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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.