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.

Follow Ryan Marshall on Twitter: @RMarshallFNP.

Ryan Marshall is the transportation and growth and development reporter for the News-Post. He can be reached at rmarshall@newspost.com.

(11) comments

ma23464

I have never seen more then 3 people on any transit bus. Why do they use those giant buses to haul 3 people around. Sometimes I thinks it’s tbd same 3 people riding it all day.

FyremanEd

I never understood why county government felt responsible to provide public transportation. I’m sure these busses cause more to operate that what money is generated. Rarely do you ever see more than a few riders on each bus. Time to scrap this service.

petersamuel

TransIT's decline in ridership to 608,220 reported here in 2018 was 4.5 percent down on 2017. Unreported are the declines in earlier years. In 2014 ridership was 839,297, in 2015 761,088 and 2016 677,808. See a trend? TransIT has managed to lose 231,077 of its 2014 passengers or 27.5 percent. This despite a growing population. Fares generated $705,162 in 2014 and $620,877 in 2018. Operating losses went up from $5.1m to $6m a year.

DickD

How much of the decline was due to some not being able to get to bus stops and how much due to schedule times? Do you think adding some of the assisted living places with money from them to replace their services would help? If money is the issue, how can it be resolved?

Lev928

1988 and before: Don't talk to or take rides with strangers. 2000: Don't talk to strangers on the Internet. 2018: Uber and Lyft. Mankind destroying itself out of blatant stupidity. So, let's destroy ourselves more by requesting or offering services that will cost more taxes, create more traffic congestion and do NOTHING for transportation safety.

petersamuel

On-demand, direct door-to-door service is definitely what people need. But the real question is whether a County Government-owned enterprise like TransIT is capable of providing such service at a reasonable cost. TransIT operating costs are about $1.50/passenger-mile by bus and $3.00/passenger-mile by van. At present taxpayers foot 90 cents in the dollar of TransIT costs, the users only a bit over 10c in the $. Uber, Lyft etc provide these direct, on-demand services far more economically. If we want to help poor or disabled people get around it makes most sense to grant them transportation-assistance vouchers so they can choose the service that works best for them.

threecents

Uber and Lyft also participate in Gogograndparents, a ride system designed for people who need more help and are less tech savvy. The county also has a free pickup program to take older folks to and from shopping and doctor appointments.

DickD

Add all of the assisted living places and places like the senior center, let them share the costs and you have a good solution.

DickD

It would be great if Transit could pick up at your home. Perhaps some smaller vehicles feeding into a larger transit bus with a backbone route. Still, some will need help getting on and off, especially those in wheel chairs. Has the County considered teaming up with agencies, such as Daybreak? Taking people there and to the senior center on Taney Ave. could increase ridership and be a great help to all.

DickD

Let me add Buckingham's Choice and Homewood. Send a van and negotiate with these enterprises to share the costs they would no longer have to provide.

Lev928

Hey, Frederick County ... stop trying to BE Montgomery County. Their county government is a complete disaster with failed program after failed program. It's over-developed, over-populated, over-taxed, high crime, pollution ... when will you learn? Many of you that support this kind of thing are transplants from Montgomery County. Apparently you forgot why you left it in the first place. Oh, by the way ... Montgomery County used to be southern Frederick County before a new county was created. See how they destroyed it?

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