TransLoc is building an on-demand system for transit agencies.

Screenshot via Geekadelphia

Despite what the April Fool's picture above suggests, Uber did not recently launch a private, on-demand train service called UberT. But whether it meant to or not, the gag underscored a real and growing tension between public transportation agencies and flexible car or bus services that position themselves as transit competitors. Here's how Leap Transit, the new Bay Area flex-bus being touted as a Muni alternative, explains itself to potential investors:

We are reinventing the urban daily commute by building a better bus — and the world's most advanced transit management system in the process.

Transit agencies have cautiously acknowledged the trend, but it's clear they're paying attention, says Doug Kaufman, CEO of TransLoc, a transit technology company that works with agencies to provide real-time information. Kaufman says on-demand transportation services like Uber, Leap Transit, and Bridj have made mass transit agencies realize that their ridership could actually be threatened over time.

"They're scared," he says. "We've talked to them. We've heard at conferences. People are really talking. They're saying, 'What do we do about this?'"

TransLoc's answer to that question is to give transit agencies the resources to fight back. The company is developing a technology platform that will help transit agencies combine the traditional fixed-route services they do so well with more flexible, on-demand services that transportation start-ups aim to capture. Kaufman hopes that platform, which he likens to a computer operating system, will "empower" mass transit to challenge its new competitors head on.

"Regardless of how I feel about services like Uber, Leap, and Bridj, I think they're showing that riders are craving more elegant solutions," he says. "Services built around them, rather than the fixed-route model, which is: you come to us."

The On-Demand Commute

TransLoc took the first step toward an on-demand transit platform last fall with the release of Traveler, a tool that shows riders where mass transit vehicles are and shows agencies where riders are (with their permission). Kaufman says TransLoc Traveler fills in critical information gaps about where riders start and stop their journeys and generally how they're using the system. That data serves as a basis for identifying corridors or areas with unfulfilled rider demand.

The emerging TransLoc operating system can draw on Traveler data in two key ways. First, it can inform agencies that some of their fixed route service might be inefficient—say, by changing the number of buses or routes that run at different times of the day based on ridership. More critically, says Kaufman, the new system will be able to recommend where transit agencies can supplement existing fixed service with a more flexible, on-demand option.

Kaufman offers this (sadly reasonable) hypothetical example: you'd love not to have to drive to work, but your commute takes 20 minutes by car versus an hour by bus. The new TransLoc platform might offer you a more flexible option. Open an app, punch in your origin, destination, and arrival time, and the dynamic system could search for others in your area going the same way to help lower the cost. The system would then schedule a pick-up (maybe at a nearby corner) and send a right-size vehicle (maybe a van or a 10-passenger bus) to serve the flex-route.

In the ideal situation, your new commute time would be closer to driving than riding the bus, but your new commute cost would be closer to a transit fare than a cab fare.

The "Next Hundred Years" of Transit

Publicly operated flexible buses or shuttles (and some private ones) have failed in the past for a variety of reasons, but Kaufman points to three trends suggesting this time around might be different. First are the demographic shifts toward city living that favor mobility-access to car-ownership. Then there's the technology that makes such an operating platform possible. And then there's the growing threat to transit's position.

"When you consider all those things together, I think this is honestly the first time a service like this has really been feasible," he says.

Right now TransLoc is working with a select handful of agencies (Kaufman would not reveal which) to sort out potential obstacles and shortcomings in the on-demand operating system. The idea is to work with agencies that already have a fleet suitable for flex service (say, paratransit or cutaway vans), and to test the platform on weekends when surplus vehicles are available. Kaufman expects TransLoc to launch a prototype in the next few months, and hopes to have a full product ready by late 2015 or early 2016.

Again, he stresses, the new service would complement, not replace, existing fixed-route options—guiding transit agencies into the future.

"Our goal—unlike Uber and Bridj and Leap Transit and all those—is not to supplant them or nibble around edges and take their overflow but to really fix this fundamental issue of the fixed-route-only model," he says. "We believe if we can create a really intelligent, elegant system that allows them to do this combination model in a way that serves the entire community, and if we build it as a true platform, then public transit will have its model for the next hundred years."

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