stations, while in less-populated areas it can help with “filling in the gaps” between areas that may not support traditional bus services, he said.
The Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, started its Prime microtransit service in 2015, and it has continued to grow, said Len Simich, the CEO of SouthWest Transit.
Prime offered about 102,000 rides last year, a 35 percent increase from the year before, he said.
Its service area of about 100,000 people ranges from the suburban neighborhoods of Eden Prairie itself to more rural areas on the outskirts, Simich said.
Prime tries to keep its 15 vehicles spread out so that even requests from more rural areas have a response time within 20 to 30 minutes, and trips can be booked using a phone app, a computer or a phone call.
At peak hours, traffic balances itself, Simich said, but in the middle of the day, when traffic is lighter, they have stations along a main highway corridor with air conditioning and other amenities where passengers can unload and be picked up by another bus after about a five-minute wait.
While they didn’t know what to expect when they were setting it up, the system is working well, Simich said.
Like Hibbert and Grisby, he cited the prevalence of ride-hailing apps as a key influence.
“I think this is kind of the future, and Uber and Lyft kind of showed us the way,” he said.
Norris said one key issue would be whether Frederick County could provide the funding that its larger and wealthier neighbor Montgomery is able to offer.
Getting county funding for a program is “very tough right now,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hibbert expects the use of microtransit to become more common around the Washington, D.C. area.
“I think all the jurisdictions in the region are looking at things like this,” he said.