SamTrans new FLX service, mobility management, and the rise of transportation platforms

SamTrans is starting work on a strategic plan. A presentation at last week’s board meeting  was mostly about the process, which will start with input in the Spring of 2014, and is expected to be adopted by the board in the Fall.  Planning Douglas Kim’s presentation included a potentially transformative idea – becoming a “mobility management” service. What does this buzzphrase mean? What could or should it mean?

The term “mobility management” is sometimes used to mean a more flexible approach to serving the disabled, elderly, and very poor. In addition to fixed route buses (which are expensive on lightly travelled routes) and special purpose paratransit (which is very expensive to operate), a “mobility management” service might include contracting to taxi operators to provide transportation services, and education for older people about how to use the transit system after a lifetime of driving. This sense of the term focuses on providing more effective and cost-effective service for people whose needs cannot be met otherwise.

There is also a broader sense in which mobility management means the ability to coordinate a wider range of services and modes, from fixed route buses and shuttles provided by a public agency to contracted taxis, volunteer drivers, carpool, vanpool, carshare, bikeshare, and various other modes. This definition is potentially about serving many people, not only specific populations who can’t be served by driving and mass transit.

There is an even broader sense in which the phrase “mobility management” can be used to incorporate transportation demand management programs and land use policies to reduce vehicle trips.

It’s too early to tell what SamTrans has in mind, but what might it mean if “public transit” expanded to incorporate “mobility management” instead?

FLX on-demand service

SamTrans has taken a baby step in this direction by piloting what it calls  FLX service for two routes in San Carlos, formerly covered by route 295, and Pacifica, formerly served by Route 14.

The service was created on two lines where usage was too low to justify a driver running the route all day.  Instead, the bus runs the scheduled route at peak times. In the off peak, a user can schedule a pickup by calling a day in advance.  The two FLX services are slightly different – the San Carlos service travels a fixed route, but only comes if someone calls – the Pacifica service will deviate from the route to pick someone up. San Carlos is seeing about 15 on-demand riders per day which is a little more than the former service, and Pacifica is carrying over 100.   SamTrans will promote the service, and make tweaks to improve based on customer feedback in June.

The SamTrans planner who worked on the service says that the reason the service started with the need to call a day in advance was that they wanted to verify that the call center could handle the requests. If that goes well they can be more flexible.   The service requires the same number of employees, so there has been no impact on labor contracts.

The FLX service doesn’t have exact precedents, as far as its planners know. The models were based on other services created for rural areas and ADA service.   SamTrans is experimenting, trying to find out whether are ways to serve suburban areas more effectively.

Transportation as a platform

What would happen if this type of service was only one of multiple types of service that were brought together with a single platform?  The inspiration for this thought experiment comes from a few slides from a presentation on rail stations in Europe, showing apps and programs where transportation is seen as a service, not a particular mode.  With an app, a user plans her trip from origin to destination and pays for it in one click, including connecting bus, local rail, and long distance rail. The fact that the services might come from different providers is invisible to the user.

Integrated planning and ticketing

The same presentation about European stations described a transportation promotional program where the user gets a discount on carshare and taxi services, in addition to fixed route transit.  It doesn’t look like the flexible modes – taxi, carshare, bikeshare – are incorporated into the trip planning service yet, but that would be a great fit.   You want to go from point a to point b? What options are available to you, how long will it take, what will it cost, including the “first and last mile” for backbone transit, and including the flexible modes.   Portland’s TriMet already has ZipCar locations incorporated into its multimodal transportation API, enabling trip planning apps that include ZipCar (In the future, according to the FAQ, “TriMet hopes to show real-time data for car-share availability and to incorporate additional car-share providers.”)

Mobility service integration

Transportation as a Platform

With these apps and programs, the model is shifting from providing transportation service as mode – a bus or a train – to transportation as a platform.   The platform services provides schedule data, realtime data and station data, aggregate usage data, and transaction services.

A  particular transportation “agency” may run some of the services, and also sign up other providers to participate, similar to the way that Amazon lets you search and purchase from a database of products, some of which are stored and shipped by Amazon, and others which are provided by  vendors who use the Amazon platform for marketing and transactions.

Transportation Platform




Transit agencies, congestion management associations , transportation management associations (TMAs)

SamTrans seems like the wrong level to be the primary platform provider – that should be regional in scope.  (An evolution beyond MTC’s data services and Clipper?)  But it might make sense to have a county-based agency to select and vet the service providers that provide transportation services for the county, and to provide public funding based on public goals – coverage, equity, emissions reduction, congestion relief, etc.

If you think about SamTrans as an aggregator of mobility services, how is SamTrans different from the Congestion Management Authority in San Mateo County, uses the brand name to operate and market shuttles, carpool, and other programs for employers, and starting to provide services for cities?  Maybe should evolve to become the service and contract aggregator, and SamTrans should be a specialized operator that runs certain types of buses and vans?  Or maybe SamTrans should vet providers at a county level, and then should provide customized service for particular customers, like a corporation or the City of San Mateo?

With this architecture, where do city-based Transportation Management Associations fit?   They have an important role to play because they the strongest incentive to solve problems for specific places.  Palo Alto needs to provide access to downtown; they can do this by subsidizing more car parking and dealing with the traffic jams caused by encouraging more people to drive – or by incenting access with fewer cars. They have the ability to gather detailed local information about people’s origins, destinations, and needs, and then to create programs that will provide access tailored to those local needs.

So where is this platform model being used?  

Portland Trimet is the best example I have found providing a technology platform and application programming interface (API) for schedule, realtime, and station data.   They are migrating late to electronic payments – they haven’t said (or I haven’t found) whether the payment services will be incorporated into the regional platform with an API.  Several European regions have coordinating agencies that aggregate service across operators.  But I don’t know how their technology platforms work – yet.

Uber is promoting itself as the general-purpose transportation platform of the future, but it doesn’t have a public application programming interface (API) yet, so the PR seems premature at the moment (folk with special knowledge are welcome to comment).

There are several shifts in progress.  Clipper is being upgraded – with the potential to provide a much greater level of regional fare and schedule integration.   Transportation services are being re-oriented around users and data, rather than around vehicles and types of vehicles.   Cities are taking responsibility for traffic and parking, and becoming much more assertive customers for transportation services.

Will the Bay Area, which has helped invent the concepts of platforms and services, do an effective job of implementing them for the region for transportation?