Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon

Microtransit

Microtransit options offer flexible routing and scheduling, and the vehicles are usually minibuses or small shuttles.
Black microtransit van driving across bridge

Photo by Andy Ambrosius via Via. Used with permission.

Microtransit is a relatively new and still very volatile addition to the 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 are also as a general rule smaller than those used by public transit, typically consisting of shuttles or minibuses rather than full-sized buses. These vehicles also typically feature amenities not found on public transit vehicles, such as USB charging ports and wireless internet access. Additionally, unlike public transit, most microtransit service operators are private companies.

Variables to consider

Public vs. Private Usage

Microtransit can either be oriented around either public or private ridership. In public ridership models, microtransit providers are usually providing 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 Bridj, 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.

Innovation Drivers

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 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.

Closeup image of Bridj minibus

Photo by Ford via Ford Media. Used with permission.

Barriers

Microtransit has not demonstrated long-term financial feasibility since its inception, with once major operators such as Bridj and Chariot severely reducing their operations or 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 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. 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.

Key players

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 will be ceasing all operations by 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 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.

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 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. 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.  


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