RITMO app introduces on-demand mass transit at U-M, with plans to expand

A new app is revolutionizing public transportation on the University of Michigan's (U-M) north campus by combining the efficiency of a fixed-route bus service with the convenience of a ridesharing service.


The app, called Reinventing Urban Transportation and Mobility (RITMO), uses a sophisticated algorithm to figure out the best route and combination of transportation methods to help a rider reach his or her destination. That could mean taking a small RITMO shuttle vehicle for the entire route or having a shuttle take the rider to a bus stop to continue his or her trip on a traditional U-M bus. The system offers almost door-to-door service, a la Uber or Lyft, but still operates within the framework (and much more affordable price point) of public transit.


Pascal Van Hentenryck, the Seth Bonder Collegiate professor at the U-M College of Engineering, has been working on related projects for years. But he had the idea for RITMO after seeing empty buses traveling across campus.


He noted that fixed-route buses make sense in busy corridors with a high density of riders, but in other areas, the buses were not being used efficiently. A U-M team did some surveys about how students and faculty use transportation options to come up with new, more efficient options.


Van Hentenryck says the future of transportation is "on-demand and multi-modal," and notes that RITMO's advantages are that it is "dynamic and completely integrated."


"We are bringing transit into the 20th century instead of using technology from 30 years ago," he says.


Van Hentenryck notes that the project has created new jobs for shuttle drivers but hasn't increased U-M's transportation budget. As employee costs went up, infrastructure costs were reduced.


Van Hentenryck says he and his team would like to eventually expand their service to the entire U-M campus, as well as neighborhoods a few miles north of campus. While the app and shuttle and bus rides are completely free to students and faculty right now, a small fee comparable to a municipal bus fare may be charged in the future for off-campus destinations, Van Hentenryck says.


Right now, the system is limited to north campus and solely to the hours of 7-11 p.m., but extended hours will be rolled out in a staged deployment, adding RITMO service from 7-11 a.m. and then from 3-7 p.m. Future plans also include using electric vehicles and, eventually, autonomous shuttles.


Van Hentenryck says RITMO organizers hope to continue studying the system to see if people will change their habits as a result of using RITMO.


"Another motivation for this is the significant pressure on parking," Van Hentenryck says. "With a new, interesting transit system, we will see if they are willing to not drive to campus. If we can get people on this transit system, it decreases that parking pressure, we won't have to build new parking lots, and it'll be good for everyone."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Images courtesy of RITMO.
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