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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Jan/Feb 2008

Jan/Feb 2008
Issue No:
Vol. 71 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Mobility Services For All

by Yehuda Gross and Gwo-Wei Torng

ITS technologies are improving the quality of transportation for individuals in human service programs.

(Above) A driver assists human service transportation clients with boarding a vehicle.

For most people, going to work, stores, doctors, church, or social functions means getting into a car. But for some it might not be that easy. They might be unable to provide their own transportation, relying instead on others to take them where they need to go, such as medical care, work, or job training. These individuals face many challenges when trying to get a ride.

"With the rapid expansion of the population of older adults, people with disabilities, and advocacy for independent living, the importance of providing quality and cost-effective transportation for those participating in human service programs is becoming a high priority," says Dr. Alan Abeson, former director of Easter Seals Project ACTION. "Nearly every human service program recognizes that transportation is fundamental to living in communities."

Examples of Federal human service programs that provide funding for transportation services include Medicaid, Head Start, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. Today there are 62 Federal programs that fund services for people lacking transportation. According to a 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, Transportation-Disadvantaged Populations, 29 of those programs collectively spent $2.4 billion in 2001 to provide transportation assistance to the targeted populations. Medicaid, a Federal program for medical assistance to low-income individuals and families, spent nearly $1 billion on transportation in 2001.

Although many programs were initiated and funds spent on human service transportation, the creation of more programs did not necessarily guarantee that it would be much easier for people who need assistance to get around. The 62 Federal programs are under the jurisdiction of 9 different Federal departments, often administered and operated independently.

As stated in the Federal Inter-agency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM) 2005 Report to the President: Human Service Transportation Coordination, "It is no secret that the emergence of so many separate transportation options tied to specific programs, or available only to specific population subgroups, has created a complex, often duplicative, web of transportation services in our communities."

To address growing concerns over rising costs and to improve service, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13330— Human Service Transportation Coordination— in February 2004. The order requires all relevant Federal agencies to work together to enhance transportation access, minimize duplication of services, and facilitate the most appropriate, cost-effective human service transportation. The goal is to enhance accessibility and mobility for the transportation disadvantaged, especially individuals with low incomes, people with disabilities, and older Americans.

Several past and current U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) initiatives are addressing transportation services for disadvantaged populations. In particular, an interagency endeavor is promoting intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to help coordinate human service transportation systems.

A Transit Cooperative Research Program report, Economic Benefits of Coordinating Human Service Transportation and Transit Services, published by the Transportation Research Board in 2003, estimated the potential aggregated economic benefits of coordinating human service transportation in the United States to be about $700 million annually.

Two Innovative Approaches

Building on the strength of the Executive order, USDOT is leading two concurrent initiatives related to the enhancement of human service transportation: United We Ride (UWR) and Mobility Services for All Americans (MSAA). The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) manages the UWR initiative on behalf of CCAM and comprehensively focuses on all issues related to coordination of human service transportation.

USDOT's ITS Joint Program Office (JPO) launched the MSAA initiative in 2004 to bring all communities together in a coordinated effort to apply technological solutions to the barriers of accessibility and mobility for the transportation disadvantaged. MSAA carried out research to integrate knowledge and information from the transportation and human services communities and to solicit direct input from stakeholders through a series of public listening sessions, expert panel meetings, and focus group discussions. The report on the research is titled Mobility Services for All Americans and was published in 2005.

The UWR and MSAA initiatives complement each other and have collaborated closely to build on one another's progress and success. Generally speaking, UWR provides the "what"— including definition of a wide range of issues, challenges, and obstacles, and, in certain cases, potential strategies. In contrast, MSAA provides the "how"— enabling technologies that empower stakeholders to overcome some of the identified issues and obstacles. Stakeholders sometimes describe MSAA as the moving wheels on the UWR coordination wagon. The programs are in the design phase at this point and therefore have no quantitative successes to report as yet.

This diagram illustrates the challenges resulting from uncoordinated human service transportation. The complexity of the diagram suggests the various Federal, State, and local programs that relate to human service transportation and the need for much simplified ways for disadvantaged end users to figure out their mobility options.

The ITS Role in Human Service Transportation

Prior to the MSAA initiative, the ITS JPO conducted a series of activities as building blocks aimed at improving delivery of services to the transportation disadvantaged:

  • Transportation coordination operational tests. This phased program allocates more than $3 million to 13 operational tests for coordination, technology deployment, and innovative practices of human service transportation. Many of these tests focus on improving operational efficiencies from the transportation providers' perspective.
  • ITS Applications for Coordinating and Improving Human Services Transportation: A Cross-Cutting Study (FHWA-JPO-05-056). The Oak Ridge National Laboratory led this Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and FTA study to investigate the use of ITS technologies for coordinating human service transportation operations. The project produced a final report documenting study findings plus two pamphlets for public outreach. The pamphlets promoted awareness of ITS applications and benefits among transportation service providers and the public.
  • ITS Transit Case Studies: Making a Case for Coordination of Community Transportation Services Using ITS. This report provides a detailed view of the experiences of three organizations as they planned, implemented, and operated ITS technologies to meet the mobility needs of the communities they serve and to improve coordination. The organizations are the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation in Michigan, Reach Your Destination Easily in Nebraska, and in North Dakota. The groups represent distinctively different settings: urban/suburban, small urban, and rural/frontier users and service providers.
  • Linking Technology with Mobility for Seniors and People with Disabilities. The American Public Transportation Association hosted this workshop in San Francisco in July 2004. The workshop supported information sharing and provided an international perspective on delivery of human service transportation.
  • USDOT and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regional coordination workshops. USDOT hosted workshops in the 10 FTA regions from March 2003 through December 2004. The workshops solicited input from the States' perspectives and assisted them in developing action plans to coordinate their activities.
In Flint, MI, a Mass Transportation Authority operator is helping a passenger in a wheelchair board a paratransit vehicle using the lift.

Benefits of Applying ITS to Human Service Transportation

Some organizations across the country have experienced the benefits of various ITS applications in advancing human service transportation. Based on limited field observations and input from stakeholders, ITS technologies might offer the following benefits:

  • Increased staff productivity
  • Integrated point of access for traveler support
  • Improved fleet scheduling, dispatching, and routing
  • Streamlined reporting, billing, and financial transactions
  • Simplified fare payment, collection, and processing
  • Enhanced traveler information and travel management capability with accessibility features

Proper use of ITS applications can improve delivery of human service transportation by boosting service productivity, facilitating service coordination, and enhancing system accessibility. Three categories of applications relate to delivery of human service transportation. These applications include those that:

  • Overcome the barriers to accessibility and expand opportunities to use conventional transportation services
  • Improve the ease of use and accessibility of demand-responsive transportation services
  • Enable coordinated operations between agencies and modes of integrated community transportation services

Barriers to Applying ITS to Human Service Transportation

The MSAA 2005 report, Mobility Services for All Americans Foundation Research Final Report, identified 23 major barriers that have led to unmet mobility needs (gaps) facing certain populations. The report grouped the barriers into five categories: service availability, service information and knowledge, service accessibility, service reliability and safety, and service flexibility. For each barrier, the report identified potential ITS solutions that are mostly user oriented, such as automated trip planning and reservation systems, and multimedia and multilingual real-time traveler information through simplified points of access.

Most ITS technologies applicable to overcoming barriers to human service transportation are proven, and many have been used extensively in conventional fixed-route public transportation systems. But any given ITS technology can have substantially different applications and focuses when applied to human service transportation. For example, Automatic Vehicle Location Systems and Computer Aided Dispatch systems for conventional fixed-route systems focus on monitoring service performance and responding to incidents, while those for demand-responsive systems must schedule and route paratransit vehicles (flexible vans and small buses that do not follow fixed schedules and routes), maintain individual customer information, monitor the system's performance, and respond to incidents such as missed pickups.

Deployment of ITS Technologies by Transit Agencies
Level of Deployment of ITS Technologies ITS Technologies for Human Service Transportation ITS Technologies Supporting Ridership Applications
78 Large Metro Areas Other Areas All Areas 78 Large Metro Areas Other Areas All Areas
High 2.1% 1.2% 1.6% 25.4% 6.1% 13.2%
Medium 32.3% 26.9% 28.9% 48.7% 43.7% 45.5%
Low 65.6% 71.9% 69.6% 25.9% 50.2% 41.3%
TOTAL 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%

Source: Advanced Public Transportation Systems Deployment in the United States-Year 2004 Update.
* Rounded to nearest perecentage.

Despite the availability of proven ITS technologies, their deployment and readiness for human service transportation remains sporadic. According to USDOT's 2005 report Advanced Public Transportation Systems Deployment in the United States—Year 2004 Update, of more than 500 transit agencies surveyed, nearly 70 percent had low deployment of ITS technologies to coordinate human service transportation. A mere 29 percent reported a medium level of ITS deployment, and only 1.6 percent had a high level.

No substantial difference exists in deployment levels in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas.

By way of comparison, a relatively higher percentage of transit agencies reportedly use ITS for other applications, such as ridership supportive technologies. (See "Technologies for Coordination of Human Service Transportation" and "Technologies Supporting Ridership" below.)

In addition to fundamental institutional and regulatory barriers, the MSAA report found that a lack of relevant empirical evidence on ITS lessons learned, returns on investment at the individual system levels, limited financial resources, and lack of technical expertise on enabling technologies were cited as the most common challenges facing local stakeholders in promoting ITS for human service transportation.

Overcoming the Barriers

USDOT will focus on these barriers as it provides leadership to promote ITS applications and measure their respective cost-effectiveness under various service scenarios and operational environments. Based on the findings and recommendations of the MSAA report and CCAM's Report to the President: Human Service Transportation Coordination, also published in 2005, the UWR/MSAA initiatives jointly released an open competition request for proposals in April 2006. The purpose was to select project sites to explore the technical and institutional feasibility of creating an ITS-enhanced human service transportation system that would include enhanced coordination and accessibility features.

Technologies for Coordination of Human Service Transportation

  • Multimodal/multicarrier advanced traveler information systems (ATIS) with other transit systems
  • Multimodal/multicarrier ATIS with traffic information
  • Coordinated billing with social service agencies
  • Coordinated travel requests with multiple agencies
  • Technology to coordinate rail, bus, and demand-responsive services

Technologies Supporting Ridership

  • Electronic fare payment data used in route and service planning
  • Electronic fare payment interoperability with other transit agencies
  • Real-time vehicle location detection and monitoring
  • Automatic counting of onboard passengers
  • ATIS

The demonstration adopted a two-phased approach: system planning and design (phase 1) and system deployment (phase 2). USDOT selected eight project sites for phase 1 (lead agency name and type of agency in parentheses):

  • Aiken, SC (Lower Savannah Council of Governments/metropolitan planning organization [MPO])
  • Atlanta, GA (Atlanta Regional Commission/MPO)
  • Camden County, NJ (Camden County Workforce Investment Board/nonprofit organization for local workforce development)
  • Fitchburg, MA (Montachusett Regional Transit Authority/transit agency)
  • Kent, OH (Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority/transit agency)
  • Louisville, KY (Transit Authority of River City/transit agency)
  • Orlando, FL (Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority/transit agency)
  • Paducah, KY (Paducah Area Transit System/transit agency)
In this example of an ITS-enhanced coordinated human service transportation system, the center of the system represents a single point of access for all users. Users include those who wish to obtain information or request services, transportation service providers that coordinate and share information and resources, and funding and legislative entities that strive to establish accountable and quality transportation services to needy individuals and families. ITS plays an enabling role to turn the vision into a reality by connecting the various components as an integrated whole. Ultimately, the integrated system can facilitate not only operational coordination, but also cost sharing on capital acquisitions such as vehicle purchases and infrastructure building.

The selections represent a variety of operational environments from large urban to rural areas, various lead agency types from transit agencies to local and regional government entities, and different levels of ITS deployment. To measure and assess the institutional and technical feasibility of the system, the UWR/MSAA joint demonstration uses an approach that involves two parallel, yet autonomous, evaluations: an institutional process evaluation and a system impacts evaluation. USDOT officials expect that the findings and products that result from the two evaluations will constitute the key knowledge base for directly responding to stakeholders' need for lessons learned and expected returns on investment for various ITS applications.

Near the end of the period of performance for phase 1, USDOT intends to proceed with system deployment (phase 2) by selecting two or more local communities. Only those agencies participating in phase 1 will be eligible to apply for phase 2.

Key products of the UWR/MSAA joint demonstration are replicable and scalable models of ITS-enhanced human service transportation systems that promote mobility, accessibility, and coordination of services for the transportation disadvantaged and the public. The models also should achieve more efficient use of Federal transportation funding. The model systems will address three areas: (1) creating simple points of access for all, (2) embracing a comprehensive set of transportation services, and (3) utilizing ITS technologies to enhance efficiency and accessibility.

Keys to Success

Based on lessons learned from previous projects and field observations, the following three factors should be considered in developing a successful system for human service transportation.

No one size fits all. A successful model will differ from place to place and from system to system, depending on factors such as the type of area (urban or rural) and local, political, and institutional settings. For example, encouraging stakeholder support through a series of small and informal face-to-face meetings might be an effective approach in small and rural areas, but it could pose issues in larger, more urbanized areas. This is one reason why USDOT is taking the lead to demonstrate multiple scalable and replicable models of human service transportation systems, so communities see the relevance and understand how they can benefit.

Incremental deployment with logical sequence. Communities should attempt to broaden the level of stakeholder participation and establish a common vision for what the local human service transportation system should be like. Broader participation helps shape the system to embrace local users' needs and consider comprehensive service scenarios and requirements. Even if implementing the components of the final design of the system for deployment all at once is beyond the community's immediate financial capability, the design will provide a crucial roadmap for incremental and logical growth over time through expansion and replication.

Outreach and education. According to the MSAA 2005 report mentioned earlier, although lack of technical assistance and expertise continues to affect many human service agencies' ability to manage and deploy ITS projects and systems, especially in rural areas, policy and other institutional issues remain as major barriers. The collaboration between the UWR and MSAA initiatives provides a platform for a more comprehensive approach to coordination and overcoming barriers, including regulatory and institutional issues.

"USDOT is committed to providing needed tools, guidance, and training to assist communities in enhancing local human service transportation systems," says Shelley Row, director of USDOT's ITS JPO.

Next Steps

Most ITS applications relevant to human service transportation are proven and well-documented technologies with widespread deployment. However, field deployment is in the form of fixed-route applications and is limited in scope to a single agency. According to the MSAA 2005 report, actual use of ITS solutions to facilitate interagency coordination, both from the operator and customer perspectives, remains sporadic. Even when used for human service transportation, existing ITS applications are largely related to fleet management and operations for efficiency gains, and less to customer-oriented functions such as automated reservations and trip planning through simplified points of access—a high priority expressed by stakeholders.

"We expect that the results from this UWR/MSAA joint venture will facilitate sustained enthusiasm and commitment from both the transportation and human service communities and across all levels of government—Federal, State, and local—to redefine the future of human service transportation," says Row. "Human service transportation could benefit from an overall system approach that not only serves transportation-disadvantaged populations in particular, but also benefits the public as a viable travel mode of choice."

This woman with the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority in Massachusetts is pointing to a mobile data computer, an ITS application that enhances real-time communication between drivers and dispatchers.

Graphics: For Online Version Only


  • Federal Interagency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (2005), Report to the President on Human Service Transportation Coordination-Executive Order 13330, Washington, DC.
  • Government Accountability Office (2003), Transportation-Disadvantaged Populations-Some Coordination Efforts Among Programs Providing Transportation Services, But Obstacles Persist, Washington, DC.
  • Helfer (2007), United We Ride: More Coordination, Less Congestion, Public Roads, forthcoming USDOT ITS Joint Program Office (2005), Advanced Public Transportation Systems Deployment in the United States-Year 2004 Update,
  • USDOT ITS Joint Program Office (2005), Mobility Services for All Americans, Phase 2: Foundation Research Final Report,

Yehuda Gross is the ITS transit program manager with USDOT's ITS JPO. Gross has more than 35 years of professional and leadership experience in the private and public sectors. Prior to joining USDOT, he was Parson Consulting'sTM office manager in Israel and a senior director at Orbital Sciences Corporation. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical and electronic engineering from The City College of New York and a master's degree in industrial engineering and management from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn.

Gwo-Wei Torng is lead engineer in the ITS division of Noblis, Inc.TM Torng has more than 15 years of experience in large-scale transportation database integration and management. He is responsible for supporting the USDOT ITS transit program; conducting technical assessments; and coordinating all Federally funded, transit-related ITS and planning project activities. He received his ITS certification and doctoral degree in urban, technological, and environmental planning from the University of Michigan.

For more information, contact Yehuda Gross at 202-366-1988 or, or Gwo-Wei Torng at 202-488-5714 or