Modern technology continues to revolutionize the face of transportation. The success of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft suggest the future of the transportation sector lies in providing customers with dynamic, demand-driven transit services.
Transit agencies are looking at microtransit as a way to incorporate TNC technology into public transportation.
Microtransit is a relatively recent phenomenon that allows customers to reserve trips online or through a mobile interface and uses software algorithms to map out dynamic service routes. The Eno Center for Transportation notes that microtransit “can be operated on a fixed or flexible route, and by a preset schedule or on-demand schedule.”
When operated in an efficient manner, microtransit can offer to riders benefits that are different from those offered by traditional transportation modes. Passengers have the added convenience of booking in advance, tracking their trips in real time, and arriving at their destinations more quickly. Since microtransit vehicles are typically small shuttles, they are more affordable to maintain than larger bus fleets. They do, however, incur high technology maintenance costs, which makes their upkeep expenses more or less on par with regular buses.
The first microtransit companies, Bridj and Chariot, arose in 2014. While Bridj is no longer operational, Chariot provides fixed route services in metropolitan areas such as New York and Chicago and offers customers the opportunity to propose new routes online or to rent shuttles. Bridj also operated on a fixed-route basis, originating in Boston and expanding into Washington, DC. Prior to its shutdown, Bridj teamed up with the Kansas City Area Transportion Authority (KCTA) to launch a year-long microtransit pilot study. While the program proved microtransit to be a viable concept, ridership rates ran lower than projected and operating costs totaled around $1,000 per ride.
The Eno Center For Transportation largely attributes the results of the KCTA study to a lack of public education about the program as well as the program’s failure to cater specifically to customers’ geographical and mid-day transportation needs.
Other pilot programs have yielded mixed results. Critics, such as public transit consultant and blogger Jarrett Walker, argue that microtransit reaps limited benefits, noting that many pilot studies fail by having lower ridership rates than traditional fixed-route buses. Proponents of microtransit, such as TransLoc, a private company that has worked with transit agencies to implement demand-responsive technology, counter that microtransit can increase ridership rates and improve wait times in a cost-effective manner compared to traditional bus services.
In a research report, “UpRouted: Exploring Microtransit in the United States,” the Eno Center provides transit agencies with useful information to consider before implementing microtransit pilot programs on the ground. The study focuses on the results of three different pilot studies, the most successful program identified being the Alameda Contra-Costa Transit District’s (AC Transit) partnership with DemandTrans Solutions.
AC Transit transportation planner John Urgo writes that AC Transit “aimed to test if insufficiently low-density service areas, on-demand service could improve service quality at an equal or reduced cost.”
The program, known as AC Transit Flex, launched in June 2016. Flex buses operated on a flexible, demand-driven schedule around Newark, Castro Valley, and Fremont, California. Customers paid the same fare rate as with public transit. They reserved trips in advance, online or through the call center; then, customers were picked up at neighboring bus stops. The Flex shuttle operating in Newark replaced the underperforming bus line 275, while another bus ran parallel to two existing service lines. Trips destined for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Station (BART) did not require scheduling and received twice as much traffic as any other stop.
After the pilot’s end, AC Transit considered the program to be successful and permanently incorporated Flex into its public transit system. The program received a positive reception from several transit agencies, politicians and the media.
Depending on the metrics used to assess the pilot, however, the program could be considered a success in certain ways and a failure in others. The program was cost-neutral and succeeded in decreasing wait times from 45-60 minutes to 30 minutes. Flex also received overwhelmingly positive feedback from its customers, with 94 percent of customers favoring Flex over the route that it replaced. And, when measuring transit ridership during peak commute hours, Flex performed on-par with the fixed route it replaced, picking up an average of seven passengers per hour. However, Urgo notes that the service failed to improve ridership overall, with rates averaging just three passengers per hour. This is abysmal compared to the already low average network rate of 14 passengers per hour.
The important question to ask is whether ridership rates declined due to passengers preferring fixed-routes of operation, or if they lacked educational awareness about the technology and how to use it.
AC Transit reported that through the duration of the pilot, 46 percent percent of customers made online reservations, 38 percent of ridership came from BART stations and 16 percent relied on call centers to book trips. Additionally, around 50 percent of passengers that used line 275 transferred over to other fixed bus routes, which could indicate that passengers preferred the fixed lines to Flex. However, the answer isn’t so cut and dry. In the report, AC Transit notes that while the Newark Flex experienced decreased ridership rates, Castro Valley ridership “is currently at its highest levels since the start of the program.”
The Flex program could have benefited from more extensive advertising efforts to spread awareness about the program. During the initial pilot launch, advertising started after the line had been operating for several months. Had more money been spent on marketing, perhaps ridership would have been higher. As the Eno Center notes, it is necessary for transit agencies to a) spend a sufficient amount of money and time on their advertising both online and on the ground, and b) gather local knowledge of consumer preferences by extensively researching and surveying the locals in potential areas of implementation.
A 2012 survey conducted by Redhill Group on behalf of the Metropolitan Transit Commission asked AC Transit passengers several questions relating to transit use and demographic information to better assess the needs of riders. They collected 9,512 weekday and 519-weekend phone surveys as well as 28,028 weekday and 1,731-weekend field surveys.
The survey found that 61 percent of participants favored increased bus route frequency over increased proximity to bus stops. Flex provided exactly that by decreasing wait times from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the survey failed to provide more detailed consumer transit preferences. County-wide and area-specific passenger surveys ought to be conducted to measure public favorability of flexible versus fixed-route services.
At this point, it is too early to discern conclusively whether microtransit will be able to match or surpass fixed-route ridership rates. While placing an emphasis on advertising campaigns may help boost ridership rates, transit agencies looking to increase ridership in low-density areas may find it more difficult than expected. However, microtransit can provide other benefits, such as customer convenience and decreased wait times. Agencies, therefore, must recognize that certain trade-offs are made when implementing microtransit technology.