Microtransit: The Next Mobility Revolution or Much Ado About Nothing?

And by the way, what exactly is microtransit?

Yann Leriche
12 min readOct 12, 2019

Public transport has been under strain over the past years in the United States. Operating expenses are increasing while ridership is declining in most cities since 2014.

Operating expenses and unlinked passenger trips. Source: National Transit Database, 2017 National Transit Summary and Trends, Federal Transit Administration

Simultaneously, novel and nimble options — enabled by digital technologies — are emerging and are perceived as promising new additions to the existing solutions to increase public transport’s attractiveness and boost ridership. “Microtransit” is one of them: Providing the opportunity to offer first and last mile services feeding the main network, or better coverage in certain areas or dayparts, or more direct trips where the fixed routes require transfers, it has become perceived as one the more exciting tools belonging to the future of transportation.

“American cities are growing, traffic is getting worse, emissions are surging, and public transit systems are suffering from years of underfunding and neglect. (LA has poured money into improving its system but has seen a 16 percent drop in bus ridership in the past three years.) On-demand, shared microtransit might gift entire cities with faster, cost effective service and move drivers out of personal cars.” Aarian Marshall, Wired, 2017

The potential number of opportunities offered by microtransit services however raises a question: What exactly is microtransit? Are we all speaking about the same thing, and what is its real potential?

What is microtransit?

The term “microtransit” has only been coined in very recent years: No article could be found using it prior to 2015. The “micro” prefix is used to contrast microtransit with mass transit: While the latter aims at serving the largest number of riders possible, the former operates smaller capacity vehicles and targets a more limited client base. The “micro” scale of vehicles and the “transit” nature of the rides (shared) brings all microtransit services together. The word has nevertheless been used to define different realities.

For instance, some have included ridesplitting services such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line, or flexible transport services developed by local transit authorities, in the microtransit category. The nature of the service delivered has also been viewed differently, even if the term is obviously more used for real-time on-demand mobility solutions than for fixed routes and schedules.

Thanks to the recent work of SAE International, these ambiguities should now be cleared up, as they propose a standardized definition of microtransit in their “Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Shared Mobility and Enabling Technologies” Surface Transportation Recommended Practice document issued in September 2018:

Microtransit is defined as a privately or publicly operated, technology-enabled transit service that typically uses multi- passenger/pooled shuttles or vans to provide on-demand or fixed-schedule services with either dynamic or fixed routing.

Leveraging data and technology

If microtransit is associated with the new shuttle and van services that developed in the wake of Uber and Lyft, the idea of providing flexible transit services in small vehicles has been around for a long time. Actually, a number of services combining features of both fixed route services — that is, traditional public transport and demand-responsive services — have been developed by local transport authorities since at least the 1960s. In a 2004 report, the Transportation Research Board identified more than 50 such transit systems in North America. In addition to their flexibility and demand responsiveness, these legacy services often share two key similarities: They are inefficient and costly to the service provider.

If all in all there is nothing new in the transportation concept behind microtransit… then what’s new? The answer is: data and technology.

The flexible shuttles services that have emerged over the last years rely on data and technology to achieve two objectives:

  • Provide a great customer experience. Vehicles and passengers are geo-localized, bookings are made real-time, payments are cashless, seats can be guaranteed.
  • Improve efficiency: Supply and demand are matched real-time and pricing can be adapted to accommodate supply and their imbalances.

These two key elements have enabled Uber and Lyft to revitalize the single-ride transportation business, attracting new customers and taking them from legacy taxi services which had not undertaken their own digital transformation.

What about transit? Will microtransit be a new tool to reenergize public transport as envisaged in the introduction, by being a complement to mass-transit used to “augment traditional fixed-route bus and train services”? Or will it steal its current riders, by being an alternative to public transport, as argued by the Transportation Research Board, for whom “microtransit services are aimed at those who could otherwise use the traditional public transit system but are willing to trade a higher fare for a more convenient trip”?

There are at least two answers to be provided to this question due to the dual nature of public transport:

  • It is a service for high demand corridors, enabling lots of people to get transported in an efficient manner thanks to large vehicles, optimizing the use of cities’ scare space and reducing congestion
  • It is a service for the entire community, designed to help ensure social equity by providing motorized transport solutions to all at an affordable price, enabling access to jobs, resources and other amenities, including in mid/low density areas or at off-peak hours.

Let’s look at microtransit in regard to these two transit missions: i/ mass transit and ii/ social equity transit.

Microtransit for mass usage

This type of microtransit aims at offering transportation services along high demand corridors, into downtown areas for instance. The customer experience offered is usually better than in mass transit, notably thanks to their app-based reservations, guaranteeing a seated trip: “No more waiting around on a street corner in hopes of squeezing into a crowded bus!” promoted the Ford-owned downtown shuttle service Chariot on its web page (https://www.chariot.com/faqs — 12/12/2018).

This positioning aims at attracting customers who are willing to pay more than the public transport fare to get a better or more personalized experience. Are these customers former car drivers who didn’t take mass transit beforehand as they didn’t like the service it offers, or are they higher income transit passengers switching to microtransit, who are willing to pay a premium to get a more exclusive service? In the first case microtransit is a great addition to traditional public transport, while in the second it has the opposite effect: The higher income mass transit passengers are put in smaller vehicles, increasing congestion and jeopardizing public transport revenue and economic balances.

This question as of today, has no answer.

Indeed, no microtransit service has so far succeeded in meeting the promise of reenergizing shared urban mobility in a sustainable manner. The cessation of Chariot in January 2019 is the most emblematic example of the challenge involved in finding a viable business model in the space between smaller taxi and TNC vehicles (less affordable, more flexible) on one side, and larger transit ones (more affordable, less flexible) on the other. Does this mean that this space doesn’t exist? It is for sure a difficult one to occupy profitably with passenger revenue as the only income in dense areas where public transport offers a good service at a subsidized price. Success can only be achieved if the average vehicle load factor is high enough to cover all the costs and to enable a price point low enough compared to single ride services to attract customers. The ability to group many people while still offering a good service (without too many detours) is a direct function of the local transport offer and also the demand density: The higher the density, the more effective the grouping of riders along the same route. Only a substantial change in behaviors, i.e. enough people leaving their private car for shared transport services would create the necessary density while improving the traffic conditions.

Chariot public fixed route services downtown San Francisco. Source: https://www.chariot.com/routes, 12/12/2018

How significant must that change be? Studies done by the OECD International Transport Forum (ITF) provide us interesting insight. They have modeled shared mobility services (microtransit and share taxis) in different cities (Lisbon, Portugal; Helsinki, Finland; Dublin, Ireland and Auckland, New Zealand) under various scenarios. This work shows that the whole mobility demand of the cities studied can be served at a fraction of the cost of current public transit with mass-transit, plus door-to-door microstransit vans and shared taxis only. In this alternative mobility paradigm, where all private cars have been replaced by shared services, strong urban benefits can be reached: Congestion disappears because of the sharing of vehicles, CO2 emissions drop thanks to lower vehicle miles traveled, and public space is freed due to a reduced need for on-street parking.

The OCDE/ITF work reached another important conclusion: At least 20% of the private car trips must be replaced by shared trips for the above-mentioned urban benefits to start to materialize!

The Shared Mobility study for the Lisbon Metropolitan Area showed that replacing car trips at marginal rates does not have significant effect. Therefore, the minimum car replacement rate considered in all the scenarios is 20%. This is also consistent with the focus group and stated preference survey findings suggesting this is a plausible scenario.

Hence the OECD recommendation to launch shared mobility services at scale, both to get a chance to have positive impact on travel behaviors and to be economically sustainable. Their Helsinki case study, for instance, concludes:

Implement new shared mobility solutions at a sufficient scale to boost attractiveness and lower costs

The benefits of on-demand shared mobility services depend on creating the right market conditions and operational frameworks. Feedback from the focus group indicates that users in the Helsinki metro area are open to such solutions. However, in order to be effective they need to be implemented on a large scale throughout the metropolitan area and not only in parts of it. Sufficient scale is also important for achieving manageable costs. Any business model for shared mobility should be carefully vetted in terms of its potential for innovation, keeping prices for users low and regulation ensuring societal benefits over all.

Will a city and/or private entity launch an ambitious enough microtransit operation for it to possibly be successful? The challenge is all the more difficult to meet considering that, contrary to fixed-route transit, door-to-door shared services cannot benefit from a dedicated infrastructure (right of way, reserved lane) to be more efficient.

The most important project we are aware of is the one from MOIA, the subsidiary of Volkswagen, that was launched in April 2019 in Hamburg, Germany, a port city in the North of the country with a population of 1.8 million. It is aimed at reaching of fleet of 500 electric vans within a year and 1000 later. Will it be enough? At this stage we can only commend their willingness to solve traffic-induced problems like congestion, air pollution, noise and lack of space in a bold manner, alongside with the local public authorities.

Microtransit for social equity

A second type of microtransit aims at extending the reach of fixed-route transit into lower density areas with dispersed ridership. It is similar in its ambition to longstanding flexible transit or call-a-ride services, but with new technology solutions allowing improved efficiency and quality of service.

Transit authorities in several U.S. cities have been experimenting with on-demand solutions of this type, either managed in-house or through a public-private partnership.

One early pilot in 2016 focused on two low-density zones near downtown that suffered from peak-hour congestion. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) partnered with microtransit provider Bridj on a one-year pilot program that used KCATA’s drivers and vehicles to operate a microtransit system on the Bridj technology platform. The experiment proved unsuccessful: Only 1,480 people used the service, in a city of two million, and ridership was so low that the public subsidies amounted to $1,000 per ride. A survey conducted after six months of experimentation found that 40% of people in the service area did not know about it. Among those who did, most did not use the service largely because it did not meet their mobility needs, or was not available when they needed it most, such as late at night.

Kansas City was not alone in achieving low ridership in its pilot. Jared Walker of Human Transit, observes: “while there are some rare exceptions in rare situations, few [microtransit services] carry more than five customers per driver hour.”

This and other experiments provide key takeaways:

  • The service must meet real mobility needs — trips that are genuinely needed and valued by riders in their day-to-day commuting patterns
  • The passenger experience must be easy, seamless and hassle-free
  • 100% reliability is key, ensuring for instance that riders make their connections every time when microtransit serves a first/last mile purpose
  • The load factor of the vehicles must be high enough to make the service financially sustainable compared to the costs of operating fixed-route buses
  • Ensuring accurate data on the unique trips and on the users is vital in order to make effective decisions on service design and marketing
  • Promotion and outreach is key to generate awareness and trial
  • Dedicated, skilled staff are a necessity. There are challenges in multiple domains that must be effectively addressed. Learning/adapting in real-time is essential.
  • As with any new project, executive level support is essential.

When these conditions are met, microtransit can be a great complement to traditional transit. Transdev’s experience, accumulated thanks to several successes and a few failures in different countries (especially France, the Netherlands and Australia) demonstrates its potential. The first comprehensive microtransit operation — called Chronopro — launched by Transdev and its tech subsidiary Cityway started in September 2016 in Vitrolles, a city of some 34,000 people in the south of France. Chronopro ensures a reliable connection from a transit hub to office buildings within a nearby office park. Locations within the business cluster were previously served by two local fixed bus routes, which have been replaced by Chronopro on-demand shuttles. The microtransit vehicles are well coordinated with the real-time arrival of buses at the transit hub, guaranteeing passengers a seamless connection every time. Shuttles to and from the transit hub can be booked through an app, a website page, or via a call center. Routes are automatically computed according to demand, in order to bring each passenger right to his or her destination within the office park service area.

The Vitrolles microtransit service has now been operating for three years. It is a great success compared to the previous fixed route service that transported people to/from the transit hub and the office park. Results for the Chronopro microtransit service include:

  • Average travel time has been reduced by 48%
  • Ridership has grown 42%
  • Miles traveled were reduced by 84% because the service is far more efficient than the previous bus service.
  • Destinations (stops) served increased 80%

When well designed and operated, microtransit can be an opportunity to improve transit in mid/low density areas or at off-peak hours. This doesn’t mean that these services can break even, but technology and data are strong levers to bring more value for public transit money in these environments.

However, the challenges that must be faced in launching a microtransit service should not be underestimated. A weak link in any area can make the service not convenient enough and therefore not viable. A successful solution needs to be customized to local needs and well-integrated into transit systems in ways that truly improve travel patterns in local contexts. The combination of a competitive transport option, the right technology platform, attractive pricing and guaranteed connections at transit hubs have shown promising results in multiple cities. Other common denominators pilots that succeeded share include dedicated staff, strong data analytics, and promotional campaigns to build awareness and trial.

Today’s riders are accustomed to, and expect personalized, tailored services in every aspect of their lives. New shared mobility options are no exceptions: They must provide a great passenger experience to be successful as well as generate sustainable economic performance. If not, over time they will earn the moniker “Much Ado about Nothing.”