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Microtransit: How cities are, and aren’t, adapting transit technology

A new report offers lessons on adapting transit to an on-demand world

KCATA Wrapped Ford Transit Van photographed Feb. 10, 2016 in front of Kansas City's Union Station.

In the age of Uber and Lyft, many planners and pundits believe the answer to mass transit’s shrinking ridership and service issues must be better technology. But a new study of municipal microtransit—small-scale, on-demand public transit services—suggests the real issue is whether planners and transit agencies are asking the right questions in pursuit of a technological upgrade.

Written by a team of authors and released by the Eno Transportation Institute, UpRouted looked at existing and ongoing case studies of microtransit services in the U.S. By utilizing some form of on-demand service and booking, these pilot programs aimed to address urban mobility’s changing landscape, one radically shifted by mobile technology. A recent University of California Davis study found that a growing number of potential bus and rail riders were utilizing Uber and Lyft services to get around, especially during off-peak hours.

“On-demand, dynamic route, new mobility services have changed customer expectations around transportation and public transit agencies want to be responsive to these changes,” UpRouted notes.

Well aware of these consumer and technological shift, public transit agencies have attempted to adjust. The report analyzed a handful of pilot programs meant to solve the challenges facing urban mass transit: ridership declines, costs and inefficiencies, and insufficient options, especially for resources for underserved communities.

Research from the Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC) found that transit systems could build upon and bolster public transit offerings by adapting on-demand dynamic route transportation technology. But reaching that potential requires tricky service adjustments, not just tech. UpRouted offers an important lesson for any would-be transit savior. Early trials have shown it’s better to build on existing services than try to create entirely new systems. Or, in tech vocabulary, try to iterate as opposed to disrupt.

Two recent trials point to problems in execution, with services designed around the technological possibilities for problem-solving, as opposed to more focused iterations on existing transit lines.

In Kansas City, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) tested out Bridj, an app-based way to request rides that picked up passengers in 14-person vans and dropped them off at work. The year-long trial, which kicked off in March of 2016, offered a one-way, commuter-based service; rides were only available during rush hours in the morning and evenings, and in one general direction.

Crunching survey data from the year-long trial suggested that Bridj’s limited nature turned away many riders; without midday options or a more flexible service area, the concept was mostly adopted by a committed core of users. “A service with a larger and less linear operation area with a larger operation window may have provided customers their desired flexibility” UpRouted concluded.

Another tech transit test, FLEX, a service of the Santa Clara County’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in the Bay Area, was also hampered by a limited service area, as well as technical and marketing shortfalls. Converted 26-passenger buses could be hailed via a smartphone within a 3.25-square mile service area, using pre-defined pick-up and drop-off spots. FLEX even guaranteed pick-ups within seven-and-a-half minutes.

The issue, again, was casting too wide a net without enough focus. The original service area, drawn to zero in on an area lacking transit connections, didn’t reach the nearby light rail stop (the pilot was later expanded to make that connection). Like Bridj, FLEX only appealed to a small core of users, didn’t meet the needs of enough riders, and was discontinued after six months due to low utility and high costs.

Another test showed how microtransit can work, especially if it iterates on existing services. First-mile, last-mile trials with companies such as Uber and Lyft have shown progress. In Centennial, Colorado, the city launched a program to subsidize rides to and from the local light rail station, which proved a cost effective way of improving transit and rail ridership.

In western Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in the east San Francisco Bay, which are served by low-performing bus routes, the local transit agency decided to replace it with a more responsive, efficient system. Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) initiated the Flex pilot in early 2016. The agency replaced bus line 275 with a responsive system that allows user to book rides, allowing for more efficient routing. It didn’t utilize a mobile app, but instead allowed user to schedule pickups online ahead of time. Users could also take the Flex line home from a nearby BART rail connection and input their destination into an on-board tablet.

More important to the eventual success of the trial, AC Transit did extensive outreach and marketing, unlike FLEX and Bridj. Everyone who lived within a quarter-mile of the line was sent a flyer, bus stations were plastered with ads, the new service even ran in parallel with the 275 for eight months, giving users a chance to try it out before committing.

The AC Transit’s Flex system isn’t perfect, but the agency found the switch offered faster rides for many customers, and was revenue neutral. The agency plans to expand the system, aiming to provide more efficient, quicker service. The authors found that AC Transit “knew it had a clear customer base for this line, albeit low density and low demand,” and that by focusing on a specific challenges and customer base, they were able to generate significant ridership.

“On-demand, dynamic route technology options provide a new value proposition for public transportation customers, but it is critical to remember that this technology cannot solve all of public transportation’s challenges,” the report notes.