Shudiara McMillian has no car and relies on city transportation in Wilson, North Carolina, to get everywhere she needs to go, whether it’s work or shopping or a medical appointment.
Until about two years ago, that could mean a long wait at a bus stop, because the city buses only ran once an hour. And it often meant driving all over the city while the bus picked up and dropped off other passengers before finally arriving at its stop.
Now, if McMillian needs transportation, she can book it through an app on her phone, and a Toyota Sienna minivan from the city’s RIDE transportation service will pick her up at a nearby location and take her to her destination.
“It’s given me a lot of freedom to go where I want to go,” says McMillian, 32, an office worker in the city’s utilities department. “With RIDE, there may be a pick-up service on the way, but it’s much more convenient to book a ride on my phone and get to places faster.”
Public transit on demand, also known as microtransit, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, especially in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas.
Inspired by shared ride services from Uber and Lyft, the idea is to let people request a ride, usually a minivan or shuttle, via a mobile app or by phone, and pay a small fee. The driver will pick them up, often at a corner or a few blocks away, and drop them off near where they want to go within a designated service boundary. Sometimes the ride takes them to a fixed bus route or connects them to a central public transport station.
Transit agencies say they want to be more flexible, responsive, and offer an alternative to passengers who may have to deal with long bus waits and transfers. They also hope to attract new riders who may not live along the bus routes.
“This is an effort to make public transportation as relevant as possible in communities that simply don’t have the capability to offer high-frequency fixed routes,” said Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America, a trade group that connects smaller carriers. represents.
But some transit proponents argue that microtransit is a bad deal for public authorities because it is expensive and inefficient. They say carriers should instead focus on increasing passenger numbers on their current routes by adding more frequent services and improving bus stops.
“Microtransit projects are a poor use of public resources,” said Hayley Richardson, director of communications at TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based in New York. “There’s an uncritical exuberance surrounding the idea, but there’s very little to show for it.”
Large, densely populated cities typically use fixed bus routes where people can walk or cycle a short distance to a designated stop. But that’s not possible in many suburbs and rural areas, known as transit deserts.
Local transportation officials say creating fixed bus routes to reach those people would be prohibitive for agencies, which would end up running full-size buses with few or no riders.
A growing number of transit agencies is rethink how they work, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which they have faced a major drop in passenger numbers, revenue losses and telecommuting. They are also realizing that they need to improve service to essential workers, who were tied to public transportation during the pandemic when others left it.
“From cities to the rural areas, in so many facets of life, transportation services are looking at things that may have seemed temporary during the pandemic, but are now becoming more permanent,” Bogren said. “If you only have one mode of service, a one-size-fits-all option, how responsive can you be? You need a variety of services to meet the needs of that community.”
Some agencies use microtransit to reach areas that never had public transportation or to expand regular services. Some are replacing underperforming bus routes with on-demand choices. Some are completely removing fixed routes and replacing them with microtransit. And some are offering transit for the first time.
Last year, Valdosta, Georgia, brought public transportation to the city when it launched Valdosta On-Demand. Since then it has been more than 14,000 ride requests per monthaccording to Mayor Scott James Matheson.
Supporters of Microtransit point out that, unlike paratransit, a shared ride service for people with disabilities is available on-demand to everyone. So are riders with disabilities who may be frustrated with the long wait times and advance notice required by paratransit service. Typically, some microtransit vehicles are handicap accessible and agencies provide door-to-door service for people with disabilities and older adults.
Even some large cities are experimenting with microtransit.
In the Austin, Texas area, CapMetro operates Pickup, an on-demand service in 11 zones. Officials have completely replaced one bus route, rerouted others and added a service that previously did not exist, spokesman Blythe Nebeker said in an email.
Some carriers themselves run on-demand services, buying software from private companies, but with their own employees and vehicles.
That’s how SporTran, the local transportation company in the Shreveport, Louisiana area, operates. The agency, which began offering on-demand services last fall, has 47 stops where people can pick up their ride. The main goal is to provide access to rural areas beyond the reach of standard bus routes, especially for low-income riders, spokesman Leslie Peck said.
SporTran has withdrawn a number of bus routes and replaced them with on-demand options, including one that goes to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.
“Instead of incurring the expense of driving a big bus through the base for a few riders, we’re sending a sedan directly to them at the scheduled time,” Peck said.
Other agencies contract with private microtransit companies to run the entire on-demand service.
That’s the setup in Wilson, where fixed-route buses used to cover only about 40% of the city and carry 1,450 passengers a week, according to assistant city manager Rodger Lentz. Now RIDE covers nearly 100% of the city’s 30 square kilometers and carries between 3,700 and 3,900 passengers per week.
“The old bus system was designed when downtown was the king of employment,” Lentz said. “Now we have big business parks on the outskirts of the city that the system didn’t even connect you to.”
The city spends about $1.7 million a year on the RIDE program, compared to about $1.3 million it spent previously, he said.
RIDE passengers pay $1.50 for the “corner-to-corner” service or can purchase a $10 pass for 10 rides. Seniors or people with disabilities receive a discount and can be picked up at the curb in front of their house. riders can book through an app, a website or by phone.
Lentz said that while RIDE is aimed at people who rely on public transportation, it has also brought in riders who would otherwise have driven or taken Uber.
“It’s not only increased equity and access for people of color who can’t afford a car,” he said. “It’s also used by people with high paying jobs at the business park and in the hospital.”
In the northern region of Utah that includes Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority’s UTA On Demand has also been a success, said Jaron Robertson, the agency’s acting planning director.
The agency, which also uses a private company to run the service, has replaced some routes with microtransit, which it offers in four service areas.
“We see it as a much better solution for providing transportation to people in rural and suburban areas where they may not have a regular bus, or we’ve driven one, and it just doesn’t meet the needs of the community” Robertson said.
The agency sees a variety of demographics among riders, he added.
“We’re using a younger generation,” he says. “We see students. We see minorities or disadvantaged population groups. We see seniors and people with disabilities.”
But microtransit has inherent limitations, according to a 2019 TransitCenter briefing, which said it’s about traveling longer distances, carrying fewer people and costing agencies far more than an average bus route.
“Every dollar spent on microtransit is a dollar that agencies cannot spend on more cost-effective strategies to increase passenger numbers, such as adding frequency on major routes or improving bus stops,” the letter said.
Richardson, the spokesperson for the center, calls on-demand a “very bad” way to serve most riders.
“We hear all the time that it’s the cure for declining numbers of riders, it’s the panacea. It just isn’t. There is a desire to find the magic solution.”
For bus routes with less than six riders per hour, it might make sense, she said, but most have a higher number. For routes with consistently low passenger numbers, agencies can make changes instead, such as improving bus shelters and building better sidewalks, she added.
“They’re throwing money away for a microtransit service that serves very few people at a higher cost,” she said.
And often, microtransit experiments don’t pan out, Richardson said.
Over the past decade, some carriers have found that microtransit was not attracting enough passengers or was too expensive. However, many try again.
In the Kansas City area, the regional transportation authority partnered with a microtransit company to launch a year-long on-demand pilot program for commuters in 2016. But it only delivered 1,480 rides, and the cost was about $1,000 per ride, according to a 2018 report from the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that analyzes policy. The project has ended.
Within a few years, however, transit officials launched a new on-demand pilot project. Since then they have extended it several times and recently expanded the service.
Bogren, of the transit operators group, said agencies are eager to learn from both their hits and misses.
“The opposition to microtransit is short-sighted,” he said. “The idea of saying ‘we’ve built a fixed route network, and it’s up to the population to figure it out and navigate’ just doesn’t work. There are large segments of the population that do not.”
Bogren said the majority of his group’s 1,200 members are exploring on-demand options to see if they make sense.
“This is the future,” he said. “Most transit agencies use or plan microtransit. If they ignore it, they miss the boat.”