2020 was a weird year for all of us, but especially for transit agencies that saw ridership plummet but still needed to provide service so essential employees could get to work and back again. Full-sized city buses designed for dozens and dozens of people rolling the same routes they always did, have just two or three people on board—and that’s including the bus driver. Transit agencies aren’t known for being flexible, but last year changed everything and that’s why TechRepublic sat down with Brett Wheatley, newly installed CEO of TransLoc, a Ford Mobility Company, to talk about why flexible public transit is essential in the age of COVID.

“It really showed the importance of having flexible options for customers,” Wheatley said. “A lot of cities went from having lots of buses with people on them to looking for flexible solutions.”

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Here’s the problem: Imagine you’re a transit agency in a small- to midsize city used to running fixed bus routes. Your riders might have to walk or ride a bike a quarter- or half-mile to get to their local bus stop, but that’s OK when the bus is full because it optimizes the route for everyone. But why make people walk half a mile to the bus when it’s empty? Wouldn’t it be better to run a smaller bus or van, and have it pick people up more directly? This was the challenge as COVID changed up the demand mix and one that TransLoc was well-placed to help resolve.

TransLoc provides a back-end system to help transit systems, whether publicly owned or as part of an internal university or employer transit system, interface with riders and optimize resources to get everyone where they need to go as quickly as possible. It’ll work with hotel chains and airport transportation, too.

Wheatley used the example of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “They were dependent on fixed-route buses to move doctors and nurses around the medical campus,” he said. But then they changed to a more flexible formula of having more, smaller vehicles rather than a few large ones. “They started with two vehicles doing 45 rides per day. Now they’re up to four vehicles and 135 rides per day. It’s about getting vehicles out there, trying and seeing what the demand is. Then you can go to more vehicles and higher ridership.”

Depending on the system and the need, having more, smaller vehicles can help reduce wait times and reduce walking distances once riders are dropped off. That’s especially important in intemperate climates. But it also makes logistics and coordination much trickier for both sides of the equation. Riders need to know how long they’re going to be waiting for a vehicle, in real time, while the transit operator needs to know where those riders are and when they need to go. It’ll become even more important when autonomous vehicles enter the picture.

“You can imagine down the road when autonomous vehicles are here,” Wheatley said. “Envision a system where the Ford autonomous vehicle group has autonomous cars running that can take people where they need to go. The cost savings of taking the driver out of the vehicle will be enormous.” And reduced driver costs can mean more vehicles on the road, especially since a self-driving car doesn’t take sick days.

But TransLoc isn’t just focused on the future. It’s fixing today’s problems as well. It has a new program called Destination Vaccination and is offering software licenses to its current customers for free to roll it out. It integrates with vaccine scheduling software to help those in nonmobile communities get to and from their vaccine appointments, which is key to the rollout of the vaccine in underserved areas.

“Transportation is a major barrier for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout,” Wheatley said. “Many Americans don’t have a car, lack access to traditional public transportation or can’t afford alternatives.” Destination Vaccination helps these one-time riders book rides with a public transit agency that has dedicated staff and vehicles to this urgent, time-sensitive task.

But it’s been a crazy year even before the vaccine came out. “With ridership low, public buses and other vehicles were used to deliver PPE to hospitals and bring food to the elderly and other vulnerable populations,” Wheatley said.

And optimizing pricey but essential services like public transit is something well worth investing in. Down the road, Wheatley sees significant opportunity in integrating different mobility types, including autonomous robo taxis, rental scooters, on-demand vehicle rental services and more.

“Mobility” seems like a mere buzzword so much of the time, but Wheatley keeps it real.

“We’re going to continually evolve,” Wheatley said. “There’s an opportunity here.”