Where is my ride?

How to develop and operate a modern-day after-hours transportation service


I often receive inquiries from peers and student groups from other institutions about after hour on-demand transportation for students. At the University of Alabama, we have an on-demand transportation service called 348-RIDE that operates when fixed route service is not in operation. As with other campus services, we can learn from our peer institutions’ experiences. I will certainly not claim that we have the model program, or that we have the only program of its kind in higher education, but I can offer lessons learned from the evolution of the 348-Ride program.

History

In 2007, the University of Alabama launched the Crimson Ride bus system. Shortly after the transit system was implemented, we were asked to look at ways to expand the campus on-demand transportation program named Escort Service. The campus had a limited service program operated by the university police department. While the service was utilized, there was limited student participation and some hesitancy by students to use a service that was operated by the police department. The vehicles were older cars operated by student employees and customers had the perception the service was unreliable. After conducting internal research and obtaining stakeholder feedback, the decision was made that Transportation Services would oversee the on-demand transportation service. December 2007 was the first transition month from the Escort Service to 348-Ride. Reviewing ridership documents revealed that in 2008, the first full year of 348-Ride, the annual ridership was 42,490. After seven years of service, the total ridership was 163,719. In order to reach this level of ridership, several improvements had to be made in the system. In order to continue to grow, we constantly look for areas to improve service and efficiencies.

Evolution

There were many lessons learned during the implementation. In starting an on-demand system, several initial decisions must be determined. Questions such as who will operate the system, what equipment will be used, what are the boundaries of the service, and what is our mission must be answered. These questions cannot be answered in a vacuum and require input from campus stakeholders in order to support buy-in.

Initially, we had a third-party vendor operate the service and use a standard size van. All service calls were handled over the phone, and calls were manually logged into a trip sheet. One of the initial considerations in starting a safe ride system is who will operate the service? Most on-demand transportation systems are operated by student employees, third party vendor employees, university employees, or a combination. After two years, we decided to provide the service internally. The decision was based on dissatisfaction with the cleanliness of the vehicles and limited control of the overall operation. While operating the service internally can be more costly, the decision provided greater control of the operation and satisfaction of the employees who are now employed by the university. Our university’s policy is that you must be at least 21 years old to drive a university owned vehicle: this is to conform to insurance and liability regulations. We employ student drivers in limited numbers due to the age requirement. They act primarily as a supplement to the full-time and part-time university staff members.

When determining the type of vehicle we would employ for the 348-Ride service, the primary concern from stakeholders was vehicle cleanliness and that they would be well maintained. Through trial and error, we have acquired 12-passenger Sprinter Vans. The Sprinter Van provides more leg and head room than smaller standard vans and has a greater capacity for passengers. We use the Mercedes diesel passenger Sprinter Van because diesel fuel standardizes with our bus fleet.

Service boundaries

If you cannot provide the service in a timely manner, then you have a capacity issue or a boundary issue. Clearly defined boundaries are essential to starting a program. If the boundaries are too far, you will not be able to provide the service in a timely manner. Also, as the service grows you may have to put controls in place in order to keep the service efficient. For example, we do not provide off campus to off-campus pickup and we have evolved from picking up door-to-door to picking up at central locations like an apartment clubhouse. Additionally, on high demand nights or locations, and where a fixed route makes sense, we utilize fixed routes to supplement the on-demand service. 348-Express was created and supported by the campus SGA to help support the on-demand service. On Thursday through Saturday nights, 348-Express runs a loop around campus. This partnership with the SGA created a route that was mutually beneficial and has helped the growth of 348-Ride.

Equipment

After the type of vehicle is determined, a decision has to be made about other equipment necessary to support the system. Communications equipment is an area that must be identified early in the operation. Our primary form of communication is a push to talk service. Dispatchers, team leaders, and all vehicles are equipped with a push-to-talk device with the vehicles having hands free buttons. After a period of operation, we determined a need for other equipment that enhances the service and protects both passengers and team members. Each van has cam-eras installed, and our dispatch phone lines are recorded. The latter may be determined by your specific state law, however we have found both systems produce good quality control mechanisms and both provide an extra level of protection for both team members and customers. Neither system has to be used very often, but both have proven beneficial in supporting the integrity of our system.

Technology

In order to keep up with capacity demands and move the system to greater ridership and efficiency levels, we have implemented technology systems to support growth. In 2010 we partnered with RideCell, Inc., a company that provides an automated dispatch solution for college and university on-demand systems. We were one of RideCell’s first clients and have worked closely with them in improving technology solutions to problems encountered in our on-demand system. Our customers now have the option to use an application to request a ride or make a traditional phone call to our dispatch center. Each 348-Ride vehicle has a tablet display that allows calls to be received and acknowledged by the vehicle operator from dispatch. This improvement alone has allowed our system to handle greater call volume, and the system maintains analytical data that is used to improve efficiency and report ridership data to administrators.

Conclusion

Like other campuses, the University of Alabama has seen significant growth. We have determined that a robust transportation system is an important component of growth and student satisfaction. These systems can be costly to operate and maintain, therefore finding ways to provide service more efficiently is a charge that all administrators must consider. Technologies like automated dispatch and automated vehicle location tracking have improved both efficiency and customer satisfaction of the University of Alabama’s 348-Ride on-demand system.

The Transit Department at the University of Alabama was charged with a major task to implement an on-demand transportation service that would satisfy the needs of the students. We have been successful operating the 348-Ride program by considering stakeholder input and optimizing technology. The 348-Ride program has grown each of its eight years in operation with no signs of slowing down. A supportive ad-ministration, great personnel and technology have been the keys to our success.


Ralph Clayton, CASP
Ralph Clayton, CASP, is the interim assistant vice president of enterprise operations at The University of Alabama. He is a graduate of The University of Alabama with a B.A. and M.S. degree in criminal justice. He received a Doctor of Education, Ed.D., in higher education administration in 2014. He is the former director of transit at The University of Alabama. UA transit is comprised of a fixed route fleet of 43 buses and an on-demand fleet of 11 Sprinter vans. He currently directs several areas at UA, including the Supply Store, Bama Dining, University Printing, Transportation Services, and Action Card. He directed the implementation of the University’s Transit System, which started full operations in August 2007. The Crimson Ride implementation team was the recipient of the 2007 Sam S. May Award from The University of Alabama.

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