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Can Uber-like public “microtransit” replace old-fashioned buses?

Smaller cities like Wilson, NC are experimenting with transit options that resemble ride share outfits like Uber and Lyft: Photo: City of Wilson

A program in Wilson, NC is attempting to connect public transportation users with more convenient options.

[This story was produced by “Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.” Click here to read the original post.]

Shudiara McMillian doesn’t have a car and relies on city transit in Wilson, North Carolina, to get wherever she needs to go, whether it’s to work or shopping or a medical appointment.

Until about two years ago, that could mean a long wait at a bus stop because the city’s buses ran only once an hour. And it often meant riding all around town while the bus picked up and dropped off other passengers before finally getting to her stop.

Now, when McMillian needs transportation, she can book it on an app on her phone, and a Toyota Sienna minivan from the city’s RIDE transit service will pick her up at a nearby location and bring her to her destination.

“It’s given me a lot of freedom to go where I want to go,” said McMillian, 32, an office worker in the city’s utility department. “With RIDE, there might be a pickup or two on the way, but it’s a lot more convenient to book a ride on my phone and get to places faster.”

On-demand public transit, also called microtransit, is becoming increasingly popular across the United States, particularly in small cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Inspired by Uber and Lyft shared-ride services, the idea is to have people request a ride, usually a small van or shuttle, either by using a mobile app or by phone, and pay a small fare. The driver will pick them up, often on a corner or a few blocks away, and drop them off near where they want to go within a designated service boundary. Sometimes, the ride will take them to a fixed bus route or connect them to a central transit station.

Transit agencies say they want to be more flexible and responsive, offering an alternative to riders who may face long bus waits and transfers. They’re also hoping to attract new riders who may not live along bus routes.

“This is trying to make public transit as relevant as possible in communities that just don’t have the ability to provide high-frequency fixed-route service,” said Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America, a trade group that represents smaller transit operators.

Critics, supporters debate costs, benefits

But some transit advocates argue that microtransit is a bad deal for public agencies because it’s costly and inefficient. They say transit agencies instead should focus on increasing ridership on their current routes by adding more frequent service and improving bus stops.

“Microtransit projects are a poor use of public funds,” said Hayley Richardson, communications director at TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in New York. “There’s this uncritical exuberance around the idea, but there’s very little to show for it.”

Large, densely populated cities typically use regular fixed bus routes where people can walk or bike a short distance to a designated stop. But that’s not possible in many suburbs and rural areas, sometimes called transit deserts.

Local transportation officials say creating fixed bus routes just to reach those people would be cost prohibitive for agencies, which would wind up running full-sized buses that had few, if any, riders.

A growing number of transit agencies have been rethinking how they operate, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which they have had to deal with a big drop in ridership, revenue losses and teleworking. They’re also realizing they need to improve service for essential workers, who stuck with public transit throughout the pandemic when others abandoned it.

“From cities down to the rural areas, in so many facets of life, transit agencies are looking at things that may have seemed temporary during the pandemic that now are becoming more permanent,” Bogren said. “If you only have one way of service, a one-size-fits-all, how responsive can you be? You need a variety of services to meet that community’s needs.”

Some agencies are using microtransit to reach areas that never had transit or to augment regular service. Some are replacing poorly performing bus routes with on-demand. Some are eliminating fixed routes entirely and replacing them with microtransit. And some are offering transit for the first time.

Last year, Valdosta, Georgia, brought public transit to the city when it launched Valdosta On-Demand. Since then, it has gotten more than 14,000 ride requests a month. according to Mayor Scott James Matheson.

Microtransit supporters point out that, unlike paratransit, a shared-ride service for people with disabilities, on-demand is available to anyone. That includes riders with disabilities who may be frustrated with the long waits and advance notice required by paratransit service. Typically, some microtransit vehicles are handicap accessible, and agencies offer door-to-door service to people with disabilities and older adults.

An option for larger metros?

Even some big cities are experimenting with microtransit.

In the Austin, Texas, area, CapMetro runs Pickup, an on-demand service in 11 zones. Officials replaced one bus route entirely, re-routed others and added service that didn’t previously exist, spokesperson Blythe Nebeker said in an email.

Some transit agencies run on-demand services themselves, purchasing software from private companies but using their own employees and vehicles.

That’s how SporTran, the local transit agency in the Shreveport, Louisiana, area, operates. The agency, which began offering on-demand last fall, has 47 stops where people can pick up their ride. The main goal is to provide access to rural areas beyond the reach of standard bus routes, especially for riders with low incomes, said spokesperson Leslie Peck.

SporTran has pulled some bus routes and replaced them with on-demand, including one that goes to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.

“Instead of incurring the expense of running a full-sized bus through the base for a few riders, we send a sedan directly to them at the time they scheduled,” Peck said.

Other agencies contract with private microtransit companies to run the whole on-demand service.

That’s the setup in Wilson, where buses on fixed routes used to cover only about 40% of the city and carry 1,450 passengers on a typical week, according to Assistant City Manager Rodger Lentz. Now, RIDE covers nearly 100% of the city’s 30 square miles and carries between 3,700 and 3,900 passengers a week.

“The old bus system was designed when downtown was king for employment,” Lentz said. “Now, we have big corporate parks on the edge of town that the system didn’t even connect you to.”

The city spends about $1.7 million a year on the RIDE program, compared with about $1.3 million that it spent previously, he said.

RIDE passengers pay $1.50 for “corner to corner” service or can buy a $10 pass for 10 rides. Seniors or people with disabilities get a discount and can be picked up at the curb in front of their homes. Riders can book through an app, a website or by phone.

Lentz said that while RIDE is aimed at people who are transit dependent, it also has brought in riders who otherwise would have driven or taken Uber.

“It not only has increased equity and access for people of color who can’t afford a car,” he said. “It also is being used by people with high-paying jobs at the corporate park and at the hospital.”

In the northern Utah region that includes Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority’s UTA On Demand also has been a success, said Jaron Robertson, the agency’s acting planning director.

The agency, which also uses a private company to run the service, has replaced some routes with microtransit, which it offers in four service areas.

“We see it as a much better solution to providing transit to people in rural and suburban areas where they may not be a fixed bus, or we’ve been running one, and it just doesn’t meet the needs of the community,” Robertson said.

The agency is seeing a variety of demographics among riders, he added.

“We’re tapping into a younger generation,” he said. “We’re seeing students. We’re seeing minority or disadvantaged populations. We’re seeing seniors and people with disabilities.”

Efficiency questions persist

But microtransit has inherent limitations, according to a 2019 brief by TransitCenter, which said it involves traveling greater distances, carrying fewer people and costing agencies much more to run than an average bus route.

“Each dollar spent on microtransit is a dollar agencies can’t spend on more cost-effective strategies to increase ridership, like adding frequency on major routes or improving bus stops,” the brief said.

Richardson, the center’s spokesperson, calls on-demand a “really bad” way to serve the most riders.

“We are continually hearing that it’s the cure for declining ridership, it’s the panacea. It’s just not. There’s a desire to find the magic fix.”

For bus routes that have fewer than six riders an hour, it might make sense, she said, but most have a higher number. For routes with consistently low ridership, agencies instead could make changes such as improving bus shelters and building better sidewalks, she added.

“They’re throwing away money on a microtransit service that is serving very few people at a higher cost,” she said.

And often, microtransit experiments don’t pan out, Richardson said.

Over the past decade, some transit agencies have found that microtransit didn’t attract enough riders or was too costly. Many, however, are trying once again.

In the Kansas City region, the area transportation authority partnered with a microtransit company to launch a yearlong on-demand pilot program for commuters in 2016. But it provided only 1,480 rides, and the costs amounted to about $1,000 a ride, according to a 2018 report by the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that analyzes policy. The project was terminated.

Within a few years, though, transit authority officials launched a new on-demand pilot project. Since then, they have extended it several times and recently expanded service.

Bogren, of the transit operators group, said agencies are anxious to learn from both their hits and misses.

“The opposition to microtransit is short-sighted,” he said. “The notion of saying ‘we’ve built a fixed route network, and it’s up to the population to figure that out and navigate that’ just doesn’t work. There are large parts of the population that won’t do that.”

Bogren said the majority of his group’s 1,200 members are exploring on-demand options to see whether they make sense.

“This is the future,” he said. “Most transit agencies are either using microtransit or planning for it. If they’re ignoring it, they’re missing the boat.”

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure, and cybersecurity for Stateline.

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Can Uber-like public “microtransit” replace old-fashioned buses?