By Edmund Sandoval
Over the course of the past several years, the issues plaguing urban mass transit have received a lot of attention in the press. From ridership declines on a national level to cost overages and inefficiencies, to insufficient options and poorly planned routes, the hits just keep coming. And while ambitious projects to overhaul entire transit systems have come down the pipeline, there have also been a number of smaller, more nimble potential solutions have joined the flow.
One such possibility is that of microtransit, a coming together of on-demand ride-hailing and public transportation. This kind of partnership would hypothetically leverage the smart usage of data and a fleet of smaller, more agile vehicles deployed to riders in need of service.
Yet, with just a few small-scale pilot programs having been launched to date in a handful of cities, some question whether this potential could become an actual reality. To provide some insight, we spoke with Jeff Owen, Senior Planner for Active Transportation for TriMet, provider of bus, light rail and commuter rail transit services in the Portland, Oregon metro area.
Trial and Error
On-demand ride-hailing service providers like Uber and Lyft have, in a very short time, fundamentally changed the way people get around when it comes to urban transportation. Rather than being reliant on a personal vehicle or having to fit one’s transport around a transit schedule, commuters can now, with a couple of quick taps, summon a car to any location within the service boundary of a ride-hail provider.
Seeking to build off the success of these companies, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) kicked off app-based public transportation pilots named Bridj and FLEX, respectively. Consisting of 14-person vans and converted 26-passenger buses, the aim was to provide flexible options for daily commuters.
Unfortunately, neither program lasted more than a year. Owing to high costs, low ridership, and a constricted service area, both were forced to fold. In Bridj’s case, rides were limited to only morning and rush-hour periods; FLEX, while offering rides within seven-and-a-half minutes, failed to provide connecting rides to the area’s light rail stop. The cause for low rider turnout was assumed to be a lack of promotion and marketing.
Still, transit agencies are working hard to examine every piece of the puzzle.
Currently, microtransit seems to be judged on its profitability while providing a low-cost public service to everyday commuters. The necessity of promotion and marketing often comes up in conversation, as does the need for more advanced tech, as well as partnerships with private companies. This begs the question: would those things actually make a difference?
At such an early stage, it’s hard to say definitively, but the evidence so far says probably not. For example, a Bay Area microtransit pilot, Leap Transit, folded after raising $2.5 million. As did Loup, which received $1.5 million in additional funding from Obvious Ventures (a capital investment fund founded by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams). Chariot, operating in San Francisco, was purchased by Ford Smart Mobility.
Part of the problem, then, is the focus on achieving returns on initial investments over fairly short trial runs. There have been calls for public subsidization, but this puts an additional onus on transportation agencies and municipalities whose budgets, in many cases, are already stretched thin.
“The reason we really take a careful approach is because we’re spending public dollars, and we really have to make sure we’re being good stewards of this money and not simply trying something because someone called us up and wants us to try it,” says Owen. “There’s a whole range of different things that go into the cost structure, the customer service, and the expertise of the driver and the operator.”
The average cost of microtransit rides is more expensive than bus or subway fares — hard numbers are difficult to come by but research points to roughly $3-5 per ride. Subsidization pushed Bridj costs down to $1.50 per seat, but that price turned out to mask an estimated cost of $1,000 per ride when compared to actual ridership stats.
In addition, increased visibility of these services runs the risk of increasing the appeal to riders who are able to afford the luxury of a Lyft or Uber, while failing to serve the communities who depend on a dynamic public transportation system.
“A lot of the micro transit pilots promise better customer service,” says Owen, “and sometimes it appears that you might get better public service but for a smaller number of people. How does that relate to equity concerns throughout the region? How does that relate to any number of related cases?”
Just One Piece of the Puzzle
In many ways, one could question whether microtransit is getting a fair shake when it comes to reporting its apparent failures. Should microtransit be measured against the same standards?
“The question of the day that everyone is struggling with is, what happens when you start to compare some of the numbers of these pilots for cost or boardings per hour?” asks Owen. “When you begin to break it down, they don’t compare very well to what agencies currently run. Even the numbers on lower performing bus routes usually come out looking better than those with microtransit pilots,” says Owen.
What it’s really going to take is a combination of time, research and continued investment … and the acknowledgment that microtransit isn’t a panacea for the issues currently bedeviling public transit systems. It should be viewed as one of several tools that can be implemented within a multi-modal transportation plan. Rather than casting a wide net, it will require focused and nuanced planning.
As Owen neatly sums it up, “Emerging technologies may change what we do as agencies. Microtransit is one of the things that has gained a lot of traction and headlines, as well as new ventures, around the country. We’re now are in the process of working together with a lot of our peers and agencies across the country — sharing approaches, lessons learned, strategies — to continue improving what we do and how we do it.”