By Rick Charmoli
CADILLAC — For the past few years, Elizabeth Boron has been taking weekly rides to the store, to appointments and other locations.
Although the 60-year-old has her driver's license and a car to drive, she prefers to let someone else do it. She uses the Cadillac-Wexford Transit Authority. Recently, the authority has upgraded its dispatching service, the services it offers and its website. Boron said so far those services are working, but there also are some things that need to be adjusted.
The CWTA had been working to introduce its new, fully automated system for ride scheduling called RideOnTime for the past several months. It initially went online in March but just recently had all the options made available to riders.
CWTA Executive Director Carrie Thompson said focus groups of both riders and community members last fall were conducted to gather feedback before the new system was implemented.
That feedback resulted in the identification of three things riders want: service to the out county areas such as Buckley, Mesick, Harrietta and Boon with no time restrictions; evening services; and Saturday service.
Thompson said the hope is that the new efficiencies of the new dispatch system will allow for those three things to be implemented.
“The biggest thing we are looking forward to is the reporting (of the new system) so we can really see where the fat is and where we can be more efficient,” she said. “There are needs from the community that we are not able to meet. We would like to invest the efficiencies we find back into the system.”
How does the new system work? Thompson and CWTA Operations and IT Manager Aaron Stahl both said the system uses technology and automation to help drivers and dispatcher get to customers faster and more efficiently. To utilize the new system, riders call the same dispatch number — (231) 779-0123. A ride can be scheduled up to two weeks in advance or as late as the same day over the phone. Rides scheduled on the day it is needed, however, will not be guaranteed.
The new dispatch system also allows for online bookings of rides, too. Those can be submitted to cwta.us. A ride can be scheduled up to two weeks or at least three hours in advance. Confirmation emails also will be sent after online booking is completed.
Also with the new system, if a ride is scheduled at least a day in advance, the rider will receive an automated confirmation call the night before to confirm or cancel. A new feature of the system also allows for an automated call to happen just before the bus arrives to alert the rider of that fact.
“This system allows us to track the buses better so we can give the passengers a better idea of what time they will be picked up," Stahl said. "We can track when a bus arrives at a location, when it departs, how long it was there, and how long it will take to get to the next location."
He also said the new system allows for customers to take control of their ride by allowing them to track progress as well as alter or cancel it through the website. Agencies, Adult Foster Care or assisted living homes also can gain access and book rides for their customers.
Before the new system was put in place, the only option for riders was to call, which they can still do. The difference is now when a call comes in, it is booked in the system and immediately sent out to a driver's tablet. The tablet allows the drivers to see all their calls, pick ups and drop offs. There also is navigation features for directions.
If someone cancels, the tablet also shows that.
“The drivers caught on really fast to the tablets," Thompson said. "The tablets don't work unless they are stopped. If they are using the navigation feature it gives audio directions. The screen only becomes visible if they are traveling at 5 mph or slower.”
In addition to being able to share all that information with drivers, the tablets allow dispatch to know exactly where their buses are or how fast they are going. They monitor everything, she said.
Just like any new system, CWTA is working through the growing pains, and Boron understands that. She said so far, the only issues she has had with the new system is the calls alerting her that her ride is coming.
“Sometimes if the bus is coming and someone canceled their ride, then you don't get the call,” Boron said. “That is when I need the call, if they are going to be early. I know with all new systems it takes awhile to get all the bugs worked out. There are a lot of people who use this and it's not a personal taxi service.”
Thompson said typically there are 400 to 600 riders per day. Buses travel a total of 50,000 miles a month. Typically, there are between 9,000 and 10,000 riders a month, and in May there were 9,482. She said there are 36 drivers, a total of 25 vehicles, and at any given time, there could be 18 to 20 buses out on calls. Thompson, however, said there aren't necessarily routes as rides are generated by need rather than a schedule.
According to statistics generated by riders, a majority of CWTA users are adults between the ages 17 to 54, followed by senior citizens aged 55 and older. Students ages 5 to 16 were the next highest in ridership while youth ages 4 and under were last in ridership. For example, in February, adults made up roughly 45 percent, while senior citizens made up nearly 30 percent of riders. Stats for March were similar, and all statistics can be found on the CWTA website.
Although there is the opinion CWTA doesn't have a lot of customers, Thompson said she knows that is not the case. She also reminds people the buses leave and return to Cadillac, so if you see an empty bus, it could either be on its way to or coming back from calls.
“We know as transit we are serving a lot of people,” she said.