Is Microtransit a Sensible Transit Investment?

It’s “microtransit week” at Human Transit.  Last weekend I asked if microtransit is a new idea and whether this matters.  I’ve also explored the question of whether apps transform the economics of transport in a fundamental way, which is an important part of the microtransit conversation.

Today, I attempt to put microtransit in the context of the goals that usually motivate transit agencies.  This is all part of my attempt to figure out what advice I should be giving transit agencies, all of whom are being encouraged to do microtransit pilots.  Your comments will affect how I think about this, and what I advise transit agencies to do on this issue.  


What is a transit agency trying to do?  What goals animate its activity and justify its use of public funds?  In my career I’ve watched many planning processes that seemed to dodge those questions.  Over and over, I watched people try to define goals backward from projects (“what goal will make this cool thing I want look like a good idea?”) rather than forward from things that taxpayers and citizens actually care about.  My book Human Transit grew from that problem.

So let’s try working forward from typical transit goals, and see where we end up on the microtransit question.

Sorting Out Goals

Transit is expected to do many things. These things generally fall into one of two opposite groups of goals.

  • Ridership goals are met when a transit agency achieves maximum ridership for its budget.  Ridership goals include emissions reduction, congestion relief, reduced subsidy per passenger, support for dense urban redevelopment.  Ridership goals also mean that the transit agency is offering useful and liberating service to the greatest possible number of people.
  • Coverage goals are met when a transit agency meets people’s needs or expectations even though low ridership is the predictable result.  Coverage goals include social service goals that assess people based on how badly they need something rather than how many of them there are. Coverage goals include political equity — the desire that every electoral district or municipality gets a little something.  Finally, coverage goals can be associated with agendas of upward redistribution: Intentionally low-ridership service may be run because people who benefit have the influence to force the transit agency to do it.

The goals fall into these two categories because the kind of network you’d run is totally different in the two cases.  If you want ridership, you run big buses and trains offering frequent services in places with high demand.  If you want coverage, you spread service out so that everyone gets a little bit, even though it’s much less attractive.  I explain why this is in more detail here. My original Journal of Transport Geography paper introducing the ridership coverage tradeoff is here.

In my work with transit agencies, I encourage them to be conscious of which kinds of goal they are pursuing.  I advise transit agency boards to adopt a clear policy about how their operating budget should be divided between these goals.  For example, our much-discussed Houston redesign began with a Board decision to shift the agency’s priorities from 55% ridership to 80% ridership, which meant cutting their investment in coverage from 45% of their budget to 20%.

Note the reality I’m working in here:  Transit agencies have limited budgets.  I often hear dreamy talk about how microtransit isn’t in competition with fixed routes.  “It’s not an either-or,” people say.  “They can all work together.”  Well, they may not be competing for customers, but they are competing for funds.  When a transit agency invests in microtransit subsidies, it is doing this instead of running more fixed route service.  That’s the frame in which we must understand these microtransit proposals, at least the proposals being put forward now.

Microtransit is a Coverage Tool, not a Ridership Tool

In that context, microtransit is another way of providing coverage service.  Look at the numbers:

Service Type Typical Passenger trips/service hour
Urban subway >200
Urban light rail >100
Urban frequent bus 40-100
Ridership-justified suburban bus 15-40
Coverage-justified suburban bus 10-15
General Public Dial-a-Ride 0-3
Microtransit Pilots to Date 0-3
Paratransit (senior-disabled) 0-2

The “service hour” is a unit of operating cost.  We measure transit by the hour, not by the mile, because pre-automation transit operating costs are mostly labor.  So this table corresponds roughly to “bang for buck” for public investment.  (Can you make labor cheaper pre-automation?  Read on.)

The last four rows in this table are services that would not exist if the only goal were ridership.  (Paratransit would be provided only as required by law, not in excess of that.)  If you run those services, it can only be for a coverage goal, where low ridership is the expectation.

So, it is absurd to claim that investing in microtransit is a way to combat declining transit ridership.  In any transit agency, there is a place where an hour of fixed route bus service could attract 10-100 times as many passengers than an hour of microtransit could do.  If you want ridership, you’ll invest more in that bus service, not in microtransit or any other low-ridership service.

Comparing Microtransit to Dismal Fixed Routes

Now, suppose we do have a coverage goal.  We’re talking about a low-density, unwalkable suburban area where ridership expectations are low for whatever service we might offer.  If the goal were ridership we wouldn’t serve this area at all.

In most agencies, the worst-performing suburban fixed routes typically pick up about 10 people for every hour a bus operates. Even in the context of coverage goals, those routes are hard to defend.

So given a coverage goal, which is the opposite of a ridership goal, the thought process for whether to invest in microtransit might look like this.

Let’s start at the top.

Flexible routing is always inefficient compared to fixed routes.  You don’t really need data, although there’s plenty, to understand this geometric point.

On a fixed route, passengers gather a bus stop, so that the bus can run in a reasonably straight line that many people will find reasonably direct. This saves the bus and driver time, so the bus can get to more potential passengers, and take them to more useful destinations, in each hour it operates..

On flexible service — including microtransit — the transit vehicle meanders to serve various points where people have requested it.  This inevitably leads to more driving for fewer customers than a fixed route.

There is simply no way that a flexible-route service is going to pick up 10 people per hour of operation in a low-density suburban setting.  Maybe you can do it in the middle of San Francisco, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.  The places where fixed route buses do only 10 boardings/hour usually have low density, long average distances, and circuitous street patterns, all of which are bad for demand-responsive service too.

So if it’s anywhere near the 10 boardings/hour of a dismal fixed route, it’s a fixed route.  (There are exceptions that prove the rule.  Some “deviated fixed routes” are almost entirely fixed except for a few flexible segments.  Where these are productive, it always turns out that the fixed portion of the route is the source of the productivity.)

So even if your goal is coverage, why would you run microtransit instead of a fixed route? Since microtransit is reliably worse than fixed routes in passengers per service hour, what other kind of efficiency would make up for that, and make this viable?

The flowchart shows the three possible answers:

  • Reduce labor cost.  Forget “savings from smaller vehicles.”  Operating cost is mostly labor.  TNCs have certainly plumbed the depths of driver compensation, which lead, of course, to increased economic inequality and thence to a host of other ills.  (You also, to a large degree, get what you pay for in terms of professional skill.)  But even if those impacts are OK with you, there’s just not that much here.  Suppose you cut labor costs 50% from typical transit pay scales, which is the very bottom.  Now, to match a fixed route doing 10 boardings/hour, you need to do 5 boardings/hour, still far higher than what we’re seeing in any microtransit pilots.  (And even all you do is match the performance of a terrible fixed route, what have you acheived?)
  • Higher Fares. Of course microtransit can run on its own in a for-profit model, along the lines of UberPool. In addition, it’s possible for transit agency subsidies to reduce microtransit fares somewhat below usual TNC levels without bringing them down to anywhere near transit fares; this is being tried in some places.  But this can also be a dramatic upward redistribution: more subsidy is going to people who can likely afford TNC fares anyway.  There are also possibilities to subsidize TNCs for disadvantaged persons, but transit agencies have limited room (practically and legally) to discriminate in these ways.  Those kinds of subsidies would better come out of social service agencies.
  • “Improving Customer Experience”  Who can argue with that?  But the question is: Whose experience, at whose expense?  If transit agencies spend more money to serve fewer people, as microtransit requires, in order to give those fewer people an improved customer experience, well, why are those people so special?  “Improved customer experience” sounds great, but transit agencies are in the mass transit business, so their customer service improvements need to scale to benefit large numbers of people. If they benefit only a fortunate few, this is pretty much the definition of upward distribution of the benefits of public spending, and hence increased economic inequality.  (It can also expose transit agencies to all kinds of civil rights and environmental justice challenges, both political and legal.)  In short, the “customer experience” talk seems to boil down to elite projection.

All this time, I’ve been talking pre-automation.  Does automation, whenever it’s really ready, blow all this away?  Yes, you can erase the “increased economic inequality” box from the chart, but the “increased VMT” is still there.  Because as always, if we’re putting people in more small vehicles instead of fewer large ones, we’re increasing Vehicle Miles Travelled, which means we’re increasing congestion and seizing more street space for the use of motor vehicles.  Suburbs may be fine with that, but most big cities are not.  There isn’t room.

So Why Would a Transit Agency Invest in a Microtransit Pilot?

Transit agencies sometimes do things that make no sense to transit professionals, because the elected officials at the top order them to do it. Right now, everyone’s talking about microtransit, so of course many elected officials are talking about it.

But in my experience working with countless elected boards and officials, it’s usually possible to steer those impulses into a conversation about goals.  “When you say you want this new thing, what outcome are you really after?  Are you sure this thing really does that?  Have you thought through what the side effects are?”  I’ve been having these conversations, about all kinds of cool-ideas-of-the-moment, for a quarter century.

At this point, I cannot come up with a logical argument from any of the commonly-cited goals of transit to the idea of investing in microtransit pilots with transit agency funds. Even if the goal is low-ridership coverage, there are vanishingly few situations where flexible routing improves on the productivity of fixed routes alone.  Meanwhile, all paths in my logic lead to outcomes that most urban leaders will find bad:  Increase economic inequality, both through lower wages and through the upward redistribution of benefits, and increased vehicle miles traveled.  And even if you accepted those impacts, the math just doesn’t work.

(What should transit agencies do instead?  Well, if the problem is ridership, look at places where ridership isn’t falling, like Seattle and Houston.  Those are cities that are aggressively improving their  fixed route bus systems.)

That’s a provisional opinion, which is to say that it’s a really a question.  What have I missed?  But please, if you’re going to comment, engage with this argument.  I have heard all the beautiful stories about microtransit.  What I can’t figure out are the numbers.

The last “microtransit week” post, summing up what I think we know on the subject, is here.


Does it Matter if Microtransit is a New Idea?

It’s “microtransit ” week at Human Transit, but this post is not the place to start.  If you want the full exploration of microtransit’s impacts, which are not all wonderful, start here. If you’re curious about whether microtransit is a new idea (it doesn’t seem to be) start here.

On Friday, I asked if “microtransit” is really a new idea.  I asked that because a public relations campaign telling us that it is a new idea has reached every corner of the transit world, and clients of mine on several continents are wondering how to “respond” to this “innovation.”  You’ll want to read that short post before this one.

Many responses raised themes that I’ll get to in other posts this week. (Some are comments on my post, while many others are in this Twitter thread).  A leading academic in the field wrote this:

(I don’t follow Shaheen’s claim that “supportive public-private partnerships” are a new idea. Transit agencies have long been paying private companies to provide some of their services, in a great diversity of contracting arrangements. Microtransit proposals seem to be just another example of this. This, not jitneys, is the relevant history.)

So the main new thing seems to be the IT: the apps that take care of hailing, navigation, and payment.

And in that case, the statement that transit agencies should fund microtransit is equivalent to saying that they should upgrade the old idea of flexible-route services to include the use of IT. And if that were all there were to it, then it would certainly not need a brand name like “microtransit,” let alone this massive public relations campaign.

(Does the IT utterly change the economics of transit to the point that the result is something new?  I mean not just new and great for the customer, which it clearly is, but transformative to the cost of providing service and thus to what kind of service is practical? I’m still looking for evidence for that. For more, see here.)

The respected Eno Foundation has chosen to be a key booster of microtransit, notably in this report and in a recent article in a major newsmagazine. Eno’s Greg Rogers suggested to me that we shouldn’t care whether the idea is new:

I disagree.  To call a transit idea new, or an “innovation,” is to imply that the idea has no history, and that experienced transit professionals knew nothing about it until the innovation came along. This discourages people from asking experienced transit planners about it. It’s a very effective way of excluding a lot of expertise from the conversation.

So yes, we must think about “microtransit” in the context of the public relations campaigns that are promoting it as a “new” idea.  If we’re going to think about the public interest rather than the interest of the technology vendors, it is entirely appropriate to be skeptical (not cynical) about ideas that seem to be prevailing mainly through repetition. In other words, we must lean into the wind.

Skepticism (unlike cynicism) is a position of curiosity.  I am not arguing against microtransit, but I want to understand the idea well enough to advise my transit agency clients about it.  For that reason, I’m looking for arguments for it — and for its newness — that stand up to reasonable scrutiny.  And I’m still looking.


NOTE:  The next microtransit post, exploring whether it is a logical solution to actual transit agency goals, is here.

Is Microtransit an Actual Idea?

It’s “Microtransit” Week at Human Transit.  This is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll be seeking a coherent explanation of the universally-hyped notion that “microtransit” has some relevance to the public transit challenge. Start here.

Transit agencies everywhere are being told to prepare for “the Coming Age of Microtransit.”  Enormous effort is going into spreading the idea that microtransit is a potentially transformative invention that transit agencies need to know about, and potentially include in their offerings.

As someone who advises transit agencies on service planning and policy, I am having trouble making sense of this and I need the help of people who understand it better than I do.

Here’s how microtransit is described in the recent Eno Foundation report.

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.

And here’s the US Department of Transportation definition, quoted in the report above:

a privately owned and operated shared transportation system that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as flexible routes and on-demand scheduling. The vehicles generally include vans and buses.

These definitions boil down to three key ideas:

  1. Service whose routing changes in response to demands or requests, as opposed to fixed routes where the path of the vehicle is fixed in advance. This is the usual meaning of “flexible” or “demand-responsive.”
  2. Private sector role in providing service, but with taxpayer subsidy.  This is implied by the idea that these should be transit agency initiatives instead of things that private businesses just do for profit.
  3. Use of mobile smartphone applications for hailing, paying, and navigating, rather than the old system of ordering rides by phone. This also offers the potential of offering rides on shorter notice than before.

So my first question is:  Is that it?

Because if that’s all it is, then the next question is: Is microtransit an idea at all? 

Consider the definition elements above:

  1. Flexible routing instead of fixed routing is a very old idea.  It’s routine in the lower-wage developing world, but even in the US, many transit agencies have run service of this type for decades.  I personally was planning many kinds of demand-responsive service (from pure Dial-a-Ride to deviated fixed route) 25 years ago. This 2004 TCRP report synthesizes decades of experience on the topic.
  2. Private sector operation of transit, under contract with government, is a very old idea.  North American agencies routinely contract with the private sector to provide some services, especially smaller-vehicle services, and have done so for decades. There are many established companies specializing in this kind of work, and new technology companies are welcome to compete with them.
  3. Use of apps.  Is this the only new thing?

If so, then the claim that transit agencies need to investigate microtransit would be logically equivalent to this statement:

Transit agencies should upgrade their toolbox of demand-responsive service to use smartphone technology for hailing, navigation, and payment.

And most of the best transit agencies are already working on that.

Please help me out with a comment.  And please: Don’t just switch to some other angle for describing how cool microtransit is.  Address my actual logic above, and explain exactly what I’m missing.  Thanks!

I got some answers, which I discuss in the next posts in this series.

The Problem with “Transit Gaps”

I’m in Citylab today on the subject of “transit gaps,” or “transit deserts.”  Lots of people are drawing cool maps of where transit is especially inadequate, but:

But the concept of “transit gaps” (or even worse, “transit deserts”) is less enlightening than it seems, for two reasons. First, it ignores the cost of providing transit, which has to be considered when actually doing anything about a transit gap. Second, it presents values, goals, and priorities as though they could be deduced purely from the data, which is never true.

Read the whole piece here.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Urbanist

Ursula K. Le Guin is describing her process of imagining an ideal city:

What about technology?  I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.  Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

In the middle category — that of the unnecessary but undestructive … — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here: floating light sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.  …

I inclined to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming into Omelas on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station is Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town …

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.

Of course a big city has other needs if it is to provide for equitable happiness while growing beyond a certain scale — possibly including subway trains — but Le Guin is using necessary in a philosophical sense here: not what is necessary for a city, but what is necessary for happiness.

Le Guin, who passed away last week at the age of 88, never learned to drive: not because she couldn’t but because she didn’t like it, and she was fortunate to have a family who could do it for her. Cars were necessities in her place and time, but given the choice in her fiction, she often did without them, or made them recede into the background. She praises Venice as a city where you can hear “the sounds that humans make,” because you can’t hear motors. 

One of her most powerful young-adult books, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, features a teenager who doesn’t want the car that his father gives him at age 16, because he really loves walking.  This is part of his desire to be something other than what’s dictated by the society around him.

In any case, what matters in Le Guin is not so much her specific references to cars as the ethics behind them, and the quotation above lays that out as clearly as anything. And it’s from a story that you must read, for reasons explained here.


Maybe Apps Are Not Transforming the Urban Transport Business

Revised February 19, 2018, based on excellent comments.

We’ve all heard that the most important transportation innovation of the century is the smartphone.  Who can doubt that apps for ride-hailing, navigation, and payment are making it easier to use shared transportation services, whether buses or Uber/Lyft or anything in between?   How can anyone who remembers waving helplessly at rushing taxis, or wondering when the bus would come, possibly doubt that this transformation has fundamentally changed all the products it touches?

From a customer’s point of view, I don’t doubt any of these things.  Apps have transformed the customer experience totally.  But that says nothing about whether they’ve transformed the bottom line of the provider.

Len Sherman has a nice short piece in Forbes explaining why Uber can’t make money.  Key quote:

The taxi industry that Uber is seeking to disrupt was never profitable when allowed to expand in unregulated markets, reflecting the industry’s low barriers to entry, high variable costs, low economies of scale and intense price competition — and Uber’s current business model doesn’t fundamentally change these structural industry characteristics.

Standard Uber/Lyft ride-hailing service is made of two main ingredients:

  • Taxi service, minus the protectionist regulations that kept some taxi fares artificially high.
  • An app that expedites hailing a taxi and paying the fare.

The relationship with drivers is also a difference, but not as much as it may seem. Uber and Lyft let drivers use their own cars, but many taxis are driver-owned as well.  Both Uber/Lyft and taxis pay the driver based on fares, not based on hours worked.

So really, the big difference is the app.

The app has transformed customer experience — by taking the friction out of the hailing, routing, and paying — but it doesn’t seem to be transforming the fundamental nature of the task, or its potential to be profitable.

That’s because transportation happens in physical space.  The dominant element of cost is the time it takes to drive someone to their destination, and to travel empty between jobs. The app does nothing to change this.  At most, Uber and Lyft have turned their efficiencies into fares slightly lower than taxis, due to intense competition between them.

If ride-hailing companies had the potential to be profitable — short of creating the same monopoly for them that taxis used to have — someone surely would have done it by now.  But Sherman notes:

Every major ridesharing company in the world is still experiencing steep losses after five or more years of operation, including Lyft (U.S.), Ola (India), 99 (Brazil), and Didi Chuxing (China).

We are seeing the same thing on the microtransit side.  So far, microtransit is doing no better than demand-responsive transit has always done, generally worse than 3 passenger trips per driver hour, compared to 10 for the typical outer suburban fixed and 20-100 for fixed routes in dense and walkable places.  In fact, the most widely promoted recent experiment, the Bridj pilot in Kansas City, did not reach 1 passenger / hour and managed to spend about $1000 per passenger trip,[2] compared to less than $5 for a decent fixed route.

This gap is too vast to be a marketing problem or something that can be solved by tinkering.  It’s a fact about the intrinsic spatial inefficiency of demand-responsive service, which has little to do with the communications tools used.

It’s time to notice a pattern:  Tech boosters treat solutions to a communication problem as though they were solutions to a spatial problem.

Certainly, communicating via telephone calls was part of the inefficiency of taxis, but if the smartphone app were enough to make taxis profitable, we’d be seeing the results by now.  Likewise, it’s great that apps are improving the communications side of demand-responsive transit, but so far, there’s no sign that this is making a difference on the bottom line.

Remember: Urban transportation is a spatial problem, and (until automation) a problem of the efficient use of labor.  If you’re going to transform it, you have to transform those things. Nothing about the standard Uber/Lyft product, or “microtransit,” is touching those fundamentals.

So have apps transformed the customer experience of urban transport?  Yes!  Have they transformed the urban transport business?  Maybe not so much.




[1]  There is a vast range of hybrids between a fixed route and a fully “to your door” demand-responsive service, all of which are very old ideas.  I was designing and revising these 25 years ago.  Everything that’s known about the math of that problem was well understood back then by the people doing it.

[2] This appalling number is from Eno Center’s report “UpRouted: Exploring Microtransit in the United States,” p.7, which is generally upbeat about microtransit prospects.   More commentary on this report soon.

The Financial Times Interview of Me

Izabella Kaminsky at the Financial Times Alphaville blog did an interview with me two weeks ago that was meant to be a podcast. We covered a lot of ground, including microtransit, Uber, Elon Musk, Big Data, and elite projection.

The audio didn’t work for the podcast, so they just printed the transcript.  (Sometimes it makes you register for free.)

I find it agonizing to read in print, because things that make sense in speech look terrible on the page, stripped of all the inflections and pauses that give spoken text its meaning.

Lots of people seem to be enjoying it, though.  And if a desire to laugh at my run-on sentences will make you read it, that’s on balance a good thing. It’s here.

The Only Political Theory You Will Ever Need

Ursula K. LeGuin, who left us on Monday, once wrote a very short story that contains all the political theory you will ever need. The puzzle it presents is the moral puzzle of “civilization,” which means it’s a puzzle that’s most acute in the city. Personally, it captures much of what motivates me, and confuses me.

It’s a parable, but it doesn’t lecture you. It opens space to think, as all of her best work did.

It’s very short. It’s very funny. There’s nudity and (optional) sex. You can read it in five minutes. You have time. Don’t skim. Read every sentence. It’s here.

(If for any reason that link doesn’t work, it’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and it’s in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. My understanding is that the online versions exist with her permission, but if the link vanishes, then maybe they didn’t.)

Pass it on.


Should Transit Agencies Panic?

I’m in Atlantic Citylab today, responding to the widespread notion that transit agencies face some kind of existential crisis.  So far, the two most quoted bits are:

“A general message of ‘technology changes everything’ has become one of the most powerful arguments for letting fixed transit wither, even though this means worse traffic and higher transportation costs for cost-sensitive people.”

“Technology is a tool, not a goal. The job of local government—including transit agencies—is to serve the goals and aspirations of citizens. That, not fear of technological change, should be the foundation of their decisions.”

Hope you’ll read the whole thing.

Over the weekend, I also attempted a longer thinkpiece on why transit agencies can be frustrating to deal with, and how transit advocates can work with them more constructively.