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CityFixer

Kansas City Is Embarking on a Great Microtransit Experiment

The city’s partnership with Bridj will show the world what happens when ride-hailing really meets public transit.

One of the pilot program's new Bridj vans. (Kansas City Area Transit Authority)

The jury is still out on the relationship between on-demand ride-hailing services—your Ubers, Lyfts, and Bridjs—and public transportation. “Is Uber Transit's Enemy or Its Friend?” my colleague Laura Bliss asked in November of last year. The question is still resoundingly up in the air.

There is a world (a city, really) in which transit and these new, technology-based companies complement each other, where an integrated transit system takes people to more places more efficiently, with less congestion and pollution. There is also a world in which these companies and transit compete, where an uptick in ride-hailing steals much-needed passengers and funds away from struggling public agencies and crowds the road with more vehicles, more fumes, more miles driven overall.

Either way, that future might be unfolding in Kansas City, Missouri. Last week, the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, the Boston-based microtransit agency Bridj, and Ford announced a one-year pilot project that will bring on-demand public transit to the Midwestern city. To KCATA’s knowledge, there has never been a public-private partnership quite like this one in U.S. transit.

The collaboration works like this: Come early March, officials promise, Kansas City residents will be able to use the Bridj app, downloaded onto their smartphones, to reserve a seat on a Bridj vehicle. There will be 10 of these roving 14-passenger Ford vans, driven by KCATA-employed (and union-represented) drivers. Bridj CEO Matt George promises that the company’s algorithm will allow numerous prospective riders to enter their itineraries—home to work, work to home, most likely—and, in real-time, will come up with a route that accommodates all of them. Each ride will cost $1.50, paid through a credit card connected to the Bridj app. To get Kansas Citians excited about the joint project, KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen tells CityLab, the city is offering riders 10 free trips.

“The way I see Bridj is that it breaks down barriers for people to use public transit,” says Makinen, who notes that the city approached the company about the project. “There are more options for people to access the whole system. It’s a robust transit system that encapsulates all types of modes.”

The Bridj app, as it will appear in Kansas City. (Bridj)

In short, KCATA is spending funds leftover from sales taxes, about $1.3 million, on a bet that on-demand ride-hailing can be friends with a city public transit agency. What’s notable in Kansas City, says University of California-Berkeley mobility researcher Susan Shaheen, “is the recognition that these can coexist.”

For George of Bridj, the stakes seem similarly high. Technology-driven ride companies are often depicted as the bad guys of progressive, inclusive city-building. Do these sharing-economy applications actually provide their networks of workers with an income? With stability and benefits? Do they create transportation networks that are accessible for all? For Bridj, Kansas City looks like a chance to prove something.

“This is a really, really important moment for the technology industry,” says George. “Technology isn’t just for the 1- or 2-percent income bracket.”

The definition of microtransit

Microtransit isn’t really new at all. Last year, a team from Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center led by Shaheen studied the phenomenon and emerged with a definition: microtransit generally embraces route deviation, with no fixed stops. Instead, these vehicles depend on individual rider inputs, within specified geographic parameters—no, we are not taking you to the airport right now—to come up with “stations” that move around each day.

If this sounds like a dollar van or a jitney, you aren’t wrong. One difference between those options and microtransit startups like Bridj, Chariot, Via, and the late Leap Transit can be their above-board business licenses (though some dollar vans are licensed, too). These new technology groups also come with marketing budgets, primarily targeted at the higher-income residents who can afford to use services that typically cost more per ride than traditional city transit.

But the biggest deviation is technology. “With the advent of the smartphone and the app, the transportation landscape is changing a lot,” Shaheen says. GPS-enabled smartphones, plus powerful algorithms that can crunch and rearrange data to come up with routes in real-time, have changed the game for public transit alternatives.

Other ride-hailing companies have worked with public transit agencies to provide “first-mile, last-mile” services. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Uber announced a partnership last April to step up “complete trip” efforts. In this respect, says Georgia Tech transportation researcher Kari Watkins, the KCATA collaboration “doesn’t seem that different.” She also points out that agencies have been hiring private companies to provide paratransit for some time now.

But the Bridj partnership promises lightning-fast rerouting, she acknowledges. What’s unique here is that “this is the agency coming forward and admitting that [Bridj] is going to do this better,” Watkins says.

KCATA also isn’t quite sure whether this will be a first-mile, last-mile service. Maybe, says Kansas City’s Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Reardon, the city will learn over the course of the pilot that its users don’t want to connect with its brand-new streetcar or existing bus routes—that they much prefer to take Bridj all the way to work. Crucially, Bridj and the city have agreed to to share data on the pilot as it progresses.

For now, no one is quite sure how the partnership will fit into the transit mix. “We’re experimenting,” Reardon says.

Getting KC in the van

It remains to be seen whether KCATA’s Bridj can be all things to all people. First, neither group is quite sure how they’re going to allow travelers without smartphones or credit cards—the very poor, in other words—to tap into the service. George says Bridj is thinking about ways to distribute “locked” phones, ones with limited capability beyond summoning a van, or constructing kiosks around the Kansas City area. Neither option will be ready to go when service opens for business in early March.  

The bigger problem will be persuading Kansas Citians to buy into public transit at all. According to the Census Bureau, just 1 percent of Kansas City residents use public transportation to get to work. One thing working against this partnership is that driving in Kansas City isn’t that awful: the same report finds that the region has the fifth-fastest commute times out of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. It takes the average resident 22.9 minutes to get to work.

Downtown Kansas City. (Flickr/Tim Samoff)

Kansas City is a particularly low-density metro, and that’s unlikely to change in a hurry. In these sorts of urban spaces, says Watkins, the transportation researcher, “we simply can’t provide good transit service.” A demand-response ride-hailing service—one like Bridj—may well be a realistic vision for public transit in cities like Kansas City, ones that are smaller and sprawl widely.

This is the advantage of private companies: the ability to move nimbly, with teams of (theoretically) well-paid data scientists ready to do their bidding. If transit agencies can’t, or aren’t willing, to fill in the gaps in their service, there are certainly enough microtransit companies to do it for them. Working with these companies, rather than competing against them, might allow public agencies to liberate efficient transportation services for the many, not just the rich.  

“The stars are aligning in Kansas City,” says KCATA CEO Makinen. “This is cutting-edge stuff.” Is Kansas City the future of low-density transit? Wait a year. We’re about to find out.

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