A quick look at all things microtransit
Microtransit is an emerging transit option for cities around the world and has the allure of being a mix of taxi/TNC and the traditional bus. But how does this affect citizens and the city ecosystems in which they live?
With many transportation services, a traveler’s journey may not necessarily take them from door-to-door, think light rail for instance. Thus, transportation options that proactively think about the user’s first and last mile connection to backbone transit have become increasingly more in demand. You’ve probably used Uber/Lyft or bikeshare to make connections to and from transit or bus stations. But a new hybrid mode — microtransit, is being considered as a viable travel option that could help transform the way we move, particularly in our neighborhoods or in off-peak times.
Microtransit is emerging as an on-demand service that aims to fill-in gaps between traditional fixed-route services, ride-hailing, and other point to point options to efficiently get people where they want to go. Flexible transit is capable of connecting riders more directly, thus reducing investment in fixed-route transportation infrastructure, particularly on routes with lower demand. As this innovation develops, many cities and transit agencies are interested in learning about the potential, as well as the benefits and costs. Gabe Klein, Co-Founder of CityFi, talks about microtransit and the role it may play in urban transport systems of the future.
Q What is your definition of microtransit, and how do you think it will it transform the mobility landscape?
A I see it from both the private and public side as a continuum of service. On one end we have established high quality fixed route service in cities around the world. These can be travel modes such as bus rapid transit or light rail, dial-a-ride, paratransit service for people with disabilities, and more. Then you have bikes, TNC’s and taxis etc. that provide door to door service. Microtransit is something in-between the flexible and inflexible. For instance, it could be a diverted fixed route, and late at night be willing to flex further to bring an hourly worker directly to their door. Microtransit is unique because it is ideally a dynamic service that can respond in real time to get someone where they need to go. Unlike Uber/Lyft, there are multiple users in a microtransit shuttle. A city can offer 12–15 shuttles on diverted fixed-routes, which can fill in transit gaps.
I see this being something that will be bigger in the future. With all new transportation modes, the services are better when they’re bigger. For example, when Bikeshare is launched in a city and there are 5–10 stations, the main draw is for tourists. When you launch 300 stations, it becomes a transportation option for people to actually get around. When Uber/Lyft first launched it was tiny, therefore prices were higher and service times were longer. Now at scale, people rely on it to get around. Transportation shifts emerged because of this, and people are more willing to give up their car now — simply because they can trust and rely on alternative options. It is important that something is real and that people know it’s going to be there. Microtransit is something that is coming. For instance, Los Angeles is currently looking to do a microtransit pilot, and there are others going on around the country like here in Washington D.C..
Q Are you currently working on any projects that involve or propose microtransit?
A I advise a company called Transloc, a microtransit company that uses data to help transit agencies provide the best service that they can. Transloc was just purchased by Ford in January 2018, and has the ability to offer an array of microtransit services to a city. Transloc can provide services such as microtransit simulation, technology, and consulting — offering cities a fully outsourced solution. In addition, I previously advised other companies that are tangential to this space. Some of the projects we have worked on in Seattle, West Palm Beach, and Los Angeles, as well as the Columbus Smart City Challenge, have also started to nip around the edges of the policy and implementation implications of many new, more flexible services. Microtransit is something people seem to intuitively want to experiment with, but struggle with where to start. The idea is in its preliminary phases right now, and is beginning to be piloted in cities. If it can be tested at scale to lower costs and impact utility for riders, it could become a viable transportation option for municipalities and travelers in the near future. The scale component is key though and a barrier thus far. I would again look for tests in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. to be trend setters.
Q What are some of the challenges you foresee as microtransit develops? (affordability, access, etc.)
A Microtransit should enhance a lot of those things, in regards to access and affordability. A lot of the shuttles that will be utilized are relatively inexpensive in comparison to other transportation options such as traditional busses which can be $350k vs. $50k. The shuttles envelope is more appropriate for smaller, local streets (neighborhood friendly for the first and last mile). Microtransit will be a change, and change is hard for anybody. At CityFi, we recognize that many cities want to implement this, and we help them by building maximum buy-in with minimal negative impact. In order to do that, the community needs to understand what this is all about, and key stakeholders need to be engaged. At the end of the day, to be honest and authentic with people, by acknowledging and addressing their inputs. By breaking down artificial barriers, you have a greater chance of sustainable buy-in.
Q What does this mean for public transit systems?
A I believe that Public transit should be the central arbiter of all things transit, and this includes flexible services. I have been asking for years why transit systems are not running or overseeing bikeshare systems? I think we need less focus on operating busses and trains and more time spent on curating the entire customer experience. This is the moment for transit systems to grow, not shrink, but they have to see themselves differently and make some bold moves forward.
Q Realistically, when do you anticipate services like these being fully automated?
Q What would you say is the optimal coordination and partnership that needs to take place to make microtransit a fully operable, and viable mobility option in cities?
A First, cities and transit agencies need to decide that they are 1) open to experimentation and 2) that they should be leading the charge. Then they can pilot and get valuable feedback. 3) figure out if it works, what changes they can make for customer value, and taxpayer value and 4) do they want to operate and use software like Transloc or outsource with a service like Chariot. It may depend on scale, staffing, union support etc.
Q What is the latest thing you are geeking out about?
A Services that provide a balance between technology and good social outcomes, but also help to improve the economics for the city, as well as the individual user. It’s crazy to me that 70% of trips less than 1 mile in cities are by car — we can walk and bike those trips, improve our environment, health, and cut our costs. I am excited for technology to free up roadspace so people can get back to walking and biking, and actually not consciously using technology most of the time. Which is definitely a cultural shift.
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