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:
Great questions. Microtransit is not a new idea. What’s new is IT for routing, booking, and payment. One might also argue that supportive public-private partnerships represent a change. Historically, most jitney services were outlawed due to transit competition in the US. 
— Susan Shaheen (@SusanShaheen1) February 17, 2018
(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:
On that note, the newness of an idea is neither of import nor a useful measure of its value. If we want to split hairs over whether using a smartphone or app for demand response service is “new”, we’ll never get to the important question:
Does the new approach have potential?
— Greg Rogers (@EnoGregR) February 17, 2018
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.