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.


Visualizing Transit Reliability

Reliability is one of those essential features of transit that you can’t take a picture of.  It’s an overwhelming issue in the lives of transit customers but can seem abstract to others who make transit policy.  And it’s a major issue in many transit systems.

Poor reliability of buses has many causes, mostly having to do with the traffic congestion and other causes of random delay to which they’re exposed.  But when a rail line runs in an exclusive right of way, never interacting with traffic, there aren’t a lot of excuses.

The Miami organization Transit Alliance has done a nice visualization of transit reliability on that city’s rail transit system.  It looks at the system right now and shows how many trains are running late.  It’s important to note here that late does not mean behind schedule.  It means that the maximum wait time is longer than scheduled, by a given number of minutes.  (That’s the only rational way to talk about reliability in high-frequency services.)

Some insitute really needs to create a database of reliability info across many agencies, searchable many ways — and always based on this headway reliability rather than on-time performance.  Most transit agencies now have real time vehicle location feeds, and they are already released in standard formats for use by apps.  Yet we see remarkably few of these kinds of analytics that could help people understand the severity of the reliability problem — even on services like grade-separated heavy rail that have few external causes of delay.



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.




Why Transit Authorities Sometimes Resist Change

Everyone gets frustrated with transit agencies.  The people inside of them get frustrated too.

But spewing rage at a transit agency rarely has much effect.  Making good arguments does better but you will still find resistance.  Elected officials have an impact, but if their direction is confusing or contradictory, it may not be the impact they intend.

As often, if you really want to influence someone, you have to start by thinking about things from their point of view.

I’ve worked with over 50 transit authorities, of various sizes, in many countries.  I’ll talk here mainly about the US transit agency, but much of what I’ll say is relevant in other countries.  My goal here is not to defend anything a transit agency does, but just to suggest ways to be more understanding of the agency’s experience, which will make you better able to influence them.


If you run a business, you may be frustrated with all the laws and regulations that limit your ability to do the right thing fast.  But this is nothing compared to what transit agencies deal with every day.

In the US, transit agencies don’t just obey the laws that every employer or transport company obeys.  Much of their money comes through the Federal government, and receiving this funding requires satisfying all kinds of Federal requirements.  These regulations go beyond laudable goals like safety and civil rights.  They specify detailed procedures that must be followed in many kinds of activity.  Everything, from labor relations to service planning t0 the design of major planning studies, happens in the context of this web of Federal requirements, and like all webs (in the spider sense) these limit your range of movement and slow you down.

I’m not commenting on the worth of each of these regulations, but can certainly testify to their cumulative impact. I’ve seen countless situations where elected officials were demanding that something get done fast, and the correct answer was that Federal mandates and processes simply prohibit that.

Rigid Labor Structures

Until the uptake of automation, transit will be a labor-intensive industry.  Labor is around 2/3 of a typical transit agency’s operating costs.  The cost to run a bus for an hour obviously governs how many bus-hours of service you can run, and this cost, which is between $100 and $200 in most US urban agencies, turns centrally on the deal between the transit agency and its labor unions.

What matters is not just the pay rate and benefits (which are complicated enough) but also the rules of work.  These can be very intricate, and their impacts can cost a lot of money.  Once the contract is set, the rules, no matter how bizarre or costly their impacts, define what’s possible.

Labor-management relations are legally structured to be adversarial, and adversarial relationships are always inefficient. That’s not the fault of anyone working in the system now, on either side.

There is no neutral definition of what’s fair.  Both sides push for whatever they can get.  Most big cities have progressive elected officials who care about both transit workers and transit riders, but both of those voices have to be strongly present in the conversation, because ultimately they want opposite things.  You’re not going to get more bus service if the cost of an hour of service is going through the roof, so you have to want labor compensation and work rules that are fair but not outrageous.

(By the way, I’m a strong supporter of unions, but please don’t be distracted when they talk about what the senior managers are paid. Those are trivial numbers compared to a transit agency’s labor-driven operating budget. If you want great transit, don’t demand that managers be paid less. Demand that they hire excellent managers.)

Confusing Direction from Elected Officials

When elected officials first find themselves in charge of transit, they may not know much about the topic, and can have trouble figuring out what to do.  It’s like that famous nightmare where you find yourself seated at a piano onstage, with a huge audience looking at you, but you never learned to play the piano.

So elected leaders need some training on the facts and choices that they’ll face.  If you’re going to drive a transit agency, you have to know where the controls are, what happens if you push this button, and how to avoid hurting yourself or others. Not all transit managers think it’s their role to educate their elected boards, because this can feel like criticizing your boss.

So without intending to, elected officials often give direction that causes confusion or anxiety in the transit agency.  A great example is the conflict between ridership and coverage goals, which I explain here. If you demand both ridership and coverage from your transit agency — and most people do want both — then you’re giving contradictory direction, and someone needs to force you to be clearer about what the priorities are.  This is a role my firm often plays in transit studies.

Finally, there’s no consensus on what core body of knowledge a “transit expert” should have; this is the starting point of my book Human Transit, and discussed more detail in its introduction.

Operations as Resistance to Change

The dominant task of most US transit agencies is running the service every day, and most staff are focused on that.  In operations, your goal is to make the service the same today as it was yesterday. Disruption is your enemy.

S0 when some egghead planner shows up wanting to change the transit system, it’s easy to see them as just another disruption — not fundamentally different from the car crash blocking the your rail line. I’ve been that egghead for many transit agencies, so I’m used to the particular kinds of resistance that often (not always) come from the operations side. I don’t criticize them for reacting this way. They’re doing what they were trained to do, which is keep things steady and predictable, as we all want transit to be.

Because operations is the dominant part of most agencies, it’s easy for this aversion to change to define the whole agency’s culture. It takes great management to keep operations staff feeling valued and supported even as you contemplate major changes — even “disruptions” — to how you do business.

Misdirected Blame

Many aspects of the the success or failure of a transit system is outside the transit agency’s control.

When a bus is late, do you blame  the city that decided not to have bus lanes or other transit priority, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When a planning process seems bureaucratic and unresponsive, do you blame the Federal rules that they have to follow, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When it’s hard to walk from a bus stop to your workplace, do you blame the road department that designs and manages the street, or do you just blame the transit agency?

When you see a transit agency’s ridership falling, do you consider outside causes like low gas prices?  Do you consider non-ridership goals the agency may be pursuing?  Or do you just assume that the agency is failing?

If there isn’t enough service in your area, do you blame the elected leaders (and voters) who refuse to fund transit properly, or do you blame the transit agency for serving someone else when they should be serving you?

Transit agencies are constantly blamed for things they don’t control, which leads to …

Public Abuse

Screaming abuse at your transit agency staff is not a good way to get them to do things.  But it does have an impact: It makes the transit agency more defensive, and less likely to be open with ideas and information. The best transit managers are also hard to keep in this situation, because there are probably other jobs they could do that don’t require taking so much abuse.

There’s a deep sadness at the heart of transit operations, which is that when you do it well nobody thanks you.  Your job is to be invisible. When you become visible, it’s when people scream at you because you’ve done something wrong. If that’s your daily experience, of course you’ll keep your head down, not speak up, not share ideas.  Or as a  seasoned Australian transport bureaucrat told me years ago: “The key to success here is to say as little as possible.”

I’m just thinking of the management staff’s role taking abuse, but that’s nothing compared to the bus driver’s. People yell at them and argue with them all day. Those who maintain good cheer (and safe driving) under all that pressure are absolute heroes in my book.

Finally, some journalists write in ways that amplify the abuse.  I’ve worked with some excellent transit reporters, but also I’ve faced some who are sure I’m deceiving them just because I’m sharing information that doesn’t match their prejudices.  I’ve also used to mainstream media stories that misuse data to make stories of transit failure sound more extreme than they are. They deserve pushback from people who care.

When people are abusive toward you, does that make you want be more open and vulnerable, as you need to be to really engage with others? Me neither. No wonder transit agency staffs seem a little defensive sometimes.

I wrote more about the paradoxes of public communications here.

To Sum Up

It’s totally OK to be unhappy with the quality of your transit system. The best people on your transit agency’s staff almost certainly share your opinion. By all means press your transit agency to improve, but take the time to understand what the real barriers are, which will help you see where advocacy is really needed.

If you want to influence a person, you start by listening to them, understanding what it’s like to be them.  Try treating your transit agency the same way.