Nov. 10, 2022
Shudiara McMillian doesn't have a car and relies on city transit in Wilson, North Carolina, to get wherever she needs to go. Until about two years ago, that could mean a long wait at a bus stop because the city's buses ran only once an hour.
Now, when McMillian needs transportation, she can book it on an app on her phone, and a minivan from the city's RIDE transit service will pick her up at a nearby location and bring her to her destination.
"It's given me a lot of freedom to go where I want to go," says McMillian. "With RIDE, there might be a pickup or two on the way, but it's a lot more convenient to book a ride on my phone and get to places faster."
Inspired by tech, driven by local needs
On-demand public transit, also called microtransit, is becoming increasingly popular across the United States, particularly in small cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
Inspired by Uber and Lyft shared-ride services, the idea is to have people request a ride, usually a small van or shuttle, either by using a mobile app or by phone, and pay a small fare. The driver will pick them up and drop them off near where they want to go within a designated service boundary.
Microtransit is tech-enabled shared transportation that combines traditional fixed route transit and ride hailing technology. Routes are flexible; "schedules" shift based on rider demand; and fleets include vans, shuttles, and buses. Photo courtesy of Via.
"This is trying to make public transit as relevant as possible in communities that just don't have the ability to provide high-frequency fixed-route service," says Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America, a trade group that represents smaller transit operators.
A growing number of transit agencies have been rethinking how they operate, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which they have had to deal with a big drop in ridership, revenue losses and teleworking. They're also realizing they need to improve service for essential workers, who stuck with public transit throughout the pandemic when others abandoned it.
Some agencies are using microtransit to reach areas that never had transit or to augment regular service. Some are replacing poorly performing bus routes with on-demand. And some are offering transit for the first time.
Municipalities scale down and save
Last year, Valdosta, Georgia, brought public transit to the city when it launched Valdosta On-Demand. Since then, it has gotten more than 14,000 ride requests a month, according to Mayor Scott James Matheson.
Microtransit supporters point out that, unlike paratransit, a shared-ride service for people with disabilities, on-demand is available to anyone. That includes riders with disabilities who may be frustrated with the long waits and advance notice required by paratransit service.
Some transit agencies run on-demand services themselves, purchasing software from private companies but using their own employees and vehicles.
That's how SporTran, the local transit agency in the Shreveport, Louisiana, area, operates. The agency 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 riders with low incomes, says spokesperson Leslie Peck.
"Instead of incurring the expense of running a full-sized bus through the base for a few riders, we send a sedan directly to them at the time they scheduled," Peck says.
Agencies learn from "hits and misses"
But microtransit has inherent limitations, according to a 2019 brief by TransitCenter, which said it involves traveling greater distances, carrying fewer people and costing agencies much more to run than an average bus route.
"Each dollar spent on microtransit is a dollar agencies can't spend on more cost-effective strategies to increase ridership, like adding frequency on major routes or improving bus stops," the brief said.
Richardson, the center's spokesperson, calls on-demand a "really bad" way to serve the most riders.
For bus routes that have fewer than six riders an hour, it might make sense, she said, but most have a higher number. For routes with consistently low ridership, agencies instead could make changes such as improving bus shelters and building better sidewalks, she added.
Bogren, of the transit operators group, says that agencies are anxious to learn from both their hits and misses.
"This is the future," he said. "Most transit agencies are either using microtransit or planning for it. If they're ignoring it, they're missing the boat."