Five towns in Massachusetts are hoping to more efficiently provide public transportation to its people with a little help from GPS devices. The devices have been installed in their public transportation vehicles in order to find out who is riding and where they are headed, culminating in the merging of services next year based on the data collected.
A state grant to the tune of $185,000 was given to the towns of Acton, Boxborough, Littleton, Maynard, and Stow to affix the GPS devices and conduct the study. Officials feel their transportation services – geared toward the senior citizen segment of the population – often run into the situation of nearly-empty vans ending up at the same place at the same time. “What we’re hoping for, by combining these all together, is to have more locations where we can bring people and better accessibility,” said Acton’s health director Doug Halley, who happens to be leading the study.
The GPS devices will collect data from July to the end of September, at which point officials will come up with a plan to combine transportation services. It is Halley’s hope the shared busing will start by July 1 of 2013. The Clock Tower Place, an office park in Maynard which offers transportation to its’ employees, is also participating in the study.
“By having the GPS information, we’ll be able to compile a lot more data on what kind of overlap there is now,” said Keith Bergman, Littleton Town Administrator. “We’d like to move from the anecdotal to the analytical. The solution is going to require specific information about how many trips are we running, how many people are on them, where are they, when are they – that data will be vital to finding a better way to provide the service.”
This isn’t at all about money as some readers may suspect, it’s more about increased efficiency and no additional funds needed from the town – working with what they are already allotted in their transportation budget and no more. “It’s not a case of money,” according to Maynard’s town administrator Michael Sullivan. “It’s how we’re spending the money.” Sullivan sees the less populated western area of Massachusetts offering more transportation options as compared to Maynard, and said, “Coming from a region that is much less dense but has solved this riddle, I don’t see why we can’t.”
Halley said that besides sharing drivers and vehicles, towns will probably have a centralized dispatch service as well. As it is now, if a senior citizen needs a ride, they must put in a request anywhere from 24 to 48 hours in advance. “We would have a system that would be responsive immediately to people’s needs,” Halley said.
He added that consolidation is key, giving transportation services to sectors of the population that didn’t have it before. Acton is already doing this, providing transportation for the city’s children to recreation areas, but he said that the service is usually overbooked. “We have to say no to some of those people because they’re coming at different times from different locations,” said Halley. He feels the solution to this problem is consolidation of services with the other towns, which would add more vehicles to the fleet without purchasing a bus or van.
There are those who feel this GPS study will have negative effects on the senior citizen population. Alyson Toole is the executive director of the Council on Aging in Stow, and she feels the seniors will be spending too much time on the vans as it will be making more stops to pick up and drop off more passengers. She also points out that this van sharing could make it more difficult for the seniors to develop relationships with the drivers, as is currently the case. “The van driver really gets to know the seniors and their particular needs,” she said. “They become almost extra eyes and ears for the outreach. I’m willing to look into it. There’s pros and cons to everything. Just right now I haven’t seen the benefits as much.”
Sharon Mercurio agrees, director of the Acton Council on Aging. “If more school-aged children are using it after school, what about the senior that this is their only way to get to a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “It’s just those kinks that we’re going to have to work out.”
Halley said that the towns will work with different senior groups to assure their satisfaction in the service. “The goal of this is not to take away from the Councils on Aging, but to give more to them,” he said.