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Uber-like services in the suburbs? 'Microtransit' tech wants to make it happen

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Three new services launching in California aim to bring high-tech efficiency to smaller transit agencies.

TransLoc

This morning, TransLoc, a tech firm that specializes in microtransit—using smaller shuttles that utilize ridehailing technology to increase the efficiency of public transit—announced that it’s partnering with local transit agencies in three California market to bring Uber-like service to suburban transit authorities.

The Durham, North Carolina-based firm announced that it will roll out service within Orange County, Central Contra Costa, and the San Joaquin Valley over the next year, providing its flex-transit platform to each agency. By focusing on suburban and rural areas, TransLoc aims to answer an important question for the future of this type of transportation: can it add efficient, and affordable, transit options in areas that lack the type of density traditionally associated with mass transit?

Proponents of the growing micro-transit movement see it as a means of cheaply and efficiently expanding mass transit access. These types of services, which offer on-demand transit, could become the feeder system for larger regional transport systems, ferrying riders from neighborhoods to local transit hubs. Many also see a big opportunity for these services to feature automated and electric vehicles, which would lead to more sustainable and efficient mass transit. Trials in Las Vegas and Helsinki are working towards those ends.

The Ford-owned Chariot system hit speed bumps after it was rolled out in San Francisco.
Ford

The Orange County trials, which will operate as OC Flex in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, as well as the new service in Central Contra Costa, a Bay Area suburb, will help expand suburban transit service beyond fixed routes and provide connections to transit hubs, such as the Walnut Creek BART station. In rural San Joaquin, the service will focus on expanding and improving paratransit services.

So far, many of the notable private microtransit experiments in the U.S. have had mixed success. Ford’s Chariot system, which recently expanded to New York, was forced to shut down in California over driver licensing issues, while other startups, such as Loup and Bridj, stopped running trials after failing to develop a sizable, steady ridership.

Working within a public funding model, where the service is helping rather than competing against existing transit services, may prove more sustainable. Los Angeles recently announced intentions to find a private partner to help launch a microtransit service, in part to help make a bus system with declining ridership become more efficient.