Major US Public Transit Union Questions “Microtransit”

A dramatic report today from ATU, one of the major US transit unions, is called “The False Promise of Microtransit.”  It has four big critiques of “microtransit,” also called on-demand transit or flexible transit.

  1. Microtransit cannot efficiently scale to meet increased customer demand.

  2. It has been shown to serve a younger, more affluent, and less diverse ridership than fixed route service.

  3. Its environmental benefit is doubtful.

  4. It encourages cost cutting through privatization and the degradation of transit jobs.

The first and third points are the same point.  As I explained here, “microtransit” is so intrinsically inefficient that it can’t produce the environmental benefits that people associate with transit.  Instead, its only coherent use is as a coverage tool, useful when an agency wants to take credit for providing lifeline access to an area whose layout and street pattern are inimical to fixed routes.   The report has a striking quotation from Joshua Schank, who when he was at LA Metro was one of the biggest boosters of “microtransit”:

Admittedly, microtransit has so far proven to be more expensive on a per person basis than traditional transit. Even some of the lowest-performing bus routes in cities have lower subsidies per person than microtransit.” – Joshua Schank and Emma Huang, InfraStrategies

The ATU’s last point, that “microtransit” encourages cost cutting through privatization and the degradation of transit jobs”, is what you’d expect a union to say.  US public transit agencies are tempted to contract with private operating companies to reduce labor costs, and some agencies, especially in the sunbelt, are entirely contract operated though still mostly with union labor.  The ATU would obviously prefer to deal directly with government transit agencies, who are easier to influence than private companies.  But setting apart a union’s self-interest, there is plenty of reason to be concerned with the “gig economy” effects, both on the larger society and on the transit customer experience.  I believe that in the long run, we will get what we pay for in labor costs.   I routinely get to experience both professional transit drivers and Uber/Lyft drivers, and the contrast is very obvious.  Transit drivers are trained, and their compensation encourages them to make the work a career, not just a side hustle, so many are very experienced.  All this is good for safety and customer service.

 

9 Responses to Major US Public Transit Union Questions “Microtransit”

  1. helen kenney May 10, 2024 at 8:57 am #

    I live in Port Charlotte Fla and we have microtransit. You have to call at least 3 days in advance of your need for service. hope they have a ride available. I had a dr’s appointment and was told to change it because the transit company had no one available. I am originally from a city that had 24 hr transportation. So this was a shock for me. Microtransit is awful and not good for a city.

  2. Jonathan Hallam May 11, 2024 at 3:25 am #

    Hi!

    Interesting post! To ask the question in a positive, defined way, where (roughly) is the crossover point betweem having more uber-type drivers vs fewer professional career drivers? For simplicity of this question let’s assume all drivers are deployed into a frequent-network service.

    Yours,

    JMH

  3. Leo Sun May 12, 2024 at 7:11 pm #

    Microtransit could still exist, but because of its unscalability, it should aim at those for whom a better coverage tool like micromobility is not an option – for example the disabled.

    • John Charles Wilson May 20, 2024 at 2:05 am #

      In other words, paratransit, which already exists. The big difference between paratransit for the disabled and microtransit for everybody is the notice period. Paratransit usually is on the traditional “dial-a-ride” pattern where you have to reserve at least the day before. Modern microtransit is short-notice, and dispatched via a phone app or real-time communication. I haven’t seen any stats, but I would bet microtransit for everyone is more efficient. The main inefficiency I see that could be fixed would be to combine the two. Many agencies operate micro- and para- transit separately. I’m not sure if the law allows them to be combined (in the US), but my vision is microtransit with ADA features like door-to-door for the disabled, but curb-to-curb for everybody.

      • Leo Sun May 20, 2024 at 2:58 am #

        Agree with your vision. My word “Microtransit shold aim at those” doesn’t mean “only for those” actually.

  4. david vartanoff May 16, 2024 at 6:57 pm #

    Microtransit only for the disabled violates thespirit if not the law of Brown v Board. “Separate but equal” which is NEVER equal assumes disabled persons need minimal transit which they can book days in advance, rather than simply deciding that today is the day to shop for…, go to a movie,etc as any other human. Those of us not legally disabled but prevented from driving by low vision, depend on transit,and are not likely to afford lyftuber very often. The other reason not to want microtransit is the same geometry issue seen in the well known tryptich of 60 persons on bikes, in single occupancy autos, or in one bus. I’d rather have more green space than extra lanes of linear parking marketed as highways.

    • Leo Sun May 19, 2024 at 9:03 pm #

      To avoid misunderstanding, we are not talking about a separated approach. Microtransit is a coverage tool for all, but not the first choice for all. There exist many other coverage tools, among which the disabled may not make use of. Microtransit becomes an option for them.

  5. MTfuture May 20, 2024 at 11:18 am #

    Microtransit has its niche application in replacing infrequent coverage routes and is most efficient where connecting to frequent core routes as a true first- and last-mile service.

  6. Vincent Puhakka May 22, 2024 at 4:56 pm #

    In the suburbs of Toronto (Durham Region to be specific) the local transit agency uses microtransit/transit on demand to service rural areas. Prior to the use of microtransit, none of these areas had any fixed routes at all. I’ve been able to access a lot of outdoor recreation through the on demand buses and this brings me to my point: Microtransit *can* be useful to expand service to where none existed before, and I think it’s real use case could be in rural transit.

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