The CAT That Roars

Chatham Area Transit Authority (CAT) is partnering with Georgia Tech to deliver on-demand last-mile/first-mile transit in Savannah

April 26, 2023, 4:04pm EDT

In the commercial logistics and distribution industry, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed companies to upgrade last-mile capabilities – the ability to get products from the grocery store or distribution center to people’s homes. What has often been left out of last-mile planning is getting people themselves connected. Fixed bus or train routes often leave people blocks or even miles away from transit, miles that have to be traveled on foot to get to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, work, schools, and more.

Now, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s (BIL) Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program, Savannah will launch a pilot project to develop first mile/last mile on-demand transit. The app will seamlessly connect people to Chatham Area Transit Authority (CAT) fixed bus routes to get people where they need to go more efficiently and economically.

The $1.2 million grant was announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation in March. A total of 59 projects in 33 states were funded to the tune of $94 million to develop projects that improve transportation efficiency and safety using advanced smart community technologies and systems.

“The future of transit looks different,” said CAT CEO Faye DiMassimo. “Savannah is a great market for this project. It’s not so big that we can’t right the ship, but it’s not so small as to be not applicable or scaleable in other markets. And it’s a market with lots of different employment areas, tourism, a historic district, and warehousing/distribution.”

The Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (Partnership), which is connected with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, is putting together an advisory board comprised of local leaders and national transit experts, who will help ensure the work follows best practices from around the country while also addressing the specific needs of Savannah’s transit riders.

“Having corporate, civic, and government leaders involved to see how this project will impact their employees, students, and clients, will help ensure its success,” said Debra Lam, executive director of the Partnership. “National subject matter experts will be brought on for their expertise and also to share the project outside Savannah.”

The app, which will connect riders on demand from A to B and even to C or D, will operate similarly to Uber or Lyft. Riders will input their location and destination. The app will seamlessly connect users from curbside pickup by micro-transit to fixed bus or boat routes and will include paratransit if needed. It will synchronize bus and on-demand feeds to have buses and riders at the right place at the right time. Riders will be able to see when their curbside pickup will arrive and will pay a single fare for the entire trip.

Pascal Van Hentenryck, Georgia Tech’s associate chair for innovation and entrepreneurship and the A. Russell Chandler III chair and professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and his team developed the software, which was also used on MARTA Reach, a pilot project to add on-demand micro-transit to connect to bus and train routes in Atlanta.

“We have been working on this new type of transit system for more than 10 years,” said Van Hentenryck. “These are transit systems that are combining fixed routes and on-demand shuttles to provide door-to-door affordable services. We have developed all the technology for planning and operating such on-demand multimodal systems: What should be the fixed bus route? What should be the frequency between them? How many shuttles do you need? How do you dispatch them such that you serve people as quickly as possible?”

During Phase I, funds will be used to design the system, develop partnerships, and create ways to bring the community together so that riders will have a voice in how on-demand transit is built out. The pilot will connect three areas across the county. One pilot community includes the Tiny House Project, a neighborhood of permanent, affordable tiny houses that is home to 22 formerly unhoused veterans. The neighborhood, which will soon grow by 50 more houses, will continue to focus on veterans, and will also be open to other homeless people.

The Phase I project will run for 15 months. Following that, award winners can apply for a Phase II grant to implement improvements to Phase I and expand projects. For Savannah, the Phase II goal is to have on-demand micro-transit available across the region, seamlessly delivering visitors, students, and residents to jobs, historic sites, school, and wherever they need to go.

“We’re excited to implement this research,” Lam said. “It’s been done in other cities and every time it’s gotten better. Phase I will develop a blueprint that is electric, multimodal, and addresses last mile/first mile. It’s data driven to increase efficiency. It will empower communities through public transit. It will enable people to get to the doctor, to work, to school, wherever they need to go.”

More about the project can be found in this video, “Chatham Area Transit Announces SMART Grant to Improve Transportation Efficiency,” put together by the city of Savannah.

Photo caption: At a press conference in Savannah project partners stand in front of a Chatham Area Transit Authority micro-transit van.
From left, Debra Lam, Executive Director, Partnership for Inclusive Innovation; Andrew Young, Field Representative, Office of Sen. Raphael Warnock; Roxanne Ledesma, Supervisory Grants Manager, USDOT; Ben Levine, Special Advisor, USDOT; Savannah Mayor Van Johnson; CAT CEO Faye DiMassimo; CAT Board Chair Diedrick Cody; Robert Hampshire, Deputy Assistant for Research and Technology and Chief Science Officer, USDOT; Nicholas Savas, Regional Outreach Coordinator, Office of Sen. Jon Ossoff; former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson.

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