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Microtransit options offer flexible routing and scheduling on minibuses, small shuttles, or vans.
Microtransit is a relatively new addition to mobility as a service (MaaS) and shared mobility fields. In contrast to conventional transit, microtransit is usually operated on an on-demand basis along fixed or flexible routes, and relies on smartphone apps or other technology platforms for ride requests and routing details. Microtransit fleets, as a general rule, are smaller than those used by public transit--typically consisting of shuttles or minibuses rather than full-sized buses. These vehicles can feature amenities not typically found on public transit vehicles, including USB charging ports and wireless internet access. Additionally, unlike public transit, most microtransit service operators are private companies, including Via and Transloc. In some cases, private companies provide the on-demand platform and software that is then installed on public transportation vehicles, such as for Marin Transit Connect.
Variables to consider
Public vs. Private Usage
Microtransit can either be oriented around either public or private ridership. In public ridership models, microtransit companies provide short-range transit for individuals or groups who request service through an app or related technology platform. Conversely, private microtransit is typically set up by an organization to provide transportation for employees either travelling and from a workplace or between two workplaces, often through a fixed route or schedule. Examples of the former include Via and Transloc, while examples of the latter include the employee shuttle programs operated by companies such as Google and Apple.
Public Transit Integration
Microtransit services are often integrated with public transit, either by tailoring routing and scheduling to complement public transit equivalents, by entering into formalized partnerships with transit authorities to provide first- and last-mile connections between transit hubs, or both. In these cases, pricing is typically kept similar to public transit fares, or in some cases are even included in public transit passes. However, microtransit services can also operate independently from or in competition with public transit services. In these cases, prices can remain similar to public transit fares, or they can be significantly higher if the service provider is targeting a more affluent riderbase. One study suggests that one of the most promising use cases for microtransit is as an alternative to fixed-route transit in low density areas.
Widespread internet-capable device usage has been a key element in the growth of microtransit services. Where conventional shuttle services typically require calling a dispatcher to request a ride, microtransit operators enable riders to request and pay for service through their smartphones, tablets, or other mobile devices. In addition to being more convenient, this app-based approach also allows microtransit operators to match requests to routes and available vehicles in real time.
Microtransit can fill gaps left by public transit or other modes of transportation. In areas where public transit operates on a limited basis or doesn’t operate at all, microtransit can provide either point-to-point or first-/last-mile transportation for people unable or unwilling to drive. Microtransit services are also being used during the Covid-19 pandemic to get essential workers to and from jobs, as well as help transit dependent residents make essential trips. Microtransit services can also operate outside of normal public transit hours, providing safe transportation for non-drivers during off hours.
Microtransit can be more convenient than other transportation modes. This is often a major driver behind private microtransit usage, where using company-provided microtransit instead of driving or using public transit can be faster or more pleasant. This is particularly true for companies that operate microtransit services in cities such as San Francisco, where commute times can be long and the amenities offered by a company shuttle can allow riders to work en route.
Microtransit has not demonstrated long-term financial feasibility since its inception, with once major operators such as Bridj and Chariot closing down entirely. A significant financial hurdle comes from the very nature of the service itself—microtransit is in part designed around on-demand transportation, and there is no guarantee that any given trip will acquire enough riders to cover expenses. In addition, high capital costs, low demand, and lack of differentiation with public transit continues to be a barrier to financial viability, according to a study by Feigon, Murphy, and McAdams. In many cases, microtransit trips are significantly more expensive to operate than conventional public transit trips, and without being heavily subsidized, microtransit services often struggle to remain financially solvent.
Microtransit is not always equitable in how services are provided. Whereas public transit operates under a public mandate, microtransit operators are primarily private, for-profit enterprises. As a result, while a public transit authority can justify operating certain routes at a loss in order to serve the public interest, microtransit operators typically cannot. This can have significant equity implications if, for example, a microtransit service replaces low-usage public transit routes and then decides to suspend service, leaving riders dependent on transit stranded. Similarly, while public transit typically keeps fare prices low, often well below the price point necessary to break even, microtransit pricing can be much higher, especially if affluent riders are the target demographic.
Microtransit can add to traffic congestion by putting more vehicles on the road if they are pulling people off of existing transit services. This may not be a significant issue in situations where microtransit complements public transit. However, when operating independently microtransit is competing for curb space and lane space with public transit, personal vehicles, transportation network companies (TNCs), and other traffic types. In cases where microtransit overlap with public transit routes, the number of vehicles on the road is at least double what it would be if only one route or the other existed.
Public-oriented microtransit companies such as Via, Bridj, and Chariot are some of the most visible examples of microtransit. However, the last few years have not been kind to them. Of the three, only Via is continuing to operate at full capacity, while Bridj has declared bankruptcy and now only provides service in select Australian cities, and Chariot ceased all operations in March 2020.
Tech giants and other large corporations represent the largest internal microtransit operators. Companies such as Google and Apple have operated microtransit services for their employees for several years now, with Google’s service in particular having been in operation since 2007. Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, and Ford also have their own internal microtransit services. In contrast to public-oriented microtransit, these company services do not necessarily need to be financially self-sufficient.
Public transit authorities have also sometimes operated microtransit services of their own. For example, Washington, D.C. offers the DC Microtransit service, which provides on-demand transportation throughout certain high-traffic areas of the city. In these cases, microtransit services are often operated as an extension of an existing public transit service. More recently the federal government has funded MOD Sandbox pilot projects such as the Via to Transit pilots in the Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California regions. The American Public Transit Authority also tracks microtransit efforts across the country.
Use case examples
People use microtransit services for first- and last-mile transportation. Travelling to and from other transportation hubs such as transit centers is a common microtransit use, particularly in areas where no other transit options exist. Additionally, microtransit is often used to provide site-to-site transportation, such as travelling across a corporate campus.
People use microtransit when no other transportation options are available. In areas with limited or no public transit service, or during times when no such service is available, microtransit can often be used instead. During the Covid-19 pandemic, transit agencies have added microtransit services in locations that have experienced service cuts. Additionally, microtransit can be useful for people unable or unwilling to drive, with “safe ride” microtransit services for people who are intoxicated or would be vulnerable if travelling alone often enjoying great popularity.
People use microtransit for convenience. Microtransit vehicles are often more amenities-rich than those used by public transit, and the smaller, on-demand nature of the service often means that microtransit is the faster and more pleasant option. This is particularly true of internal microtransit or elite-focused microtransit services, thought the latter has not had much success, with examples such as San Francisco’s Leap Transit shutting down within months of launching.
Pilots & developments
1914 - The jitney, the first precursor to microtransit, first appears in Los Angeles when individuals began providing bus-like service during a streetcar strike.
October 2012 - Kutsuplus launches in Helsinki, Finland, and is considered the first modern-day microtransit offering in the world.
June 2014 - Bridj begins providing rides in the Greater Boston Area, making it the first company to offer microtransit service in the United States.
November 2014 - Chariot, a microtransit company headquartered in San Francisco, announces beta testing of “crowdfunding” new routes. Using tilt.com, a crowdfunding platform, Chariot sells discounted monthly passes to multiple proposed routes. If enough monthly passes are sold, Chariot adds the new route to their regular service.
August 2015 - TransLoc makes their OnDemand software available to transit agencies, introducing the “agency-owned” model of microtransit to the United States.
December 2015 - Despite high customer satisfaction, the Finnish microtransit service Kutsuplus stops operating, primarily due to high costs.
March 2016 - The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and Bridj begin a six-month pilot project, the first in the United States. The Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) at the University of California conducted an analysis for the pilot, and can be found here.
March 2017 - Lyft becomes the first American TNC to offer microtransit services. Lyft launches their Lyft Shuttle in San Francisco and Chicago.
April 2017 - The CEO of Bridj, a microtransit company at the time operating in Boston, Washington DC, and Kansas City, announces the company will cease all operations.
January 2018 - In Texas, the City of Arlington becomes the first US city to use microtransit as the sole public transportation service.
December 2018 - TNC giant Uber unveils their own microtransit service, Uber Bus, in Cairo, Egypt.
January 2019 - Chariot, the microtransit company acquired by Ford in late 2016, reveals that they will stop operating and will lay off 625 employees throughout the United States.
July 2019 - Via starts to test the use of autonomous vehicles for microtransit in a retirement village in New South Wales, Australia.
Policies, Pilots, and approaches
Report – Industry
In the United States, public transportation agencies are experimenting with on-demand, shared, and dynamic models to augment traditional fixed-route bus and train services. These services—referred to as microtransit— are enabled by technology similar to the mobile smartphone applications pioneered by privately operated transportation network companies. As interest in this technology grows, it is critical for public transportation agencies and departments of transportation to understand the benefits and challenges of incorporating components of these innovations into publicly funded services. This research is informed by limited literature to date as well as a series of interviews with the project teams working on the pilots. It concludes with a set of recommendations intended to inform the design and implementation of future public microtransit pilots and service delivery models.
This book provides a complete overview of microtransit, siting research publications, surveys, and case studies from current pilot programs happening throughout the country.
"This research explored how these new options could be synergistic with public transit models and detailed the experiences of two transit operators that entered into service delivery partnerships with a transportation network company and a micro- transit operator. Based on a series of interviews and the experiences of these two public agencies, this research provides a set of key takeaways and recommendations for transit operators exploring the potential of partnering with new mobility services such as transportation network companies (e.g., Uber or Lyft) and microtransit (e.g., Bridj or Via)."
Report – Government
In partnership with Via, Marin County Transit District (Marin Transit) launched a microtransit pilot program in May 2018. This report created by Marin Transit contains lots of insights into the design and outcome of the pilot project. In particular, the survey results and data analysis in the report is very colorful.
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