Gotta tell ya, I was not anticipating a GATRA ride on my return to Boston. “Wanna do the GATRA GO when we get to Foxboro?” Jules asked on the train there. YES, OF COURSE I DO. Oh boy, time for a GATRA trip, and it’s a doozy!
The “GO” in “GATRA GO” stands for “GATRA On demand” in a brilliant feat of forced acronym-ing. But this is no standard GATRA flexible service where you have to call in 24 hours in advance to get your ride. No, no: this is microtransit. You know, the thing that’s literally the same as a flex service except that you can book it via a phone app? The thing that a ton of agencies are doing right now because it’s this “cool” “new” thing? Yeah…GATRA’s doing that.
At least GATRA had the forethought to hire a contractor for the technology side of things instead of trying to do this themselves. The reservation system is managed by Transloc, which is one of the key players in this whole microtransit fad. Even if (when?) the microtransit bubble bursts, their interface will still be useful for scheduling, say, paratransit services for seniors and people with disabilities: it’s nice to be able to book trips either in advance or right away, and the real-time tracking of buses is great.
But the dispatching part of it is still questionable. We booked a trip from the “Foxborough MBTA” to the “Mansfield MBTA,” both fixed stops on the app, for 7:15. The service runs from 7 AM to 7 PM, so 7:15 should’ve been plenty of time. But after getting a ridiculously long arrival window for a while, (7:47 to 8:20? Really?) we got word right at 7 that the bus would be showing up at 7:36. Ohhh…so when they say it starts at 7 AM, they mean that the bus leaves the garage at 7 AM. Okay, that would’ve been good to know.
At some point the vehicle changed for “efficiency reasons”, apparently meaning we’d get picked up at 7:26 instead. Cool, I guess! And I suppose that means they have at least two buses and two drivers on this thing. So we got to Foxboro and did the review, but something we discovered there was that GATRA went all-in on advertising for the GATRA GATRA GO. Not only do they have a paper ad up in the station’s underpass, but they even got a coveted spot on the LCD screens on the platform! And the weirdest part is that the ads actually look decent.
GATRA’s placement of the station in the app was literally on the platform, so Jules and I weren’t entirely sure where to wait – we just stood on the edge of the parking lot near the station’s entrance path. It was great watching the bus speed up Route 1 on the app, eventually pulling into Patriot Place. It looked like it was going to be early. But then it just kinda…stopped.
We were just watching it on the map sitting in the same spot. What was going on? The ETA remained at 7:26, but 7:26 came and went. The app has a nice “Call Dispatch” button, so Jules rang them up…and got an answering machine. He explained that we were waiting at the train station, but the bus didn’t seem to know where to go.
Thirty seconds later they called us back. Jules explained what was going on again and tried to give directions from where the bus was on the map. We eventually saw it come into view, and presumably dispatch was trying to guide it toward us. We tried waving, but that was futile across the cars in the lot. Eventually the driver figured it out and started coming toward us. If this had been a fixed route, none of this would’ve happened – both us and the driver would’ve known where the stop was and gone to it. Well…at least in theory – see Attempt #4. GATRA’s not great at running a bus service.
As it turns out, navigating Patriot Place is a royal pain, with long roads you can’t get off of and random gates blocking entrances. This is mainly what the driver had been struggling with (and for good reason – it really is confusing), and now we would get to deal with it too! It took a full six minutes to figure out how to get out of the complex, so it was quite a relief to pull onto Route 1 and leave the madness behind. And again…a fixed route wouldn’t have had to deal with this.
We were only on Route 1 for a bit before we turned onto North Street, running through a residential area (and going by a blocked entrance to Patriot Place, to add insult to industry). Some suburban businesses greeted us at a small roundabout where we looped onto Chestnut Street, soon passing houses again. Other than a cemetery and a few residential developments, that’s all it was.
We took a right onto the similarly residential Cocasset Street, running under both I-95 and the Northeast Corridor (as well as outside of the route’s service area, interestingly) before another right onto Summer Street. At this point, Jules and I were getting worried because it was three minutes until the train we wanted was supposed to arrive – the time spent to get out of Patriot Place had messed with our ETA. We mentioned this to the driver, and he said “I think you’ll make it!” as he sped up through a brief industrial area and past increasingly dense houses. The bus pulled up to the station just as the train was coming in, and we were able to join the throngs of people getting on just in time. And once again, had it been a fixed route, there would’ve been a fixed arrival time that we could’ve planned around. Not so with the GATRA GATRA GO.
GATRA Route: GATRA GATRA GO
Ridership: I asked the driver how much ridership the route has been getting. He said that other than us on this Monday, he had gotten one passenger since he started on Thursday. One passenger in two days!!! “What do you do when there’s no one to pick up?” I asked. “Oh, you know, relax, play on my phone, read a book,” he responded. Okay, yeah, good answer – that’s what I would do, too. But also, geez, this thing must be expensive to run!
Pros: Okay, credit where credit is due: Transloc has a decent interface here. The app works fine, and tracking the bus in ultra-real time (it updates constantly) is great. Oh, also, it’s free! It’s not supposed to be (the free period supposedly ended in September), but it is!
Cons: In what world is that kind of ridership okay? ONE PERSON IN TWO DAYS! And they have at least (at least!) two buses and a dispatcher all focused on this thing? This is just not a great place to try out this microtransit thing, too. Look at the service area. Notice anything about where the attractions are?
Except for the ones to the bottom left, they’re all in a straight line. That big gap where there aren’t any stars? It’s woods. Almost entirely dead space. So we’re dealing with a service area that’s almost entirely linear, which, hmm, you know, would be far more efficient to serve with a fixed route!
But here’s the worst part: let’s say this microtransit thing does work out. Let’s say the advertising attracts dozens, hundreds of people onto the GATRA GATRA GO every day. Well…all of a sudden, you’re now going to have to sit through five other pickups before you can get to your destination. The service becomes more inefficient as it gets more popular. I noted this to the driver (who, I should note, was fantastic), and he said “But more ridership means more drivers!” Yes…but hiring more drivers means more money. And you would be able to transport the same amount of, if not more people with just one driver on a normal fixed route. See the problem here?
Nearby and Noteworthy: If you’re a fan of gambling, horses, or both, this is actually the only transit link to the Plainridge Park Casino. So that’s good, I guess.
Final Verdict: 2/10
I’ll throw in a point for the decent app and the fact that it’s free (UPDATE: not anymore, now it’s $2), but that’s it. This service is the complete wrong place to try the microtransit model. The FRTA doing it in its really rural service area? Sure, maybe (although the money would still be much better spent on improving existing service). But GATRA GATRA GO’s service area where everything is in a straight line is just not a good testing ground for this kind of thing, and that shows in the so-abysmal-I-can’t-even-think-of-a-word-to-describe-how-abysmal-it-is ridership.
Alright, so we’ve got at least two drivers working this thing. Let’s find something else for them to do that will still benefit the area. The map is also available here.
First, the most direct replacement for the GATRA GATRA GO: create a new Foxboro Shuttle that runs from Patriot Place to the Mansfield Council on Aging (I know, I know, it’s a very GATRA place to end up). Put one driver on it, you get hourly service – not excellent, but at least you can rely on the thing showing up when you want it to, unlike the unpredictable microtransit service. Then let’s use the other driver to extend the 14 from Plainville to Patriot Place, connecting to Target and Plainridge Park Casino in the process (with an unfortunate double-deviation, but it’s the only way). The route could retain its hourly service with two buses – it currently uses one.
On the map, I’ve marked down all of the GATRA GATRA GO fixed stops. As you can see, the majority of them are served by these fixed routes, or come within half a mile. There are just two that are further than that: Mansfield Crossing, which is already served by the 140, and Cabot Boulevard, which looks like a legitimate reverse commute destination that could maybe be served by rush hour trips on the Foxboro Shuttle. Other than that, though, we’ve more or less gotten everything.
So by converting our microtransit into macrotransit, we’re able to not only serve passengers with a more reliable and consistent service that anyone can hop on, but we also allow for new connections that can’t currently be made – Attleboro to Plainridge Park and Patriot Place would be a big market. Yeah, you lose the fancy GATRA GATRA GO marketing, but you get a far better service out of it. And isn’t that all microtransit is? Just fancy marketing for a subpar service.
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