Living with the pressure of delivering reliable, on-demand transportation to riders in a 700-square-mile service area with just two vehicles may seem like a tall order, but for the past year it’s simply been business as usual for the operations team at Battle Creek Transit.
In March of 2021, Battle Creek Transit received funding through a Michigan Department of Transportation grant to launch the Calhoun County Coordinated Mobility Pilot – or as it came to be known to residents in the community: BCGo.
Today, BCGo provides door-to-door microtransit service across all of Calhoun County, including in the cities of Battle Creek, Marshall and Albion. As they approach the service’s one-year anniversary, it’s fair to say that not only has BCGo demonstrated the feasibility of an on-demand microtransit service in the county, but it’s also made an important impact on the community members that regularly use the service.
‘The demand far exceeded anyone’s expectations’
Residents of Calhoun County who don’t own or have regular access to a vehicle have faced a rough road in the past couple of years when it comes to finding reliable mobility options that meet their daily needs. Straightforward tasks such as commuting to a job interview, meeting up with friends or simply trying to get to the grocery store suddenly become much more stressful when faced with limited transportation options.
“We have always known that there was demand for this kind of service, especially in the rural areas of the county, but BCGo has allowed us to prove that the demand far exceeded what anyone’s expectations were and has provided us the opportunity to engage with the community like never before,” said Mallory Avis, public transit director, city of Battle Creek.
In March of 2020, one year prior to BCGo’s launch, a Calhoun County Transit Survey uncovered that these types of challenges were an everyday reality for many citizens of Calhoun County. The study painted a picture of a community in critical need of alternative mobility options. It found that Calhoun County was home to more senior citizens and people living with disabilities than the national average. At the same time, a higher-than-average percentage of the county’s population was living under 150 percent of the poverty line and a lower-than-average percentage of households had regular access to more than one car.
To make matters worse, in September of 2019 a reliable private cab company that had operated for decades in Battle Creek, the largest city in the county, had to close its doors for good.
All told, the Calhoun County Transit Survey estimated that the county faced an annual shortfall of more than 20,000 available trips relative to demand. One year later, the BCGo service hit the road for the first time to help residents of Calhoun County safely and reliably navigate through their community.
Building the platform
To help power the new microtransit service, the team at Battle Creek Transit turned to shared mobility provider Liftango to build the Demand-Responsive Transit platform that would allow users to book trips straight from their phones using the BCGo App (iOS and Android.)
This technology platform dynamically routes BCGo’s two vehicles throughout the service area based on real-time passenger demand so that they can maximize ridership and minimize wasted miles. Passengers that want to book their trip in advance get a truly guaranteed, pre-booked ride thanks to Liftango’s advanced matching algorithm.
“The experts will tell you that a county-wide microtransit service supported by a small fleet of vehicles will fail. The combination of Battle Creek Transit’s understanding of their community and Liftango’s unique matching approach has enabled a service that is efficient and hugely valued by the community. BCGo stands out as a true illustration of the power of demand responsive transport; something counties across the U.S. could look to replicate,” said Liftango Vice President Americas Jacob Greig.
BCGo customers can book rides up to 14 days in advance and as close to 30 minutes prior to the desired departure time. To deliver guaranteed, pre-booked rides, the BCGo app provides riders with different matching options that account for other requests already placed in the system, vehicle availability, the user’s schedule and a host of other variables. This allows commuters to access truly on-demand transport around their schedule without worrying that the ride they were depending on may not be matched in the system.
Riders without access to a smartphone or mobile device can call Battle Creek Transit Dispatch where the operations center enters their desired pick-up and drop-off times and uses the same booking system to find them the best available ride.
Measuring the impact
Since the launch of the BCGo pilot on March 8, 2021, the response and demand in the community has been overwhelming. In fact, the service’s only limitation appears to be that they simply do not have enough vehicles or staff members to keep up with the county’s demand for their service.
In the second month of operation, the service’s two vehicles were already completing dozens of trips every day. From its launch in March of 2021 through the end of the year, the service booked nearly 7,000 trips and averaged a daily ridership of close to 30 passengers.
Retention rates have also been remarkably high for the entire duration of the pilot phase. For example, from June of 2021, BCGo’s third full month of operation, through the end of December, reporting data shows that an average of 68 percent of riders each month were returning users. Many riders have come to depend on BCGo as a primary mode of transportation and this level of loyalty can be attributed in part to the fact that the service is reliable, punctual and affordable. The service is early or on time with 82 percent of pickups and 85 percent of drop-offs and ride fares are calculated dynamically based on trip mileage.
The service is also accessible to riders with special mobility assistance needs, including passengers in wheelchairs, those with portable oxygen tanks or other medical devices. The BCGo mobile application allows mobility-assisted riders to alert their driver ahead of time and automatically accounts for space requirements when completing passenger bookings. BCGo vehicles completed, on average, more than 25 mobility-assisted trips each month from March of 2021 through the end of December.
‘Expanding access to education, employment, healthcare and social activities’
Regular BCGo riders have been enthusiastic about sharing their support of the program and the impact it’s had on their lives. Community members regularly use BCGo to see friends and family members that they had been separated from for months, or even years, due to lack of reliable transportation options.
Here is what two users had to say about their experience with the BCGo service:
“I want to tell you how impressed I am with BCGo, I give your service five stars. All your drivers and dispatchers are so friendly and personable. I’m thrilled with this new service. Keep up the good work.”
“Used this service for my mother for the first time today. I have nothing but positive things to say. Prompt service plus very nice and polite employees. Affordable service. This service helped get my mom out and about after a year and a half. So thankful.”
BCGo has proved to be a successful example of how technology can completely change the way public transportation operates. The Coordinated Mobility Pilot has allowed Battle Creek Transit to demonstrate the feasibility of on-demand transportation in rural and suburban areas with a lower population density than most other service zones.
“BCGo has allowed us to better meet the needs of Calhoun County, expanding access to education, employment, healthcare, and social activities. Getting to know our customers and their stories plays a key role in the success of our pilot and the transportation services we aim to provide in the future,” said Battle Creek Transit Mobility Manager Kristy Grestini.
BCGo has changed the perception of and increased the adoption of public transportation for Calhoun County. The combination of vehicle design, technology and customer service has elevated the expectations of public transit and has allowed Battle Creek Transit and other area providers to use this energy and the data collected to advance conversations regarding transit funding and service expansions.