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Beyond the Bus: ‘Microtransit’ Helps Cities Expand Transportation Services

After several private companies tried -- and failed -- to deliver on-demand group transit, some cities are now building those services themselves.

detroit bus
A bus drives through downtown Detroit in 2013. The city, along with several others, hopes that new microtransit options can better connect passengers with existing bus and rail lines.
(AP/Ankur Dholakia)
For several years, private companies have tried to fill the last-mile gap in public transit systems by offering on-demand, shared rides. Many of these "microtransit" services -- something between ride sharing and traditional transit -- have foundered.

Now, several public transit agencies have started to explore whether they could offer microtransit options themselves.

The clearest example comes from Los Angeles County, where LA Metro, one of the nation’s largest transportation agencies, announced in October that it would take bids from companies on how to deliver microtransit.

The microtransit vehicles won’t be like standard buses going down fixed routes. Instead, smaller vehicles will travel routes -- and destinations -- that change depending on road conditions and passenger requests. The trips would last about 20 minutes and be constrained to certain areas.

“We believe that Metro has an obligation to test new services to give more people more options other than driving and to better connect people to local bus and rail networks. Keep in mind, too, that advancements in technology -- enabled by smartphones and cell coverage -- have allowed new mobility services to emerge that meet customers’ needs in ways not previously possible,” the agency explained on their website.

Other localities are exploring similar options. Detroit wants to launch a service to help people studying for health-care careers to get to their training centers. It’s also looking to add late-night service to get people to and from its main bus routes. In suburban Pittsburgh, a small transit agency is hiring vans to transfer people from the end of bus routes from downtown to their retail workplaces. Las Vegas; Dayton, Ohio; and several California communities are also incorporating microtransit into their transit planning.

One reason microtransit is so attractive is that it allows cities to innovate quickly, says Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation. Detroit wants to experiment with different types of vehicles, different payment methods and different dispatching systems. Often, transit systems conduct one pilot program a year, but de la Vergne says that’s not fast enough. "We heard from the mayor that he wants to solve this problem quicker,” de la Vergne says. “So the quicker we can iterate, the better.”

The biggest problem facing Detroit is that its transit system can’t reach all corners of the city quickly. Detroit’s population has declined to 670,000 people in 140 square miles, and it cannot afford to pay for frequent service all over the city. During the city's bankruptcy crisis in 2013 and 2014, passengers sometimes had to wait two hours between buses. Now, the city has concentrated on a few frequent, 24-hour routes. It’s hoping that microtransit can help fill the gaps between those high-frequency routes, de la Vergne says.

One of Detroit’s experiments will offer free service from midnight until 5 a.m., as long as passengers get on or off at a bus route. City officials want to see whether passengers would take advantage of that service and, if not, why they don’t. Among the potential issues could be ineffective marketing, passengers’ access to cellphones to hail a ride and rider discomfort with fewer security features such as cameras on the microtransit vehicle. The big question, de la Vergne says, is, “How can we make it successful?”

The current interest by public transit agencies comes after several private efforts failed.

Most notably, Bridj, an on-demand commuter service of small buses, shut down suddenly this April after it ran out of money. Bridj began service in Boston in 2014 and later expanded to Austin and Washington, D.C. It launched a one-year, $1.3 million joint venture with Ford Motor Co. and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority that attracted a lot of media attention but few riders. Only 1,480 people used the Kansas City service in the year before it shut down in March.

Not long after, Bridj’s CEO announced that the entire company was shutting down because of difficulties getting funding from a major automaker. (The business has since been bought by an Austrialian transit company and is now operating in Sydney.)

Other private U.S. ventures have run into trouble as well. Companies like Loup and Leap have gone out of business. The Ford-backed Chariot, which operates in four markets, had to shut down its San Francisco operations for several days last month for not complying with state safety regulations.

Rahul Kumar, the vice president of revenue at TransLoc, a company contracting with several cities to help run their microtransit services, says they’ve learned a lot from Bridj and other ill-fated startups.

In Kansas City, for example, Bridj offered commuter service to downtown in the morning and back out in the evening. But the service overlapped with existing public transportation, which was already offering affordable and effective routes, Kumar says. “By design, that has some massive fail points,” he says.

Bridj also operated independently from transit agencies, which means it didn’t coordinate its services with transit, and it didn’t effectively market to potential customers, Kumar adds.

When TransLoc works with cities, he says, the company works with local officials to first determine what problem they are trying to solve with microtransit. That helps them determine which areas of the city and what times of day to offer the service. The key is to target areas that aren’t already served by high-capacity transit but aren’t so spread out that they’d be better served by taxis or ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft. In some places, like Seattle, microtransit doesn’t make sense, Kumar says.

“We prioritize trip grouping,” Kumar says. “We try to get two to three to four people on the same vehicle, who are all going in the same direction.”

But that doesn’t mean focusing on rush-hour service for commuters, as Bridj and other private companies have done, Kumar cautions. Offering commuter service in small vehicles is the equivalent of a restaurant where diners monopolize tables during the dinner rush: if there’s no turnover in seats, it’s hard to stay in business. That’s why, he says, microtransit should focus on feeding busy public transit lines or providing last-mile service.

To make sure microtransit meets the needs of cities, TransLoc models what the ridership would likely be, including where people would come from, how long they’ll wait, how they’ll use the service and how many vehicles the agency will need. TransLoc uses the same software to simulate service as it does to run that service after it goes live, so the projections can be easily updated to reflect real usage.

When the local agency finally launches the service, it does so under its own brand, not TransLoc’s. That makes it easier for customers to trust the new service, even as TransLoc helps the agency promote it.

In the western Pittsburgh suburbs, Lynn Manion, executive director of the Airport Corridor Transportation Association, says she hopes that using the TransLoc software will improve the efficiency of the agency’s eight-year-old system. Right now, a fleet of three shuttle buses meets passengers at the end of bus lines from downtown Pittsburgh. It’s up to the drivers of those shuttle buses to figure out how to divide their passengers and get them to their jobs. But a computer-driven dispatch could make that more efficient, and it could cut down on costs to the agency, Manion says.

Meanwhile, the small agency is looking to expand. It just received notice that it would get funding to start operating at a third stop in 2019 or 2020, and Manion hopes they can find additional money to start that service even sooner.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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