Reinventing Urban Transportation and Mobility aims to revolutionize public transit through an online app that turns transportation into an on-demand service. The app, which serves travelers on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, first launched this month on January 16. While no timeline is set in place yet, the developers hope to eventually expand the service to the University as a whole.

RITMO, partnering with Ford Motor Company, will allow students, faculty and staff to use on-demand shuttle transportation linked with the University bus system. Riders only need to book one ticket to their destination and wait up to five minutes for their shuttle to arrive.

Pascal Van Hentenryck, the Seth Bonder Collegiate professor at the College of Engineering, is leading the RITMO project. He explained how the new system hopes to resolve inefficiencies within our current transportation system by solving the so-called first and last mile problem, when individuals have to walk more than a “comfortable distance,” typically 1/4 miles. 

“I noticed the bus running mostly empty along the edge of campus, and I thought, ‘Wow, can we actually do an on-demand multimodal transit system here?’” he said. “That’s where the RITMO project started.”

The RITMO team has collected data on bus ridership on campus, which they will use to decide where to run buses and where to deploy on-demand shuttles that will pick up commuters and bring them to a bus route or their destination directly.

Jonathan Levine, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has lead a team collecting data by surveying the use of transportation by students, faculty and staff.

“(We ask questions about) how you would travel under new scenarios,” Levine said. “What route would people take? We build models based on the data that comes out of hypothetical questions we ask.”

One of the team’s greatest technical challenges comes in the form of using cloud computing and artificial intelligence to optimize routes and ride-sharing in the shuttles.

“What we are doing behind the scene is analytics: Designing the system and predicting what people are going to do,” Van Hentenryck said. “We want to dispatch the vehicles as quickly as possible and maximize ride-sharing.”

Taubman graduate student Jacob Yan works with Levine on his team. He described the social responsibility that comes with designing an innovative transportation system.

“We have been talking about the travel agencies: how they might re-define the system, and how the aggregate demand for the system will look, how this will impact low-income populations,” Yan said.

Ultimately, one important goal for the RITMO project is to work with communities to revolutionize transportation by making it accessible, efficient and cost effective. While we have seen the transformation of taxi systems with applications such as Uber and Lyft, public transit has yet to become more dynamic, according to Van Hentenryck.

“We are trying to improve accessibility,” Van Hentenryck said. “In the U.S, the best predictor of poor social mobility is whether you have a car or not. If you make people walk even a quarter of a mile, you lose 50 percent of your ridership. People don’t want to walk very far to be picked up, you have to be picked up very close to your location.”

The RITMO project has strong ambitions for the future. They hope to incorporate autonomous vehicles to create a more cost-effective University transit system, as well as use electric vehicles.

“At some point, we also want to have all of these vehicles electrified to reduce greenhouse gas emission,” he said. “(Using shuttles could be a) way to integrate electric vehicles.”

RITMO will continue expanding on North Campus this year, focusing especially on serving graduate students who live within two miles of campus. Down the road, services like RITMO may be scaled to larger cities, increasing efficiency and access for all commuters.

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