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How the Microtransit Movement Is Changing Urban Mobility

The good and the bad of all these new flexible ride services.

The new private San Francisco commuter bus Leap Transit. (Leap Transit)

Much like the U.S. political system, American urban mobility has traditionally been dominated by two parties: private cars (or cabs), and public transportation. But lately residents of America's largest cities have no doubt noticed lots of new options that seem to fall somewhere in between. A recent Strong Towns post fittingly labeled this middle-tier movement "microtransit"—more micro than a fixed-route 40-foot bus or a metro rail system; more transit than, well, non-transit; here's Lisa Nisenson:

We are on the cusp of widespread microtransit.

Cusp may be too cautious. CityLab readers can surely name a bunch of these flexible new transit services without batting an eye. Commuter buses like Leap Transit or Chariot in San Francisco or Bridj in Boston (and now Washington). Dynamic vanpools like Via in New York. Carpool start-ups like Carma. True cab-share options like UberPool (now claiming millions of trips) or LyftLine (now with fixed-point pick-ups). Company and housing shuttles like the Google bus belong in the mix, too.

What you might not appreciate is just how crowded this microtransit space has become. The start-up platform Angel List's "public transportation" page, currently with 177 projects, seems to grow daily. Its general "transportation" page lists more than 1,000 ventures, and some services like Uber that insist on being labeled "technology." Plenty of local entrepreneurs don't bother with the list at all (like a new Omaha bar shuttle). One company, TransLoc, is even building an entire flex-transit platform to help public agencies to join the fray.

"Now it's not unusual to open your computer or email and find out about two or three new services that have popped up," says Susan Shaheen of UC-Berkeley, who's been studying transport innovations since the 1990s. "I do feel like we're transitioning to a different type of mobility system."

Strictly speaking, there's nothing new about microtransit. Informal ride-sharing networks like New York's dollar vans have operated for years, while city agencies run paratransit services for people with disabilities (often at a great loss). But better data on mobility patterns and wide smartphone access have made flexible, on-demand transit more possible than ever. Social trends toward city living and away from car-ownership have also fanned the current flame.

"There is a shift toward people wanting to free themselves from responsibilities that aren't a top priority—like owning a vehicle and maintaining it, especially in the city," says transport consultant Paul Supawanich of Nelson\Nygaard. "What I think these services are doing is exposing that middle ground to the masses."

So something is happening here. Much of it seems good for city dwellers: you'll get new travel options and the chance at a car-free lifestyle far, far quicker than if you waited for officials to build new transit networks or beef up density. But bad outcomes also loom, including the possibility that traditional transit service, traffic congestion, and low-income riders will all suffer. We took a closer look at the good and the bad of a microtransit future, and how cities can hope to contain it.

Initially positioned as a transit competitor, the Bridj commuter service in Boston and D.C. has made partnering with cities a priority. (Via Bridj)

3 Ways Microtransit Might Be Great ...

An integrated system. In an ideal world, microtransit providers would become the feeders to public transportation's core routes. They'd address what experts call the "first-mile, last-mile" problem—that gap at the start and end of every trip that's difficult for traditional transit operators to serve in a cost-effective way. Coverage to low-density corridors or remote neighborhoods becomes very doable. A car-free lifestyle becomes that much more viable.

Consider this: You wake up and e-hail a microtransit pick-up from your home or apartment. Maybe you pay a lot and get scooped at the front door, maybe you pay a little less and walk a block or two to a fixed stop. The shuttle or van takes you and some others to core public transit routes—a bus or train line that can run with super-frequency now that agencies don't need to bother with feeder routes. At the end of the line you connect to another flex ride and arrive.

Arthur Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, sees encouraging signs of such cooperation. Take Bridj. Initially positioned as a transit competitor, it has now made partnering with cities a priority. Guzzetti says Bridj is just one of a "a number" of microtransit services that have joined APTA as a member and come to the discussion table with traditional agencies.

"Mobility will be transformed, but public transit, for sure, has a role here," he says. "Possibly as the core of the system, with all these pieces connected to it."

More transit riders. If micro- and public transit do function as an integrated system, the result should be less car traffic on the road and more fares for trains and buses. That revenue should lead to better service, which in turn generates more riders.

Research from Berkeley's Shaheen has found that people who use shared mobility systems own significantly fewer vehicles than other households; many own none. These numbers center on car-sharing services, which don't quite fall under the microtransit umbrella, but are related insofar as both types of users may prefer a car-free lifestyle. In one survey of on-demand riders closer to microtransit's core mission, 40 percent said they'd reduced their driving since using such service.

The mere option of flexible rides can be enough for some commuters to rely on public transit. In New York, Metro North's "guaranteed ride home" program is based on the idea that people will be more willing to ride commuter rail if they know they can get a taxi home in an emergency. A 2013 survey conducted for San Francisco's Muni found that a third of respondents agreed, treating taxis as part of "a package alternative to owning a private vehicle."

"Some people use [shared mobility] to take transit more; some people use it as a form of transit in and of itself," says Shaheen. If these services "keep people out of single-occupancy vehicles," she says, "then it is a form of public transit and it's helping to augment the existing capacity."

SFMTA

Niche service. Private microtransit outfits can target certain niche populations in a way public agencies with a mandate to serve as much of the public as possible cannot. In cases where traditional buses or trains would have struggled to meet this demand, reaching these subsets creates a de facto expansion of the city's transit network.

At its best, niche service can span income classes and areas. Unlike some public agencies, microtransit companies can access remote immigrant enclaves, or provide enhanced comfort and convenience to well-to-do workers, or use technology to match like-minded riders from the same college campus. These "affinity" groups, as researchers often call them, reflect a pattern that shows up time and again in transportation research: some people prefer to share a ride with others like themselves.

"From a consumer point of view, all this stuff increases choice," says Nelson\Nygaard's Supawanich. "At least this way, the entire strata of potential ways to get from A to B at a price lower than owning and operating your own vehicle is a net benefit for car-ownership."

A photo posted by RideWithVia (@ridewithvia) on

… and 3 Ways It Might Not

New transit competition. An integrated transit system with public agencies as a core and microtransit as a feeder might be the urban ideal, but whether profit-minded private companies would submit to such an arrangement is another question. One reason public transit agencies can't reliably serve feeder routes in the first place is they tend to lose money. Asking microtransit companies to take that role might not harmonize with their business mission.

If an integrated scenario doesn't pan out, the flipside might be an ugly competitive one—with microtransit providers trying to poach bus and rail riders in key high-density corridors. That outcome would create a two-front fight for transit agencies. On one side they'd be battling for riders against private services with potentially greater resources. On the other, as fare revenue eroded, they'd be battling public officials for more funding to stay afloat.

Perhaps cities would adapt by creating some flexible, middle-tier services of their own (that's certainly TransLoc's bet). There's also a reverse scenario where microtransit takes the core routes and public agencies take the feeders (though that would require even greater public funding). But barring such outcomes, transit quality could suffer—especially for the hard-to-serve (read: less profitable) areas often home to disadvantaged residents.

"I think we should view the rise of the private operators as reaction to the failure of public transit to offer the breadth of services they can—that they should," says Columbia University planning scholar David King. "I do think there's real concern that if these continue to grow, you're going to be taking people off the public transit system."

More mileage and congestion. Less personal car reliance is one of the great potential benefits of microtransit—with social gains for everyone in terms of public health, productivity, and road safety. But those gains are lost if flexible ride services generate new road mileage themselves.

A not-so-hypothetical: Two people who used to drive alone into work give up their car commutes and now share a microtransit ride into the office. Let's say each drive was 3 miles. On the commute alone, the shared ride saves some driving: instead of 6 total miles, it's down to the basic 3 plus maybe a half mile to pick up the other rider. But if that vehicle has to drive all the way back after the trip to get a new fare, or if it wasn't going to be on the road in the first place, it's not hard to see the total new mileage exceeding the old one, even with fewer cars on the road.

For what it's worth, computer models of shared vehicle systems have found just that. In one study of Austin, each car in a shared network was found to replace 11 private cars, but still increased vehicle mileage 10 percent. And that was with optimal, driverless cars—human drivers will be far less efficient.

Public agencies run paratransit service that could be considered microtransit (above, New York's Access-a-Ride), but often do so at a great loss. (MTA / Flickr)

These unintended outcomes can have a more local impact on traffic, too. Take the private shuttles that carry commuters from apartment buildings on the west side of Midtown Manhattan, where there's poor subway access, to the trains at Columbus Circle. The traffic produced by these vans or mini-buses is much less than if all the riders drove, of course, but there's still a frightful amount of new daily congestion at the curb where these shuttles fight for space to drop off passengers.

"I think there's a role for these private services and microtransit," says King. "We have to figure out what's the appropriate role for them. We don't want to be in a situation where we have these private operators taking advantage of free street usage, then making demands on the streets."

Exclusivity. Targeting underserved or unrecognized niche populations can be a good thing for both a business and mobility at large. But taken too far in the service of a brand or profit, this specialty practice can drift into the sort of exclusivity that violates public transit's equity mission.

Take the recent news about San Francisco's luxe Leap Transit service, which according to SFist exchanged wheelchair accessibility on its buses for "bar seating and leather armchairs." Whether or not that's true, it's easy to imagine the clientele on flex-luxury buses deeming certain types of riders often found on public transit undesirable, and hoping the service avoids them. One west side company shuttle was denied its own curb stop because it refused to pick up other members of the public waiting there.

Morality aside, such exclusivity represents a failure of private microtransit to recognize that city streets and curbs are civic spaces that must be managed in the public interest. These practices could also create problems in the event that cities did partner with microtransit providers in some sort of integrated system, since public agencies have a legal obligation not to discriminate among riders.

"We'd also be adamant as the system evolves that there be accessibility, and that mobility is not auctioned to the highest bidder," says APTA's Guzzetti. "Mobility has to be available for all."

What Cities Can Do

The longer cities wait to address the rise of microtransit, the harder it becomes to implement the type of coordination or regulation key to any strong mobility network. (See: Uber.) Guzzetti expects flexible transit companies to join the conversation and says he would "question" any services that didn't want to operate as part of a system.

"There has to be some accountability," he says. "I'm not saying crushing regulation, but there has to be accountability to work as a system."

Nelson\Nygaard's Supawanich sees hope for "some public entity that's the clearinghouse or the coordinator" for local rides—perhaps modeled on an oversight body in Denmark that already exists for such a purpose. Under this system, a central dispatcher of sorts would receive trip requests and assign certain vendors to the job. Maybe there's enough demand in one location for a private flex bus. Maybe there's a corridor of riders fit for a private cab-share. Maybe there's a service disruption that calls for a traditional public 40-foot bus to make a route change.

"I really do think the transit agencies are interested in embracing these new things," Supawanich says. "If they do consider them a partner versus a competitor, it could increase their options in terms of providing service."

Protests over the private Google bus using public bus stops led to the city charging the company for curb access. (Chris Martin / Flickr)

That type of strong oversight might not go over as well with private companies in the United States. Another option, says Columbia's David King, is to charge microtransit companies for the curb space they congest while awaiting new fares or making drop-offs and pick-ups—similar to what San Francisco did with the private Google buses that were using public Muni bus stops. Such fees should serve to price out excess traffic and whittle the microtransit market to the most efficient options.

Yet another option, says King, is for city agencies to arrange strategic partnerships with microtransit providers for service that's both in the public interest and traditionally tough to supply. A flex company could serve a new apartment complex or office park that's trying to meet its alternative transport goals. The city gets fewer cars on the road and less congestion, and the company might receive some regulatory leeway, a steady revenue stream, and public favor.

"There's a real question as to how do we equitably and efficiently integrate them in the system," says King. "It seems there's an opportunity for them to still be a private operation but offer some public benefit, rather than being solely a private operator getting private benefits."

A few such arrangements have started to emerge, such as a recent partnership between Dallas's DART agency and Uber to provide a drunk-driving alternative on St. Patrick's Day. But in general, says Shaheen, neither the public nor the private sides seem to be approaching the situation as a pressing issue. To her, that's a sign that few people have yet to realize just how radical the microtransit movement might become.

"How can there be sense of urgency if people don't really perceive that what's happening here is potentially transformational?" she says.

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