Digital Tools to Facilitate Complete Trip Planning Complete Trip Best Practices

  • Date: February 3, 2023

Best Practices

In order to bring digital tools to bear on Complete Trip planning, transit and mobility professionals should keep the following best practices in mind—illustrated through the seven highlighted projects in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. By taking these topics into account early on in a project, transit and mobility professionals can set up a solid foundation for a new project:

  1. Prioritizing customer input
  2. Defining collaboration roles for various actors
  3. Considering governance topics early
  4. Leveraging feedback loops between infrastructure types

Prioritizing Customer Input

Since the Complete Trip concept centers on the customer experience, it follows that projects involving digital tools for Complete Trip planning should also center on the customer experience. Bringing digital tools to bear on the complete trip necessitates that transit agencies understand potential customer journeys within their service area as well as wider metro area and rural connections. This lays a foundation for agencies to pinpoint common challenges that mobility system users encounter, which users are best positioned to explain, and seek their feedback on potential solutions.

For example, throughout the “roadway upgrades for rural pedestrians” project in Northeast Minnesota, the project team relied on tribal authorities, as representatives of the wider community, to pinpoint areas with pedestrian challenges, so that cameras could be set up to track the activity. Without this input, the project team would likely have had a difficult time deciding where to begin, and perhaps may have chosen less optimal locations. The project team for the “complete street upgrades” project in Westfield, Massachusetts is reaching out to the public directly to find out what challenges they have encountered along the Route 20/Main Street corridor. By gaining the input of people affected, these projects have been grounded in the experience of local mobility system users. It is important to note that the ways the input was  gained differed In Minnesota, representatives were consulted as opposed to individuals directly; while in Massachusetts the project team sought out the direct input of individuals. Both approaches are valid, so long as the representative organization is deeply involved in the community and has concrete ways to go about gaining the feedback needed.

Whenever possible, during discussions with individuals it is important to consider that their knowledge about trips can be either “experienced” or “anticipated.” “Experienced” knowledge pertains to trips that actually happened in the past, meaning the individual travelled along the journey which resulted in takeaways to share, while “anticipated” knowledge deals with trips they’d like to take but have not taken due to barriers. The latter addresses situations in which an individual mentally considers a trip but does not physically take it, often because some aspect of the trip is in question such as safety concerns. To elicit discussions about anticipated knowledge, engagement processes should explicitly include questions about trips the individual would like to take, but have not taken, exploring in detail why they do not take such trips. In these high-tech times, when data are all around us, it is possible to overlook the most important data source—the voices of the mobility system users.

Defining Collaboration Roles for Various Actors

Each actor in a network behind a project will have a role depending on the type of activities they expect to be involved in throughout the project development effort. In the early phases of the project, actors will participate in the research, planning, and design activities, while in later phases the work will be focused on implementation. Trip planning, which aids users in figuring out which itinerary makes the most sense for a certain journey, enables cross-jurisdictional trips in many cases. The trip planning area may encompass multiple transit and mobility providers as it crosses jurisdictions including municipal and county boundaries. For this reason, digital tools for trip planning, which often encompass entire metro areas or networks of towns, sometimes have significant involvement—even project leadership—from regional and state-level organizations.

The project led by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), the “bus stop accessibility map” project in Northwest Indiana, serves as an example of regional level oversight and leadership. To produce the interactive online transit map, NIRPC staff gained the details for 561 bus stops across the region in Lake, Porter, and La Porte counties. The bus stops are attributed to eight transit providers, Gary Public Transportation Corp., East Chicago Public Transit, North Township Dial-a-Ride Opportunity Enterprises, Porter County Aging Community Services, City of Laporte Transit, Michigan City Transit, City of Valparaiso V-Line and Chicago Dash, and Lake County Community Services. NIRPC is positioned well to lead a regional project of this type and help guide collaboration among the eight transit providers.

It is important to define all the actors and roles early on in the project, since knowing this will help with project planning and involve the appropriate  resource at the appropriate times in the right activities. During the “roadway upgrades for rural pedestrians” project in Northeast Minnesota, the tribal leaders were involved throughout the project in an advisory role, first helping to identify local sites with major challenges for pedestrians, then reviewing the results of the data collected from the cameras and taking part in brainstorming solutions, and finally participating in the evaluation of the effectiveness of the implemented solutions. In addition, due to this project having such a strong research component, the University of Minnesota provided the research base from the beginning of the project until later steps that involved evaluating the effectiveness of the implemented solutions. The county engineers, on the other hand, could have begun their involvement early on in the project, but the majority of their active involvement would likely have been focused on handling the later implementation on-the-ground, since pedestrian infrastructure is within the realm of their direct responsibilities.

For the “bus stop and sidewalk upgrades” project in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, although it was led by TriMet, it required strong coordination with state and local authorities tasked with maintaining sidewalks and adjacent areas surrounding bus stops. The “intermodal trip planner” project in Northwest Oregon is led by a regional transit system called the NW Connector that includes five transit agencies in Northwest Oregon: Columbia County Rider, Sunset Empire Transportation District, Tillamook County Transportation District, Benton County Transit, and Lincoln County Transit. The roles for this regional collaboration have been formally defined through an established transit agency partnership. Handling tasks and projects far beyond the trip planner, such as unified bus stop signage in the region and regional transit passes, the partnership’s activities together have a wide range. Their informational webpage points out that they also work together on funding strategies and hold monthly meetings to help guide their collaborative activities.[1]

Any activity oriented toward making significant progress on the Complete Trip, and the digital tools to support it, will more than likely involve a group effort. Such efforts can be more or less formal. Defining roles and activities for all involved parties will pay off throughout the project development process by helping to chart a clearer path for everyone involved.

Considering Governance Topics Early

Some of the most difficult collaborative tasks to tackle relate to governance. As mentioned in Section 1.1, governance can be thought of at three levels. The first level involves  a single transit agency, governing the relationship between the customer and the transit agency, which encompasses agency policies such as payment structures and passenger codes of conduct. The second level is the multi-transit agency , governing the relationship between the customer and multiple transit agencies together, involving policies such as transfer agreements and reciprocity of paratransit eligibility. The third level is the mobility system , governing the relationship between the customer and the mobility system, which deals with policies such as monthly mobility subscription models for payment that offer a bulk discount of sorts in exchange for committing to several modes at one time and for a certain duration.

While the first level can be handled internally within a single organization such as a transit agency, the second and third levels require at least two organizations to agree on joint policies that they will implement within their own organizations. Typically, policies at the second and third levels involve some sort of financial implications. For example, transfer agreements between transit agencies often involve both sides agreeing that one receives payment on the outgoing trip, while the other receives payment on the incoming trip, assuming a round trip by the customer. In order for this to work out for both organizations financially, the best situation would be for the two agencies to have a fairly equal amount of travel with just as many people originating their round trip in one service area as the other. However that might not be the case, and if so, this could lead to a more complex financial understanding behind a transfer agreement.

Digital tools for trip planning tend to require some level of governance to make sure that data sets (e.g., GTFS and GTFS-flex) are intact and maintained   to ensure that one organization takes on a leadership role. This leadership role, for some projects, involves overseeing arrangements across multiple participating organizations and may also involve providing project management, holding stakeholder participation forums, and supporting other critical project tasks.

The NW Connector regional transit system that includes five transit agencies, with its “intermodal trip planner” project in Northwest Oregon, is an excellent example of how impressive projects often have notable  governance behind them. As mentioned in Section 2.4.1, trip planners, once created, take significant work to keep up and running. The data sets must be updated and the trip planner platform needs to  be maintained, both of which require some sort of joint oversight when multiple  agencies are involved, as is the case with this project.

Some of the more challenging governance aspects for the NW Connector may involve the fare policy behind the multi-day regional transit passes, “3-day and 7-day visitor passes may be purchased from drivers on any route served by NW Connector partner agencies. Visitor passes allow one trip to the coast from Portland or the Albany/Corvallis area, one return trip, and unlimited travel in Clatsop, Tillamook and Lincoln Counties (from Astoria to Yachats).”[1] There is likely some agreement behind-the-scenes among the five agencies to handle the financial reconciliation of this joint fare policy.

In some cases, for more complex digital trip planning projects, an agency may want to consider what type of governance and collaboration will be needed in the short, medium, and long term to build the project and maintain it adequately over time. In addition, the NW Connector partnership shows that for the strongest partnerships, a group can take on many projects and initiatives together. If a transit agency can foresee that it would be beneficial to establish some sort of alliance, consortium, or partnership, a Complete Trip planning project may be an opportunity to begin this.

Leveraging Feedback Loops Between Infrastructure Types

Although this Guidebook is focused on digital tools for Complete Trip planning, it is important to stress the interconnectivity between digital tools/technology infrastructure and physical/services infrastructure. As digital tools become increasingly ubiquitous in the transit and mobility field, it is possible to lose sight of what good transit has always depended upon—reliable service that meets the need along with physical infrastructure to support optimal and accessible service. While digital tools for trip planning, booking, payment, and navigation have the potential to improve the customer experience, they are not a replacement for physical infrastructure or services.

On the other hand, digital tools can help with communication about projects that have involved upgraded physical infrastructure or services. For instance, if a “complete trip before and after” comparison was completed on all three projects mentioned in Chapter 1, the “after” would demonstrate significant improvements. However, if a customer had a negative experience in the “before” times and had not been informed about the upgrades or had no reason to notice them for other reasons, then they would not know to try the  same journey again—this time with the benefit of the improved infrastructure.

In these situations, it is ideal to consider a feedback loop between the physical/services infrastructure and the digital tools so that this information is communicated to the customer. For example, now that improvements have been completed through the “bus stop and sidewalk upgrades” project in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, these upgrades should be communicated to customers during the trip planning process so they have this information at their fingertips. As illustrated through NIRPC’s project, the “bus stop accessibility map” project in Northwest Indiana, some organizations go to great lengths to provide details to customers about bus stop conditions—far beyond what is required for ADA compliance—especially so passengers with disabilities can be informed before selecting their itinerary. While such tools may exist within a trip planning platform directly as is the case in Northwest Indiana and Washington D.C. (see the project in the project table in Section 2.3, “trip planner with bus stop accessibility details”), any digital tool providing comparable information—even outside of a trip planner—would be a valuable resource for customers as they perform trip planning.

At the same time, digital tools can be leveraged to communicate to customers about upgrades that have not happened yet (and may not happen), and therefore, are communicated as potential barriers. As aforementioned, although digital tools can help communicate this information, there is no substitute for removing the barrier by upgrading the physical infrastructure. When a customer learns of barriers that are relevant to them during the trip planning process, they can select alternative itineraries that work around such barriers. For example, the “wheelchair-accessible trip planning” project in Boston, MA, mentioned in the project table in Section 2.3, leverages recent developments in GTFS data to accommodate real-time elevator outage information. While the static elements of GTFS communicate with the customer about the fact that an elevator is or is not present, this dynamic element of GTFS communicates its current operational status. When a wheelchair user begins their trip planning process, knowing about elevator outages is extremely valuable. Of course, the agency should get the elevator up and running as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, hopefully there is an alternative route the customer could take—arriving at a station with an elevator outage can lead to many hours of lost time and extreme frustration. In situations such as this, having the ability of digital tools to communicate these barriers is critical.

By going through the process of analyzing the needs for a digital tool to support Complete Trip planning, professionals may also end up identifying key gaps in physical, services, and governance infrastructure—potentially even other technology infrastructure gaps—since these components are almost always connected. If key gaps are discovered that fall outside of the immediate project scope for digital tools, organizations should strive to address them through other means.