Can Microtransit Improve Social Mobility?

By Doug Kaufman, CEO of TransLoc

Imagine the following scenario: You can’t afford a car, so you spend five hours a day taking three buses just to get to your job six days a week.

For Tampa resident Sabrena Lloyd, this scenario isn’t imaginary, it’s an unfortunate reality. Her lack of access to good transit options has her enduring a commute of 30 hours per week – back and forth to a job that would only take her 25 minutes to drive to if she had a car.

Transportation access is about more than enduring long commutes and moving people from point A to point B. At its core, it’s a system that can limit or enable the economic opportunities available to people based on where they live.

This doesn’t have to be the case.

In my last article, I talked about technology’s power to enhance access to public transit and bridge the gap between the haves and the have nots. In this article, I’m going to describe the specific solution to the social mobility problem: microtransit.  

Before defining microtransit it’s important to understand how public transportation currently functions and where its inefficiencies lie. Today’s transit agencies generally provide fixed-route services where buses and trains travel on established routes, with predefined stops, and adhere to a specific schedule. Riders become familiar with these routes, stops and schedules and plan their trips accordingly. That last part is key: today’s riders adjust their lives and travel plans around the bus schedule. This supply-driven transportation model results in low vehicle utilization rates, first-mile last-mile challenges and scenarios like Sabrena Lloyd’s, where rider have to take indirect routes to get where they need to go, extending their commute times.

To combat this problem, private ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, known in the transportation industry as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), are now providing convenient door-to-door service for riders, but it’s at a premium that non-car owners often cannot afford. So, although TNCs seem like a major convenience for many riders, they don’t solve Sabrena Lloyd’s problems—they worsen them. Research presented in a UC Davis study concludes that instead of reducing congestion or improving the environment, TNCs like Uber and Lyft are actually doing the opposite: they’re making traffic worse and increasing our CO2 emissions. As a result, they’re making commutes longer for everyone, including transit users.

So what’s standing in the way of improving public transit? According to a Brookings report:

Improving metro areas’ transit access could be as simple as running more buses and trains. Yet a serious public funding crisis limits agencies’ ability to expand their service and enhance connections between jobs and households. Instead, revenue declines are widespread and many agencies are already planning fare increases and operating cuts to close yawning budget gaps. A recent report found that, since January 2010, 79 percent of transit agencies cut service, raised fares, or considered either action. Interestingly, the survey found the major reasons for those revenue gaps were gas prices, local revenue shortfalls, and state revenue shortfalls—not changes in ridership.

Furthermore, transit agencies are understandably averse to risk and change. They are beholden to a diverse group of stakeholders and counted on to be responsible stewards of public tax dollars. They must also navigate embedded bureaucracies, regulations and complex funding governance. In a recent episode of the podcast Mobility Matters, transportation and city planning luminary Gabe Klein spoke about what can be done to counteract the risks associated with this kind of change: tactical urbanisman approach to neighborhood building that uses short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies to catalyze long-term change. This is where microtransit comes into play.

Microtransit is a flexible, on-demand transit mode designed to complement existing fixed-route systems. Unlike other transit technology companies, TransLoc strongly believes microtransit pilots and programs must be transit agency-owned. Microtransit allows public transit agencies to shift from a supply-driven model to a demand-driven model, where vehicles are sent to pick up riders exactly where they are and drop them off exactly where they need to go. As TransLoc advisor and smart city expert Peter Hirshberg says, “[Microtransit] is where the bus chases you. Most importantly, microtransit can be assessed by agencies through simulations before being deployed, allowing transit agencies to take the tactical urbanism approach that Gabe Klein recommends. Transportation technology companies can partner with public transit agencies and give them the data and tools needed to simulate what microtransit would look in their service area. This way, transit agencies can see if microtransit is a good fit before investing in the solution, and if it makes sense, they can also see how microtransit can solve fundamental problems within their current transit system to better serve every single rider.

For example, this diagram of the Raleigh-Durham, NC, region (see below) illustrates areas covered by the current fixed-route system, and how a robust microtransit implementation complemented by ride-hailing services increases access to public transportation in that service area. A general guideline is that most people will not use public transit if the stop is located more than a quarter mile away, but microtransit can solve that last-mile problem. In this example—and there are other use-cases—microtransit incorporates fixed-route buses, on-demand buses and ride-hailing services. Technologically-speaking, microtransit is agnostic and can include bike-share services and even autonomous vehicles when the time comes.

As a mode, microtransit serves the needs of all riders, including economically disadvantaged riders like Sabrena Lloyd, by giving them a seamless, and efficient way to get around. Advances and investment in public transportation not only allows more people to gain access to jobs to support their families, it also gives local business access to eager job candidates, boosting the local economy and improving social mobility.