Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Arlington used to be the largest city in the U.S. without any buses at all. Now it’s going all in on on-demand shuttles.
Sandwiched between Fort Worth and Dallas, the Texas city of Arlington would seem an obvious candidate for commuter rail or rapid buses. Yet voters have turned down transit bond measures three times since 1979, preferring to fund stadium revamps instead. Until a few years ago, Arlington was largest city in the country with no mass transit at all.
Now it will be the first to run solely on microtransit. Earlier this month, Arlington announced a partnership with Via, a New York-based startup that offers on-demand minibus rides. Its vehicles will soon replace the Max, the single, fixed-route bus line that has run between UT Arlington and a commuter rail station near Dallas-Fort Worth airport since 2013. Once the Max contract expires in December, passengers will be able to secure pick-ups in six-seater Mercedes shuttles from nearby corners, using the Via app or by dialing a call center for a $3 fare.
The city’s primary goal is to provide more coverage for less money. Because the Max’s service area has been so constrained, and offers virtually no connections within the city, ridership has hovered between 250 and 300 trips per day—just five full buses, roughly speaking. Reviewing options for renewing service, the city’s transportation advisory committee was intrigued by microtransit’s offer of flexible, “right-sized” service.
“Not only will it cover the area we’re already serving, Via will get people to places Max was too limited to get close to,” said Alicia Winkelblech, the assistant director of strategic planning for the city of Arlington.
Via’s coverage area will start in downtown and expand in phases to cover large swaths of Arlington, including entertainment districts, healthcare centers, and the commuter rail station near the airport. City officials say service hours will shift based on passenger demand over the course of the pilot program, which will be up for renewal after one year.
No ridership goals have been established yet, since Arlington’s circumstances are without compare: No other city has tested microtransit-only service. The main criteria for judging success will be whether Via reduces single-occupancy vehicle trips, which the city plans to measure based on data collected and shared by Via. Winkelblech is particularly optimistic that it can carve into the market for private or even pooled Uber and Lyft trips. “A trip that might cost $12 on a ride-hailing service will now cost $3,” she said. “We anticipate quite a lot of interest in this.”
Via, which launched in 2013, operates its own vehicles in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., providing 1.5 million rides per month, according to its website. The company has licensed software to other public agencies in search of alternatives to poor-performing bus routes: Austin, Texas; Orange County, California; and the city of Kent in the UK all have Via technology working beneath their custom apps, apparently with relative success. Austin’s pilot, called “Pickup,” reached six-month ridership goals within the first two months.
Not all microtransit services have seen such positive returns. Private luxury shuttles like Loup and Leap failed to strike a viable balance between price-point and passenger volumes. Bridj, the now-shuttered microtransit startup that partnered with Kansas City’s transit authority to much fanfare in 2015, provided just 600 rides in a 6-month pilot, a failure observers chalked up to questionable routing and poor marketing. Recently, Chariot, the Ford-backed private shuttle service running in San Francisco, was shut down temporarily for having the wrong permits.
Zachary Wasserman, Via’s head of global business development, said that the company is taking care to avoid the marketing and regulatory slip-ups its predecessors and competitors have fallen into. He also noted a fundamental difference: Whereas other variants have followed more or less fixed routes, “Via is fully dynamic and on-demand,” he said. “You can literally go from anywhere to anywhere, within the zone the city wants us to cover.” And in the case of Arlington, Via will be subsidized by public tax dollars, including one of the first federal grants to fund microtransit in the country. Without such subsidies, many have argued that microtransit cannot succeed at all.
Not everyone in Arlington is thrilled about Via’s arrival. There are UT students who’ve become dependent on the Max, and some have voiced concern that not enough people share the same schedules to make an on-demand service truly convenient. From an equity standpoint, tech-based transportation “solutions” deserve the public’s skepticism: Some cities that have had transit much longer than Arlington have jumped to eliminate entire bus routes in favor of partnerships with ride-hailing companies, alienating lower-income passengers with barriers to access, and more or less throwing in the towel on waning ridership numbers.
No on-demand taxi (nor helicopter, nor boat) will replace the capacity and cost-efficiency of a full subway or fixed-route bus. Replenishing ridership on those modes requires investment, not forfeiture, say experts. Just last week, L.A. county announced that it will partner with Via to provide “first and last mile” connections to transit stations. Keeping these on-demand shuttles a complement to buses and trains, rather than a competitor, will take careful planning and monitoring.
But for a city like Arlington, where so little transit has been historically available, the question is more about what riders stand to gain than lose. A successful expansion of microtransit may very well build demand for fixed-route services in the future. And apart from drawing travelers out of private cars, Via may help unlock answers to questions that are puzzling transit agencies around the country. According to Jon McBride, a transportation consultant who formerly worked for Bridj, an advantage of on-demand mobility apps that is often overlooked is all the data on where passengers want to go—even when that trip isn’t served yet.
“There isn’t a transit agency in the U.S. that has any valuable data on the demand they don’t/can’t serve,” McBride said via email. “They have no real idea what service people are looking for—perhaps this contributes to the declining ridership most of them are seeing.”
In more ways than one, maybe microtransit can help turn that around.