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Bringing rural riders into the fold

What happens when you combine MnDOT + Transit + GTFS-flex

May 11, 2023

Rural communities deserve better than being left in the dust of public transit. Until now, the conventional wisdom was that Mankato and Manhattan couldn’t have the same smooth app-based mobility experience. Working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) — and thanks to support from the Federal Transit Administration and a plethora of private partners — we’ve been able to up the app game for transit agencies in low-density areas across the North Star State.

The result of all this hard work? Transit is the first major app to integrate demand-response service using GTFS-flex — a boon to small-town and rural riders who rely on these types of services.

Rural counties often have a lower average income per capita than the US median, and a significant number of residents in these areas don’t have access to a private vehicle. Public transit has always looked different in rural areas and small towns. Whether it’s dial-a-ride, demand-response, or deviated fixed-route, any rider will tell you: public transit here isn’t like what you’ll find in the metropolis. The problem is that apps (and the data that powers them) are mostly designed for cities, leaving rural riders to tangle with faded paper schedules while they figure out how to get from A to B on the phone with a ride dispatcher. The rural transit-riding experience was crying out for a revamp.

Luckily, the advent of new data standards like GTFS-flex began to expand digital policymakers’ imaginations beyond fixed-route service. Transit data was becoming increasingly flexible. The stars were aligning for something big.

How the project began

Supported by FTA grants from the Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) and COVID-19 Research programs, MnDOT selected Cambridge Systematics for project management, Token Transit for mobile ticketing, Trillium Transit (Optibus) for GTFS and GTFS-flex support, and yours truly to package it all together as the front end for riders.

Our all-star roster kicked off work in May 2022. After nearly a year of blood, sweat, and Slack emoji tears, we launched in March.

What do riders get?

Fifteen transit agencies now have GTFS and GTFS-flex feeds in Transit, covering huge swaths of southern and western Minnesota. Five agencies also added mobile ticketing, and more will soon. With everything integrated into Transit, riders can now discover demand-response services, plan multimodal trips, quickly call to book a ride, and even pay their fares — all in one app.

We broke a lot of new ground by digitizing demand-response transit. We had to adjust the app’s architecture to include systems that do not have a fixed-route component, and make sure the change didn’t result in any snags in the user experience. With Trillium’s help, Transit began using GTFS-flex to support transit agencies with deviated fixed routes, as well as those offering only demand-response service. As always, when fixed-route services are available, these trips are suggested to riders first, and on-demand trips appear as a secondary option.

For transit systems that have dial-ahead services, we added pickup and drop-off zones on the map, along with service availability schedules and links to call for a reservation directly from the app. Put it all together and rural residents have a smoother way to ride than ever before.

Token Transit also provided mobile ticketing support for some of the Minnesota agencies, meaning riders of Rolling Hills Transit, Tri-CAP, Morris Transit, SMART, and Otter Express never need to rifle for exact change again.

The cherry on top? Through this partnership, MnDOT is sponsoring Royale, giving rural riders free access to the in-app subscription that systems big and small across the country provide to their customers.

What’s next

The benefit for other DOTs and transit agencies is clear: the changes we made to integrate demand-response transit feeds for this project are permanent. MnDOT led the way, and now future projects of a similar scope can be developed and rolled out the door much more quickly.

State DOTs have an important role to play in this arena: small, rural agencies often don’t have the resources or in-house know-how to navigate new technology on their own. By providing technical assistance and taking the lead on complex technological work, state DOTs can ensure that a modern app experience — with trip planning, mobile payment, and demand-response service — is available to all transit riders statewide.

Over the past year, we’ve become active contributors to the GTFS-flex spec, to help improve the way this important data standard communicates about demand-response services through apps to riders. And GTFS-flex is just the start.  The app can already show how much a transit trip costs thanks to the GTFS fares-v2 specification, and Trillium will be using this data format to add fare information for Minnesota’s rural agencies. We’re also working with Cambridge Systematics to implement support for the Transactional Data Standard, so riders will soon be able to book demand-response services directly in Transit without having to pick up the phone — sparing millennials and zoomers the telephonic trauma they so deeply dread.

Plus, researchers from the University of Minnesota will be evaluating the initiative to see how it’s made using public transit easier for riders in these areas.

The advancements we made with MnDOT can be replicated to benefit rural riders across the country, and we’re excited to see who will pick up the reins for their state next. Are rural or flex-only services in your area ready for a first-class app experience? Our phones are fully charged. Our inboxes are at zero.

Demand, and we shall respond.
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