What is Mobility on Demand?

It’s a very good question. It’s a relatively new concept. Probably hundreds of definitions are floating around, and there’s still a lot of confusion in the industry. Routematch tries to be intentional about separating the terms, because really mobility and on-demand services are two separate things. On-demand is nothing more than a service delivery mode, as is fixed-route or demand-response for paratransit. I don’t think on-demand is much more than a way to provide a microtransit service when a rider wants it. But microtransit is just one piece of the bigger mobility puzzle.

So how would you define mobility?

Mobility has to do two things. First, it has to be able to create and manage as many unique and distinct services as you want. These services have to run in parallel. Second, you have to be able to utilize all of the service providers within your community. Transit agencies know better than anyone that there’s no single service provider that can handle the full spectrum of mobility types out there. Without meeting those two fundamental pillars, you fall into the trap of selling a one-off microtransit solution.

By that definition, Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be in competition with transit agencies.

Exactly. Some of those walls are starting to be torn down. Definitely at the beginning, Uber and Lyft were seen as competitors. They disrupted the taxi industry. People were scared they were going to disrupt public transit. But the business model for Uber and Lyft is very different from public transit. They don’t have the same commitment to the community to do what public transit agencies are trying to do. By that I mean providing equitable services for all riders, whether it’s handling a mobility type or subsidizing the cost of the trip for an at-risk demographic. What Uber and Lyft did disrupt in public transit was the mindset.

What do you mean?

Riders want trips now. It’s not just a transit thing. Every industry is becoming on-demand, whether it’s streaming a movie or ordering groceries online. Consumers in the world we live in in 2019 want things to be on-demand. I think public transit saw that they were behind on meeting those needs and providing a really good rider experience, though any time you have a lack of funding, you have to make concessions. Over the years, ridership has declined. Historically, fleet efficiency and rider experience was a zero-sum game. You could do one or the other. On-demand says, “Hey, I can provide a better, more real-time experience for the rider, and also I can gain you efficiency because I’m considering what real-time supply is.” The data points that come into an on-demand platform allow for much smarter service delivery and automation in all the places that maybe concessions previously had been made.

How does the shift toward on-demand affect the passengers protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

In the on-demand worId, one of the unfortunate realities is that service denials do exist. Some drivers for Uber and Lyft can’t accommodate passengers with disabilities. Until we can have guaranteed service in real time, the ADA eligibility of those services kind of goes out the window. But at the same time, with Routematch’s Mobility platform, we are trying to make it easy and affordable for transit agencies to offer their paratransit passengers more spontaneity. The idea is that a public transit agency is going to have a certain number of vehicles that can handle a bigger spectrum of rider abilities than any TNC [Transportation Network Company] can. That’s a fixed cost of the agency. Those are always going to be on the road. When trying to deliver a service, the Routematch platform may try to book one of those dedicated fleets. If something’s not available, instead of giving a service denial to that rider, you can reach out and say, “Hey Lyft, do you have capacity, can you handle this type of trip?” We essentially go down the line until we find someone that can deliver service for that rider. This is part of that second pillar of mobility—being able to utilize all the service providers in a community. That same ADA rider used to have to schedule their trip to the grocery store two days in advance.

How does the Routematch Mobility platform know which kind of vehicle to send?

When you’re setting up a service, you’re able to assign attributes to any of your assets, meaning your infrastructure. So every vehicle will have a profile associated with it. When a rider goes in to book a trip, he or she also has a rider profile. As an example, I can talk about my grandmother. Some days, she uses a wheelchair. Other days, when she’s feeling good, she is ambulatory. She is able to change the attributes associated with her dynamically for each trip. To accommodate the attributes assigned to each passenger, the Routematch platform will find an appropriate vehicle to dispatch.

What are the different service models for Mobility On Demand?

The most popular service models are curb-to-curb, curb-to-hub, hub-to-hub, or an intermodal journey. But within each of those, there’s still a lot of optionality for how an agency wants to deliver a service.

Is Mobility On Demand only for urban environments?

Definitely not. You see more large urban pilots for two reasons. First, they tend to be better funded. Second, large urban probably has a better risk tolerance for trying new things. It’s like we’re still in the research and discovery phase, and you have to be able to fail. You learn from the failure. You pivot or evolve. I think a lot of rural or small urban agencies may not have the risk tolerance for that. However, the FTA has been good. They’ve listened to those concerns, so there’s more funding coming out that’ll help smaller agencies pilot some of these service innovations. As the software partner, Routematch can help agencies apply for grants. In some rural communities where they don’t have fixed-route, they may be the first to transfer their entire book of business to the on-demand world. We’re starting to see more rural and small urban communities try new things. I’m excited.

What is the most common question you get from agencies regarding Mobility On Demand?

I often get a question that’s in some form of, “Can I take the service that I’m already running and make it on-demand?” I don’t think that’s the right question. It gets at the mindset shift that I mentioned earlier. There’s this preconceived notion of how a transit agency–provided service should work. The goal shouldn’t be, “Let’s try to copy and paste this service we’re doing and make it on-demand.” Another question I get all the time is about subscription trips, or standing orders—if a rider wants to be picked up every weekday morning at seven o’clock, for example. Our platform doesn’t handle standing orders because no-shows and driver wait time have been proven to decrease efficiency and increase cost. In the on-demand world, everything is going to look so different, so we have to think about service delivery differently.

What is a better question to ask?

The first two questions I usually ask are, “What problems are you trying to solve, and what riders do you see falling through the cracks?” We call those orphan riders—riders for whom you don’t have a good equitable service to take care of their needs. It’s really the second question that enables the agency to think about and define what the problems are.

How do you measure the success of an on-demand mobility platform?

That question brings up another shift in mindset with regard to measuring results. In an on-demand world, there’s not really the concept of on-time performance. With Mobility, it’s not so much about being early or late. It’s about: “I asked for a trip now; how long’s it going to take to get to me?” You’re looking at an average wait time. Instead of an on-time performance result, you’ll be scoring an agency’s spontaneity. That will also require a shift in reporting for the NTD, the National Transit Database. So much of success in transit is tied to improving the health of a community, be it economic, environmental, or physical and emotional wellbeing. I recognize that abstract concepts can be difficult to measure. It will take sharing data with all the partners within the community that are a part of a service delivery, in addition to tracking outcomes that we’re currently not tracking.

How did you get started working in transit

I’d been working in finance—building on-demand platforms in a different industry—and was looking for a change. When I interviewed at Routematch and heard Pepper’s [Routematch President Pepper Harward’s] vision, I was like—excuse my language—holy s**t, that’s really good. I think he’s going to be spot-on with a lot of these ideas. I find the product we’re building very fulfilling to work on. We’re trying to create a platform that’s going to enrich or even transform riders’ lives.

Brett Werkheiser began working with Routematch a couple of years ago. He was inspired by the company’s vision for the future of transit in an increasingly on-demand world. As Product Executive for Mobility On Demand, Brett is based out of Routematch headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. He grew up in a small Georgia town called Claxton, also known as the Fruitcake Capital of the World, although Brett doesn’t like fruitcake. He and his wife currently have five children—“currently” because, in addition to their two young biological kids, they foster children. In his free time, he loves to go hiking or camping and travel with his family. High on their list of dream destinations is Antarctica.

Brett Werkheiser