Fare Free Shares Struggles, Hopes During Pandemic

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COURT HOUSE - Cape May County’s Fare Free Transportation is changing how it operates in response to complaints from clientsusing the new Uber-like system that went into effect April 1.

As of Aug. 23, riderswill need to reserve their trip three days ahead, reverting to the system  previously in place. The night before the ride, patrons will need to call the service to find out what time they will be picked up.

Riders in the Wildwoods will continue to have same-day service, as the Fare Free Transportation Department “corrects the issues to get the system working properly,” according to Director Daniel Mulraney.

“It was a painful lesson, but our intentions were good,” he said about the system that uses Uber’s technology to schedule routes and pickups (https://bit.ly/2Vvmujg).

“We realize there are issues,” he continued. “We see the Spout Offs (https://bit.ly/3jubZ7K), and our call takers know how upset people are. We have to do something to fix the problems and restore people’s confidence in us.”

Mulraney said they will take the next two weeks to let everyone know the system is returning to the old way, although he expects some crossover with clients who may not realize they need a reservation three days ahead of time.

“The department will try to accommodate any day-of requests, as they change processes,” he said.

“We will then map out the routes and be more certain our clients get the trips they need,” he continued.

Riders in the Wildwoods who want a ride within those four communitiescan still use the on-demand, day-of service. If they want totravel outside one of those communities, they will need a reservation.

“We will keep this pilot going, so we can fix the issue,” Mulraney said. “We have not given up. We believe in this on-demand service, and want to fix the issues, so we can keep this important service running.”

As the service takes a “step back,” Mulraney said their goal is to get “our clients what they need. We don’t want people upset; we want people to be happy because this service is so needed by our clients.”

Riders like Jeanne-Marie Mellor, of Court House, and Gerri Guilmartin, of Cape May, were among those who complained about waiting hours for pickup, distracted drivers, and a “broken system.”

Calling herself a “long-time user” of Fare Free Transportation, Mellor, 64, no longer drives. She depends on the transportation to go shopping, visit friends, and get to medical appointments.

“I have waited for one and a half to two hours for a ride,” she said. “You have people in their 80s and 90s struggling to use a cell phone that now have to go through another traumatic effort using an app or calling for a ride and waiting long times. 

"Drivers are getting notified of pickups while they are driving, which is distracting because they are reading a screen. I think this new system is causing unsafe practices and is very broken.”

Guilmartin, 78, said she has also waited for more than an hour to be picked up, adding that “routes aren’t in synch, so sometimes the drop-off doesn’t make sense” in how the driver got there.

“Nobody is happy with this new system,” she said.

Mulraney admitted that the system is “not operating as efficiently as they wanted” after four months, so they met with Uber officials Aug. 5 to discuss options. Uber provides the routing software used by the county-employed drivers and county-owned buses.

“However, it’s difficult to schedule when you have 14 passengers in a bus with two in wheelchairs all going to different places,” he said, addressing the challenges. “We thought we were ready for same-day service, but we need to do more work.”

Mulraney has been the department’s director since October 2013 and, over the years, assessed how the organization operated, determining what was working and what was not. Ridership was dropping, while no-shows and cancellations were increasing, he said.

Over three years, the department averaged 14,037 cancellations per year and 3,327 no-show clients spanning 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“We looked at many of the reasons why this might be happening but thought it might be the way we were doing business,” he said. “We thought we might try doing same-day service.”

In 2020, Uber (https://ubr.to/3Aofwvn) bought Routematch, the software used by the county for its Fare Free Transportation system. According to the announcement, this acquisition “brought together Uber’s expertise in on-demand, global mobility technologies with Routematch’s proven capabilities across paratransit, payments, fixed-route tools, and trip planning services.”

“Uber buying Routematch was exactly what we wanted with same-day service,” Mulraney said. “We did surveys and people loved the idea of same-day service. We thought, ‘great, we’ll get rid of the cancellations and no-shows, too.’”

A pilot program was conducted in Ocean City from spring 2020 to early 2021, Mulraney explained, which worked well enough to expand countywide April 1.

“There were two factors not in favor of us doing same-day service,” Mulraneysaid. “One was that it had never been done before, so we couldn’t look to other places to see how it was done; we were setting the stage for others. The other factor was Uber was getting into the paratransit business, so we were learning together.”

The department also lost several drivers to retirement and family leave, so now 24 drivers are working staggered hours to cover 252 square miles in the county at peak service time, about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to the director. 

Once the system reverts to three-day advance notice, the service operates based on demand, sometimes as early as 6 a.m.

“We realize there are issues, and we thought we could fix them on the fly,” Mulraney said, “but we can’t. We are going to temporarily shut down the same-day service and go back to three-day reservation in advance until we work through all the issues.

“We are going to keep a little piece of the same-day service going in the Wildwoods, though,” he added, “so we can monitor how it goes and improve things on a small scale. I believe same-day service will work, and we will return to it, but we have to make the system better and more efficient.

“It was a painful lesson, but our intentions were good,” he added. “We want to make lives better, and we will.”

Mulraney also said meals continue to be delivered to the elderly, something that never stopped during the height of the Covid pandemic, along with other “life-sustaining medical appointments” for dialysis, chemotherapy, radiation, etc.

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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