Basics: Slower Speed is a Service Cut

Does your transit agency have a recent history of operating speed that looks like this?

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation, Enhanced Transit Corridors Plan, Feb. 2018, page 9

This is the “boiling frog” problem of bus operating speed. In a dense and growing city, it’s not unusual to see speeds falling by about 1% a year, as in this data for Portland’s busiest lines.

If you’re going to analyze how service levels relate to ridership, you have to think about speed. Speed is not just a disadvantage for the customer; slower speeds are also a service cut.

You, the customer, want to go a distance, but the transit agency will pay for your service by the hour. So the quantity of service you experience will be governed by how easily hours turn into distance — in other words, by speed.

So if a transit agency budget grows by 1% a year but speed is falling 1% a year, the customer should expect slower speed and no other growth in service.

When measuring the service quantity that affects ridership, then, look at service miles or km, not service hours.

Portland: Two New Plans to Watch

In most US cities, the city doesn’t control the transit agency, but it does make huge decisions that largely govern whether transit can succeed.  Cities control land use planning, which determines the number of people and jobs that are in places where transit can compete for them, and they control street design, which has a powerful impact on whether buses can operate reliably.  Other city functions, like parking and law enforcement, also have a big impact.

So we get great outcomes only when city government takes a strong leadership role on transit, partnering with the transit agency but also leading in the areas that it controls.

Two new plans out of the Portland Bureau of Transportation show the City of Portland rising to that challenge: the Enhanced Transit Corridors Plannow in public comment, and the Central City in Motion plan, which is just beginning.  While the city has nice transit priority policies and has done a few bus lanes before, we’re now seeing an effort to think more systematically about how to get buses moving again.

Short term indicators are not good:  Ridership is falling and buses are slowing down.  Indeed, bus operating speed is the ultimate boiling frog problem:

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation, Enhanced Transit Corridors Plan, Feb. 2018, page 9

 

As traffic grows, speeds fall just gradually enough that the problem never makes the headlines, but a decade of this adds up to a major loss of access to jobs and opportunity.  We’re seeing this rate of drop — around 1% a year — in many growing cities we work in.  This chart shows the city’s busiest frequent bus lines, which collectively add up to a huge share of the transit ridership.

Losing about 10% over a decade doesn’t just mean that people’s trips are longer, but also that 10% more buses must be deployed to maintain the same frequency, consuming funds that could otherwise be spent on growing the network.

Portland’s Enhanced Transit Corridors plan is the first systematic look at this in a long time.  Focusing on the Frequent Network where the stakes are highest, the plan identifies critical points where work must be done to improve performance.  The plan doesn’t choose which transit priority treatments to do where; that’s the work of more detailed engineering.  But it does lay out the big picture and helps to define priorities.  Read the plan and follow it.  (There’s also a survey about it, closing March 26)

Many of the most critical problems are around the edges of downtown, where many routes converge on chokepoints — most commonly the bridges — that are also places where traffic converges.  The Center City in Motion plan is where those problems will be addressed in detail.  There’s also a chance to rethink the role of parallel streets to reduce conflicts between different modes.

This is a big change for Portland.  Too often in the past, the city has plan different modes in isolation — the bike network here, the freight network there, a streetcar plan here, the transit agency’s plans over there — when the best solutions arise only from thinking about all the modes together and how they can best share a limited transportation network.  I’ve worked on studies that do this, in Seattle and Minneapolis, and it’s great to see Portland finally insisting on this kind of thinking.

If you want to get in the weeds, here’s my own starting wishlist for the Center City in Motion plan:

  • Proper transit priority on approach to all of the congested bridges, and between the bridges and the transit mall.
  • Integrated planning of bike and transit to reduce bike-transit conflicts.
  • Reviewing all the east-west transit routings in downtown, possibly consolidating them onto fewer streets.
  • Making better use of the Transit Mall for buses.  At this point I wonder if too many routes have been removed from it and we are not getting enough value from our premiere transit priority facility.
  • Fixing the unacceptable 5-block separation of the two directions of Line 15-Belmont/23rd downtown.

If you live in Portland, get on the mailing list and share your own views!

 

Excellent Principles for Shared Mobility

Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, is apparently the genius behind a set of Shared Mobility Principles that came out recently.  I can’t praise them too highly.  Like the founding statements of New Urbanism, these principles cut past the noise and confusion of marketing and show what it would be like to deploy new technologies with the goal of humane and civilized urban life, not just the goal of personal convenience or profit.

Even more important, it’s been signed by many of the main players in the tech transportation field, including Uber, Lyft, Via and many others.  That means you can quote these principles back to them when their actions conflict with these ideals.

As I watch how tech marketing is sowing confusion about public transit, and damaging local officials’ ability to think about it clearly, it’s a relief to see principles such as

1. WE PLAN OUR CITIES AND THEIR MOBILITY TOGETHER.

2. WE PRIORITIZE PEOPLE OVER VEHICLES.

3. WE SUPPORT THE SHARED AND EFFICIENT USE OF VEHICLES, LANES, CURBS, AND LAND.

From these principles alone you can derive the urgent need to invest more in high-capacity fixed route services covering most of our major cities, except the most low-density or inaccessible fringes.  And the results would be something very different from what I’m seeing every day: Tech campuses built in inaccessible cul-de-sacs, or facing away from the available fixed route service, on the fantasy that in the new world everyone will use little pods that go door-to-door.

Then, when you add:

5. WE PROMOTE EQUITY.

… we derive the urgent need for shared transportation to be efficient enough to scale.  Efficiency is equity.  An inefficient service will only be available to a few people, and with rare exceptions like ADA paratransit those people will be an elite.   So we can conclude that only a robust fixed route network, aimed at the “middle 80%” but not the elite, can scale to the point of being a tool for equitable liberty.

Anyway, even apart from how it relates to my own passions, this is good stuff. Read, and share, the whole thing.

 

 

Orlando and Space Coast: Speaking on April 3

I could have used a picture of an Elon Musk rocket at Cape Canaveral, but I’m more of a botany guy. Photo: Leonard J. DeFrancisci

In my first-ever trip to Central Florida, I’ll be speaking at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida on the evening of April 3.  Please join me, but you need to register.  Do that here.

Basics: The Ridership – Coverage Tradeoff

By Christopher Yuen

Is your transit agency succeeding?  It depends on what it’s trying to do, and most transit agencies haven’t been given clear direction about what they should be trying to do.

This post revisits a basic topic at the core of transit planning decisions that everyone engaged in conversation about transit should understand.

In the fictional town below, the little dots indicate dwellings and commercial buildings and other land uses. The lines indicate roads. Most of the activity in the town is concentrated around a few roads, as in most towns.

Imagine you are the transit planner for this fictional town. The dots scattered around the map are people and jobs. The 18 buses are the resources the town has to run transit. Before you can plan transit routes you must first decide: What is the purpose of your transit system?

A transit agency pursuing only a ridership goal would focus service on the streets where there are large numbers of people, where walking to transit stops is easy, and where the straight routes feel direct and fast to customers. Because service is concentrated into fewer routes, frequency is high and a bus is always coming soon.

This would result in a network like the one below.

All 18 buses are focused on the busiest areas. Waits for service are short but walks to service are longer for people in less populated areas. Frequency and ridership are high, but some places have no service.

Why is this the maximum ridership alternative?  It has to do with the non-linear payoff of both high density and high frequency, as we explain more fully here.

If the town were pursuing only a coverage goal, on the other hand, the transit agency would spread out services so that every street had a bus route, as in the network at below. Spreading it out sounds great, but it also means spreading it thin.  As a result, all routes would be infrequent, even those on the main roads.  Infrequent service isn’t very useful, so not many people would ride.

The 18 buses are spread around so that there is a route on every street. Everyone lives near a stop, but every route is infrequent, so waits for service are long. Only a few people can bear to wait so long, so ridership is low.

In these two scenarios, the town is using the same number of buses. These two networks cost the same amount to operate, but they deliver very different outcomes.

Ridership-oriented networks serve several popular goals for transit, including:

  • Reducing environmental impact through lower Vehicle Miles Travelled.
  • Achieving low public subsidy per rider, through serving the more riders with the same resources, and through fares collected from more passengers.
  • Allowing continued urban development, even at higher densities, without being constrained by traffic congestion.
  • Reducing the cost of for cities to build and maintain road and bridges by replacing automobile trips with transit trips, and by enabling car-free living for some people living near dense, walkable transit corridors

On the other hand, coverage-oriented networks serve a different set of goals, including:

  • Ensuring that everyone has access to some transit service, no matter where they live.
  • Providing lifeline access to critical services for those who cannot drive.
  • Providing access for people with severe needs.
  • Providing a sense of political equity, by providing service to every municipality or electoral district.

Ridership and coverage goals are both laudable, but they lead us in opposite directions. Within a fixed budget, if a transit agency wants to do more of one, it must do less of the other.

Because of that, cities and transit agencies need to make a clear choice regarding the Ridership-Coverage tradeoff.   In fact, we encourage cities to develop consensus on a Service Allocation Policy, which takes the form of a percentage split of resources between the different goals.  For example, an agency might decide to allocate 60 percent of its service towards the Ridership Goal and 40 percent towards the Coverage Goal.  Our firm has helped many transit agencies think through this question.

What about your city?  What do you think should be the split between ridership and coverage?  The answer will depend on your preferences and values.  No two cities are the same.

 

Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and will be regularly contributing to this blog.

Microtransit: What I Think We Know

I’ve been thinking out loud about microtransit for a week now, and have processed lots of great comments.  But if you comment, don’t just respond to this post.  Go to the detailed posts that really lay out the argument:  Is microtransit an actual idea?  Does that matter?  And most importantly: Is microtransit capable of being a sensible investment that can be justified from widely accepted goals of public transit?

To sum up, here’s what I think we know.  As always, I’m open to enlightenment by anyone who reads these posts and wants to engage my argument. I’m not contrarian for its own sake. My job is simply to help transit agencies make clear decisions whose consequences they understand.

The context for this thinking is pre-automation, so labor cost is a dominant issue.  The question is whether transit agencies should subsidize microtransit, which implies that microtransit is in direct competition for funds with other possible transit agency investments. Thus, the question is about the public interest and benefits to the taxpayer.

Microtransit May Be a Slogan, Not an Idea

As I explored here, microtransit seems to consist of:

  • flexible “on-demand” routing, an idea that transit agencies have known about, and experimented with, for decades.
  • subsidies of privately provided services by a transit agency, which has been happening for decades under a range of contracting arrangements.
  • the use of apps for hailing, navigation, and payment.

Only the last of these is new, but there’s reason to doubt that the apps, by themselves, create a radically new business model. (Evidence that they do could include Uber being more profitable than non-cartel taxis were, controlling for labor costs.)  In any case, the statement “transit agencies should consider microtransit” can be translated as:  “Transit agencies should use apps to improve the efficiency and customer experience of their flex-route services.” Put that way, it’s uncontroversial and hardly justifies all the hype.

Watch the Ratio of Drivers to Passengers

In transit, before automation, operating cost is mostly labor.  Even if you race to the bottom on labor costs, as Uber has done, you won’t save more than 50% off of transit’s big bus operating cost.  You still need one driver for every vehicle.  That’s why passenger transport services, unlike Amazon, don’t become much more efficient as they get bigger.

That means efficiency in transit is the ratio of passengers to drivers.  Microtransit, by definition, is a low-capacity service, carrying small numbers of people at a time.  This is, by definition, a way to serve very few people at very high cost, compared to fixed routes.

And as soon as we talk about transit agencies funding microtransit, we are saying that they should do this instead of adding fixed route services that are proven to attract vastly more riders and serve them vastly more efficiently (see table in this post.).

Do Not Confuse Customer Experience with Financial Viability

A common rookie investing mistake is to buy a company’s stock solely because you love its product. Successful ventures don’t just provide a good product or customer experience. They do it in a way that’s financially viable. In the private sector that’s measured in profit. In the public sector the equivalent idea is some kind of cost/benefit or “bang for buck” ratio.  Microtransit’s performance on those measures is generally worse than terrible, just as the performance of flexible-route services has always been.  Talking about microtransit’s superior “customer experience” doesn’t change that fact.

For example, a recent Eno Foundation report promoting microtransit cited two pilots that achieved less than 1 (one) passenger trip per vehicle service hour.  A decent fixed route bus does 20-100 and most terrible fixed routes do at least 10.  The most upbeat data Eno’s report could find was a microtransit pilot in Newark, California that achieves 3 passengers/hour, but this is down from 7 passengers/hour on the fixed route it replaced.  The transit agency lost 20% of the old route’s ridership when it made this change.  And that is the most hopeful data point that microtransit boosters can cite.

Microtransit’s Poor Performance is a Mathematical Fact, not Question of Technology, Social Science, or Marketing

Transit agencies not only have decades of experience with low-performing flexible route experiments.  There’s also a purely geometric argument for why fixed routes perform so much better in almost all cases.  It’s about the way the customer’s walk to a fixed route stop allows the bus to operate on a straighter path that’s more likely to be useful to more people.  The correlation between fixed route performance and the straightness of the route is very strong.  Microtransit is meandering by definition, as it has to roam a large area and pick up people who are not in any kind of linear path. Technology never changes geometry.

Microtransit is Not a Way to Increase Ridership Overall

Because of its low productivity, transit agency funding of arises from a coverage goal, which is the opposite of a ridership goal.  Coverage means “predictably low ridership service run for a non-ridership reason,” typically access to places where the built environment makes high-ridership service impossible.  The microtransit boosters assume that agencies must run lots of coverage service but this is actually an issue that should be debated; many agencies I’ve worked with have shifted their priorities the other way.

This also means it is incoherent to cite a desire for higher total ridership, or disappointment with declining ridership, as a reason to invest in microtransit.  If you want higher ridership, you invest in services that are physically capable of carrying lots of riders and have a proven ability to attract them when run at sufficient quality, like big-bus fixed routes.  Microtransit is about taking both funds and political attention away from the services that are actually relevant to ridership at a large scale.

I Cannot Reconcile Microtransit with Economic Equality or Environmental Justice Goals

On average, microtransit seems to trigger an upward redistribution of the benefits of public subsidy. This is a Very Bad Thing for the public sector.  It is not hard to make some low-income or social service advocates like a microtransit idea from the customer perspective, and see it as liberating for their clients, but if it isn’t financially viable at a large scale, it won’t matter to the vast majority of disadvantaged people.

If a transit agency invests in a microtransit service hour for 3 people instead of a fixed route service hour for 30 people, solely to give those 3 people a better “customer experience,” we must ask “why are these 3 people so special?”  Why shouldn’t they pay the full cost of their superior customer experience, rather than expecting the taxpayer to subsidize it?  More on this line of thought here.

Unlike private businesses, U.S. transit agencies operate under intense scrutiny about equity outcomes. Civil rights and environmental justice tests are much more extensive for transit agencies than to the private sector, largely because they are conditions of Federal funding that these agencies rely on.  We have not begun to see the blowback against microtransit from environmental justice and civil rights perspectives, but if fixed routes are neglected to fund microtransit investments, the math is potentially there to justify it.

The Popularity of Microtransit Has Explanations Unrelated to its Value

The microtransit movement, like so many fads that have blown over transit agencies during my 25-year career, appears to be an example of elite projection, the tendency of fortunate people to assume that whatever they personally like will be good for society as a whole.  An urban elite has seen their lives transformed by ride-hailing services, and understandably wants to believe that this transformation can be brought to transit too.  This helps to explain why so much talk of microtransit is so dreamy, so obviously stated in the tone of a sales pitch rather than an analysis.  To think clearly in this context, you need to lean into the wind, being skeptical but not cynical about ideas that obviously serve someone’s commercial interest.

The Talk about Microtransit May Be Doing Harm

Fixed routes are spectacularly cost-effective investments compared to almost any flex-route option.  They even do better in cases (as in Newark, California above) where the geography is very unfavorable to fixed route success.  The reasons for this are geometric, as described above, so technology won’t change them.

Recent declines in bus ridership are triggering all kinds of triumphalist claims from people who want to sweep fixed routes away, or at least shift resources away from them as the microtransit movement proposes.  Much of this chatter is intended to push transit experts out of the discussion by implying that their expertise is obsolete.  The rigidity of fixed routes, the chatter suggests, arises from rigid minds.

But the neglect of fixed routes, encouraged at the highest levels, is the real source of transit’s declining relevance.  My firm works in cities all over the US, and most of them have appallingly low levels of fixed route service compared to potential demand. In most American cities, the quantity of service is growing far slower than population, which means that on average, the availability and usefulness of transit is getting worse.  Most cities, in short, are forcing low-income people to buy cars by making that the only way to have a life, even in places where fixed route service could succeed.  

In this reality, should transit agencies really focus on ways to move tiny numbers of people more expensively, to deliver them a special “customer experience”, as the microtransit idea proposes?  Clearly that’s not the path to ridership.

Meanwhile, cities that are forcefully recommitting to fixed routes are bucking the trend of falling ridership, and these show a clear path.  Ridership is up in Seattle, despite all the countervailing trends, because of an unusually high commitment to quality service and to protecting fixed routes from congestion — a commitment shared by the transit agency and the City of Seattle.  Houston continues to do far better than its Texas peers, partly due to the 2015 network redesign that expanded the bus network’s usefulness.

We know how to increase ridership. It’s by offering useful, civilized, and cost-effective mobility to large numbers of people, not obsessing about the customer experience of a few.  And while ridership is not the only goal of transit, it’s hard to get to microtransit from any of transit’s other common goals either.

If You’re Going to Comment …

I would love to see comments engaging my argument.  I’m not especially interested in comments that ignore my argument, or change the subject, or give me dreamy visions of a future where laws of math have been repealed,  or lecture me about how I represent tired old thinking. If you’re going to challenge me on a point where I’ve linked to another article, follow that link and read that article, because the meat of that argument may be there.

Thanks for your help making me smarter about this.  I advise a lot of transit agencies, and I want to best for them and the cities they serve.

 

 

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?  Many transportation 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.