Written by Johanna Taskinen, Founder & CPO, Kyyti Group
Simulations conducted in four Finnish municipalities (Lapua, Janakkala, Hämeenlinna and Hattula), show that the expansion and development of demand responsive public transportation in rural municipalities can improve mobility both for people with special needs or statutory paratransit rights and for more general users, such as young people and people who don’t own a car.
Mobility services are disappearing from rural areas
The deterioration of rural mobility services and the increase in statutory passenger transport costs for municipalities is an unsustainable equation. To survive in the countryside, families need to have access to at least two cars. As most people use a private car as the primary means to getting around, taxi services are hardly ever used, which results in fewer and fewer companies offering them. Short supply leads to a situation where if a taxi is needed, it is difficult to get one and taxi becomes an expensive and unreliable option for travel.
In Finnish rural areas, taxi use is almost exclusively related to publicly supported statutory trips, such as school transportation and paratransit trips required by the Disability Services and Social Welfare Act. Due to demographic change, the number and cost of paratransit trips is constantly increasing. As municipal budgets are not increasing, the funding for organising open public transport services is not sufficient anymore. This leads to more pressure towards car ownership and that is a significant impediment for moving to the countryside.
Funding is directed to special groups’ closed services instead of public transportation
Finnish municipalities provide and subsidize the following transportation services:
- Statutory school transportation operated by taxi companies (only for eligible pupils)
- Statutory paratransit operated by taxi companies (only for eligible disabled or elderly people)
- Demand responsive public transportation, e.g. public DRT (open for all, but planned for the elderly for daytime shopping and errands)
- Day activity transportation (regular transportation of the elderly and disabled people to the day activity centers, often operated by the public DRT operator)
- Open fixed public transport
In small and rural municipalities the statutory school transportation and paratransit comprise the largest share of the costs. Public fixed and demand responsive transport services have only a marginal budget. The historical reason for this is that it has been necessary to organize closed taxi based transportation for the use of the disabled and elderly as they are not able to walk to the public transportation stops and enter the traditional busses which do not meet modern accessibility needs.
The public transport provision in the Finnish countryside has originally been based on commercial intercity bus services but they have been reducing the number of active routes due to decreasing population and with people switching from public transport to private cars. The population decrease has also led to municipalities to shut down village schools, resulting in the need to transport pupils longer distances to central schools. But the required public transport is not there anymore.
The municipalities would need to procure and subsidize the public transport routes themselves if they would want to ensure the supply. Instead, the municipalities have focused on taking care of the minimum: organising and subsidizing taxi services only for the eligible pupils, disabled and elderly, because that is what the legislation requires. So far utilising taxi service has been the only possible way to arrange accessible door-to-door service for these user groups.
For the non-eligible people many Finnish municipalities provide demand responsive public transportation (public DRT) with a minimum service level. It is typically driven by 1 or 2 minibuses, often driving only once to the town centre and then back after a few hours, and possibly only a few times a week for different directions, so the same vehicles serve different areas on different weekdays. Supply is thus very scarce and is designed to meet the everyday mobility needs of mainly the senior population for their shopping and other errands. It is clear that such a service does not meet the needs of the employed and young people living in the countryside. This kind of public DRT is not attractive enough for paratransit customers either, who prefer to use taxis instead as they provide a more flexible service.
Technology enables suitable DRT for all
Technology has made it possible to provide demand responsive public transportation that can offer a taxi-like door-to-door service using minibuses or taxis that are easy to board for people with special accessibility needs. It is now possible to offer efficient and accessible public transportation service that fits the needs of both the general public and the majority of the statutory paratransit eligible people. Especially people who don’t have access to a car and live outside the fixed public transport route network would benefit from this kind of service.
Modern DRT software with automated scheduling, dispatching and mobile booking application enable 24/7 self-service for booking, cancellation and real-time tracking of pickup time. These are the necessary prerequisites for offering the service beyond special groups, enabling efficient pooling with flexible schedules but still maintaining a taxi like user experience and simultaneously reducing costs related to call centers. The ability to plan and book intermodal travel chains connecting DRT to fixed public transport routes would make the service even more attractive to a broader audience.
Institutional structures need to change
What hinders the development towards a new transport system is not anymore physical or technical but rather institutional. The old budgeting structures and administrative practices that were built in the last century need to be changed so that the potential offered by the new technology can actually be put into use.
Currently the funding for public fixed and demand responsive transportation and closed statutory transportation services come from separate administrative budgets in Finnish municipalities. If the budgets of different administrative sectors were put together and a sizable part of it was used to extend and modernize door-to-door demand responsive transportation service available to everybody instead of keeping the paratransit service as a separate system, how many more people could actually be served with this kind of public transport system without increasing the overall cost? Would it result in separate transportation services for paratransit customers needed only in specific cases, for example when the public DRT service is unavailable or when a private ride is necessary for health reasons? Simulation with a real DRT system and actual trip data can give answers to these questions.
Simulating the pooling of different transport services paves the way for a reform
Before their next procurement of transport services and systems, municipalities should take some time and use simulation to find out what could happen if paratransit and general public DRT were put together and operated using one service and fleet. It could be the right time to take an overall look at the entire transportation system, unencumbered by current contracts and operating models. In many cases this type of study might provide the impetus for a real change and improvement in the way public transportation is offered.
Simulation can provide an answer to what kind of demand responsive transportation and service level can be financed with the current aggregate budget for all the transport services. Alternatively, the results may reveal what kind of savings can be achieved by pooling the different transport services. In practice, the simulation provides estimates for the optimal size, service hours and service area for a fixed fleet demand responsive transportation system, as well as the share of trips for which taxi rides are still needed.
The simulation process and method
In Finland Kyyti has conducted three such simulations in small towns: Lapua (14 000 inhabitants), Janakkala (16 000 inhabitants) and Hämeenlinna region (cities of Hämeenlinna, Janakkala and Hattula with 93 000 inhabitants altogether).
The simulations provided answers to the following questions:
- Is it possible to provide more service to new customers – e.g. for young people and non-car owners – if the budgets for statutory paratransit transportation and open DRT service are combined and used for modernising and extending the open DRT service?
- Is it possible to even reduce the municipality’s overall cost for providing transport services?
- How many dedicated vehicles are needed for the DRT service?
- How many of the current statutory paratransit trips can be scheduled to the extended DRT service fleet, and for how many paratransit trips taxi service would still be needed?
The dispatch system used in the simulations was MobilityDR provided by DemandTrans Solutions. MobilityDR is an advanced automated dispatch system used for DRT services by multiple cities, including Denver Flexride, the largest DRT operation in the US.
Current public DRT, paratransit and day activity trips with origin and destination addresses and times were collected from a one week period. Also a sample from the national travel survey was extracted to estimate the potential new demand. For this sample only under 20 km trips for shopping, errands, leisure and visiting made by bus or as a car passenger were taken into consideration, with more weight on young people and non-car owners. The idea is that a modern DRT service would be especially useful for these trips and users. For example, many municipalities in Finland would like to offer mobility services for young people in the afternoons and evenings for going to their hobbies instead of counting on parents driving them.
The scheduling of the trips was made in a specific order to find out answers to the research questions listed above. First the current day activity trips were scheduled as they repeat weekly. Second in row were the current public DRT trips. After this the current statutory paratransit trips were scheduled to find out how many of those fit into the public DRT fleet after the day activity and current DRT passengers. Lastly, the new potential DRT demand was scheduled to find out how many new trips still could fit into the public DRT fleet after the current trips.
The pooling of trips was enabled by a pick-up window of 30 minutes and travel time extension with 50 % + 10 minutes. The total cost estimation included both the fixed public DRT fleet and the paratransit taxi trips. The current contract prices were used for both: for DRT fleet euros per vehicle hour and for paratransit taxis euros per trip and per kilometer.
For each simulation case three DRT fleet scenarios were built with increased vehicle hours and service hours compared to the current fleet. The fleet scenarios are represented in the table below.
In Lapua it seems to be possible to serve more trips and extend the service hours significantly with the current overall budget. The picture below shows the results for Lapua’s Friday simulation.
- Lapua already pays for 16 vehicle hours per day so it really pays off to use that capacity more efficiently for paratransit customers. Currently the paratransit customers use only taxi service (red area).
- Scenario 1 shows that the current DRT fleet could already take care of almost half of the paratransit trips and the total cost savings could be 20 %. There would still be room for new demand (green area).
- If the DRT fleet capacity is raised to 21 vehicle hours (resulting in service hours from 8am to 7pm) taxi needs to be booked for few paratransit trips only, 30 new trips per day can be served (40 % increase) and total costs would still be almost 20 % lower than currently (scenario 2).
- If the DRT fleet capacity is raised to 26 vehicle hours (resulting in service hours from 8am to 9pm) 50 new trips per day can be served (70 % increase) and total costs would increase only by 2-8 % (scenario 3). This would be a significant improvement to the mobility offering for young and other people without access to a car.
In Janakkala on the other hand it seems difficult to increase the DRT service offering without increasing the total costs as well. The picture below shows the results for Janakkala’s average weekday simulation.
- Janakkala’s current DRT vehicle hours are very low, only 7 to 11 hours per day and they are based on partly scheduled routes.
- The paratransit trips don’t fit that well into the DRT fleet as in Lapua. To get real impacts the DRT fleet should be increased to at least 21 vehicle hours (scenario 1) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and to 26 vehicle hours (scenario 2) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In both cases the service could run until 7pm.
- With the combination of scenarios 1 and 2 paratransit taxi mileage would reduce by 59% and in average 23 new DRT trips per day could be served (28 % increase)
- Total cost would however rise with 16 %. Cost per trip would anyway reduce with 14 % (from 18,90 € to 16,20 €), if the new demand would actualize in full.
- This could anyway be the most cost efficient way to improve the mobility service offering as the marginal cost would be 10 € per each new trip.
When the simulation is run for the whole Hämeenlinna region, which Janakkala belongs to, the result is similar to the one in Lapua: it would be possible to extend the DRT service offering without increasing the total costs significantly. The picture below shows the simulation result for the Hämeenlinna region per average weekday.
- The optimum fleet is probably somewhere in between the scenarios 1 and 2, meaning that the vehicle hour capacity could be raised from 24-32 hours to 95-150 hours enabling the extension of service hours to 7pm.
- Already the 95 hour scenario can take care of the majority of the current paratransit trips. Taxi mileage could drop with 71-87 %.
- This would enable 58-276 new trips per day (14-67 % increase).
- In scenario 1 the total cost could remain the same, meaning that new trips would not cause extra costs. There could even be cost savings compared to the current setting.
- In scenario 2 there would be a 13 % increase in the total cost but the marginal cost for new trips would be only 4 € per trip, which is already a very cost efficient way to improve the mobility service supply.
The mobility challenge of rural areas can be solved by using existing funding wisely
The current legislation regarding the statutory paratransit services emerged as an alternative to public transport; not to private car use. Not all paratransit customers need a private ride for health reasons, and it is always possible to order a taxi at your own expense for convenience. And if the taxi service is meant to simply replace public transportation for these customers, why is it offered 24/7 when no other service has those types of service hours. DRT service with defined service hours and pooling several passengers in the same vehicles is a way to provide mobility services cost-efficiently while allowing sufficient service level.
Rural communities would benefit from using the existing resources to serve as many people as possible. In a situation where the budget is spent on high-end taxi services for one user group, it is hard to maintain a proper service level for others. This is unfortunately very much the situation in the countryside today: public fixed route and demand responsive transportation services for the general public are marginal compared to transportation for special groups. The others need to count on their private cars.
Efficient and user friendly passenger transport services in rural municipalities are only possible by properly investing in demand responsive public transportation. DRT is a way to revitalize public transport in sparsely populated areas where there is currently no real alternative to private car ownership. Simulation results presented in this article suggest that with little to no extra cost, using demand responsive services is a way to provide citizens a public transport service with an unsurpassed customer experience.
However, there will be no change if the budgets for statutory paratransit and public DRT service remain in their silos and procurements are done separately for each. Municipalities should have the courage to first provide, extend and reform the public DRT service, after which it is possible to start figuring out how large a share of the customers with accessibility needs actually can use the public DRT service, and who should still be entitled to private taxi rides. Simulating different scenarios for the municipality’s local context can provide a low-cost confirmation to decide on the implementation. There are huge potential gains in improving the mobility possibilities equally for all.
Johanna Taskinen, Founder & CPO, Kyyti Group