Cities can improve microtransit by partnering with private contractors
Photo 31887515 © Bdingman |


Cities can improve microtransit by partnering with private contractors

Microtransit systems connect riders through their first or last mile of public transit.

Ridership on traditional fixed-route public transit services in the United States has been limited. And service quality on these systems has been lackluster. To combat these problems, many U.S. regions have developed a supplementary transit option called microtransit.

Microtransit is an on-demand service that connects low-density areas within a metro area to business and activity centers or nearby transit stops. These systems connect riders through their first or last mile of public transit. Microtransit can assist an underserved transportation niche and be particularly valuable for those with limited mobility. 

While transit agencies are still experimenting with this new type of service, several operate cost-effective, reliable services with high ridership. 

For example, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has succeeded with its microtransit system FlexRide. With 26,000 new FlexRide users since 2022 and an increase in overall RTD boarding of five million rides, FlexRide complements Denver’s fixed-route transit system. 

FlexRide operates in low-density suburban areas and connects riders from the first and last mile of their journey to fixed-route transit services. Like other on-demand transportation services, riders can request to be picked up for a ride in just 10 minutes or schedule one up to 30 days in advance. Then, a minibus takes riders to the closest bus or light-rail station to complete their journeys. 

Denver’s Regional Transportation District’s microtransit system has proven very cost-effective. Of RTD’s $784 million operating budget, only 6% funds FlexRide. But not all transit agencies have had the same success. Microtransit alone cannot fix a transit system with higher operating costs. 

The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) has struggled with low ridership and high costs. Despite the 18,000 riders using DART’s microtransit service, DART On Demand, Des Moines plans to cut total fixed-route bus service by 40%. Despite the introduction of microtransit service, in percentage terms, Des Moines’ post-COVID transit recovery is lagging Denver, and ridership remains far below its own 2019 numbers. 

While there are numerous differences between Denver and Des Moines, when it comes to this same type of transit service, how is FlexRide able to encourage ridership cost-effectively while DART On Demand struggles with high costs? 

Both are public agencies, but DART On Demand operates all of its services. In-house staff conduct the maintenance, operate the bus service, and clean the vehicles. In contrast, Denver RTD contracts with Transdev, a private transit contractor, to clean, operate, and maintain FlexRide’s bus operations. 

While having transit agencies directly operate service is standard practice in the United States, it often leads to higher costs and lower-quality service. When service quality dips, so does ridership. Public agencies rarely meet the same performance standards as private contractors, and even if they do have such metrics, there is rarely a penalty for noncompliance. DART On Demand is a typical example of a transit agency–operated service. For instance, the average pick-up time for ride requests has reached 20 minutes, and dissatisfied riders have understandably quit using the service

Given that the same agency in charge of overseeing service is also operating that service, political concerns and bureaucratic conflict interfere with incentives to improve service. Bureaucratic hurdles slow the decision-making process and reduce the responsiveness to rider problems. So, despite public requests for service improvements, DART’s exhaustive decision-making process delays change. 

For DART to initiate change, the board of commissioners votes on pressing matters in a meeting held once a month. From here, the board takes comments from the public to add to the next agenda. When an item moves to the approval stages, more bottlenecking occurs by waiting for the state legislature to approve these changes. While DART does collect surveys and comments from online complaints, these calls for improved services are not pressing enough to make immediate changes. 

Compare Des Moines’ slow responses with how Denver operates its microtransit. As with most contracts, private entities must operate a high-quality service to have their contracts renewed with Denver RTD. For Transdev, high-quality service means timely vehicle arrivals, reliable drivers, travel safety, and real-time updates to service changes. Considering these metrics, 76% of riders reported being satisfied with the RTD’s service. With a good rate of rider satisfaction, Transdev makes it more likely it will remain the microtransit provider for RTD. 

Thankfully, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority has realized that its current approach is not working. To revitalize microtransit, the agency has created an alternative service and will eliminate its agency-operated, on-demand service. Flex Connect, DART’s new microtransit offering, contracts with Uber as its primary operator. Instead of using minibuses, Flex Connect gives riders a voucher for Uber during the workweek. Uber will provide a slightly different type of service, but one that could be a better fit for the Des Moines region. 

By using an independent operator instead of consolidating all operations, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority’s microtransit system can now respond better to rider requests and market incentives. By increasing rider satisfaction, DART could increase ridership on its system and mirror Denver’s Regional Transportation District’s success.