More transit agencies add door-to-door services and ‘mobility wallets’

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – A single mother wrangling her kids onto a city bus headed for the grocery, struggling to reach into her wallet for the fare and then carry her groceries back home.

Commuters walking half a mile to the closest stop to take two buses and walk a mile from their final stop to their job.

These are the common transportation problems that state and local officials are trying to solve.

“Most of our paratransit and demand response services are for people who are poor, who are minorities, who have job insecurity or health issues,” said Glenn Steffens, the executive director of Saginaw Transit Authority and Regional Services, or STARS.

The Department of Transportation and local transit authorities such as STARS are implementing programs that make public transit more available and make it easier for people to meet their basic needs, such as getting to jobs, stores and medical care.

Among other communities whose transit agencies have implemented on-demand services – called “micro-transit” – and nonemergency medical transportation are Battle Creek, Muskegon, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Metro Detroit and Flint.

A trip that’s a 20-minute drive in a personal vehicle may take an hour on public transit, especially if there are multiple routes involved, according to Janet Geissler, a mobility innovations specialist from the department’s Office of Passenger Transportation.

“Micro-transit” is a technology-enabled service growing in popularity that allows users to request their trip in real time. Users can book the request online or on smartphones. 

A transit vehicle then will bring them from door-to-door rather than their using a fixed-route bus.

Geissler said that transportation authorities statewide have found that people are happy to pay for such services, even if the cost is higher than a regular bus ride. It’s typically cheaper than a private ride-hailing service. 

For STARS, Rides to Wellness is its nonemergency medical transportation program and is the agency’s first countywide offering. 

Because STARS receives funding from a city millage, Steffens said it raises local political concern when it offers programs to the county without a county millage supporting it.

“To go out into the county and do trips like (micro-transit), that isn’t fair to the people in the city that are footing the bill,” Steffens said.

To receive state and federal funding, the transit authority must provide a local financial match, meaning that it qualifies for only as much state or federal funding as it provides from the city. 

Geissler said that people often think that transit riders should subsidize the transportation infrastructure in their communities rather than nonriders paying for services with their taxes.

“A good public transit system is really an essential part of the state’s infrastructure. Even though you don’t ride the bus, the cashier at the store where you shop might need to take the bus to work,” Geissler said. 

In addition to micro-transit, the Office of Passenger Transportation is helping local transit authorities implement “mobility wallet,” a technology-enabled tool that allows users to deposit funds into their electronic wallet with their smartphone. They also can pay their fares by walking past a sensor on the bus or tapping their phone on a card reader. 

Geissler said this technology has grown as a result of the pandemic.

Employers who have trouble filling jobs can use electronic wallets to pay employee fares as an additional benefit. A human services agency could make it affordable for clients to reach vital social services, health care and counseling by transferring money into their account, according to Geissler.

Department of Transportation Acting Director Brad Wieferich said, “There’s a lot of things that we take for granted, and we are trying hard to think about how we can do things differently on our end to the extent possible to improve that mobility for everyone.” 

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