A Magnificent Mini-Bus

Micro-transit may not serve all of a city's mobility woes, but it's still something to get excited about.

Admittedly, this is a weird week to feel optimistic. Ruth Bader Ginesburg just departed this earth, the west coast is ablaze and slowly turning into a smoke engulfed hellscape, Cult45 is blatantly restating his desire to commit election fraud and stoking white supremacist terrorism in the name of continuing his long form enrichment grift in the white house; COVID19 is continuing to claim the lives of our care workers and threaten our educators while asshats protest mask rules by throwing tantrums at target; and J.K. Rowling is being a transphob again. 

Yet I’m still cheered by a few tidbits in the news. Among them is Steve Bannon’s arrest (proof that maybe someday the grifters will get caught) the ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan  and, getting around to the point of this piece, I’m also cautiously optimistic about an emerging trend in transportation that I see more and more cities taking on: micro-transit.

What is micro transit? I’m so glad you asked. Micro-transit is a movement to provide  broader service coverage by deploying smaller vehicles, such as vans and mini-buses, to serve people whose neighborhoods are not easily accessible by transit, or neighborhoods where bus or train lines do not provide access to additional key destinations (exurban areas, low density suburbs with a lot of cul-de-sacs, and so on) . These are on-call or flexible/on demand services, meaning the vehicles come to pick up passengers when they summon them by app to a nearby location, and sometimes directly to their door (sound familiar?). While different cities have adopted different strategies, in general micro transit pilots typically operate through the use of zones; micro transit vehicles will park and wait at various places within the zone and respond to requests as they appear, taking riders to locations within that zone. 

So far, so good, right? And yet, a lot of transportation planners I know and respect are putting on the hate for micro transit. Some of the complaints are silly and smack of typical siloed professionalism (for example: “micro-transit isn’t even new, it’s just a fancy tech name for an old concept!”) but some are legitimate enough to warrant a response. So below are three reasons I’m excited about micro-transit, along with the caveats given by transportation planners about why we don’t need to get too excited just yet. 

Current fixed-route buses have only done so much, and can only do so much

For non-transportation lingo people, a fixed route service is your typical local bus, with dedicated stops and a predictable schedule. For those of us that ride transit, this is what we know (and love) and for many of us, it works great. But not always–and that’s where micro-transit comes in. First, micro-transit vehicles are smaller and more nimble, which means they have a smaller turning radius and can get into streets and blocks that the larger buses cannot. Parts of the city with a lot of topography, narrow roads, or other types of roadway visibility challenges are where the vehicles for micro-transit excel, and where large buses struggle to access.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, micro-transit typically operates on a neighborhood zone level; vehicles stay within the same 2-5 square mile area and shuttle people to different destinations within that zone. Fixed route buses, on the other hand, are typically programmed to get people out of their neighborhood rather than move them around in it. They often follow radial networks, which means they go back and forth from the core downtown to the outlying areas of the city, passing through the middle but rarely looping through all the destinations people might need in their immediate vicinity. (If you’ve ever had the experience of having to ride two different bus lines to go to one location in your neighborhood, you know what I’m talking about. )

Finally, many micro-transit services are aimed at creating connections to transit, and therefore support, rather than replace, fixed line service. In Arlington, 27% of micro transit trips were to connect to the regional transportation system. Even in Seattle, where aggressive investments in dedicated bus infrastructure and space for fixed lines routes is high, the regional transportation authority has upped its micro-transit presence for the same reason–making last mile connections to its dedicated train and bus service. If Seattle, one of the only cities in America that is seeing transit usage go up (by 4% last year) is continuing to invest in micro-transit as a public option, maybe we should take notice.

Some transportation planners are worried that in a world of finite budgets, micro-transit projects, which are typically not as efficient as fixed route because they serve less passengers per hour and create more vehicle miles traveled because their routes change from trip to trip, will result on transit dollars being wasted and taken away from the fixed route legacy bus lines we cherish so dearly.  I am less concerned. First, while raised VMTs (as compared to the VMTs of a fixed route bus)  is definitely a legitimate concern, we do have to consider that these are VMTs not being traveled in a singly occupied passenger vehicle–which is a win, or at least the beginning of a positive trend. 

Second, it is probably not reasonable to assume that transit agencies will continue to burn money on poorly performing micro transit projects if they don’t prove to help create new riders. And if, as my critical planner friends suggest, a high functioning micro-transit service that is efficient (takes lots of people at once) and is predictable (follows the same route regularly) basically starts to look like a fixed route bus--then it should just, at that point, become a fixed bus route.  The benefit of micro-transit in this case is that strong networks may emerge in a participatory fashion instead of being planned from the top down. Micro transit could in some ways be viewed as a great way to register/test people’s demand for a new fixed route service before going to the great expense to commit to one.  And in fact, transit agencies that started micro-transit pilots 2-3 years ago report just that–that data collection from these flexible routes was key in helping them understand where demand was for future fixed lines (As in Sacramento County)

It’s worth pointing out here that the conversation about micro-transits impact on fixed-line transit is probably begging the question, and probably not nearly as important as micro-transit’s potential impact on single-occupancy uber and lyft rides, and on those companies in general. 

The services lyft and uber are providing have a place, but they should be public, and they should work better.

Uber and Lyft are a staple of our modern urban transportation infrastructure, whether we like it or not (spoiler: I do not like it).  The appeal is very simple–the easy use of the app, the high and almost instant availability of cars, the ability to go from door to door at the press of a button for less than half of what a taxi would cost (without the wait)–this is the ineffable appeal of ride services, and even those of us that don’t like them on principle have to admit that. (That rideshares represent an app-ification of an African private taxi system utilized in places where there is no public transit is an irony not lost on me).  

As a wildly popular service, these Transportation Network Companys (TNCs) provide some benefit to our transportation system that we should acknowledge. But we should also acknowledge both the direct harm and the externalities rideshare has caused. And there’s a lot to be concerned about. Along with Amazon, TNCs are premier users of curbspace, monopolizing the area where on street parking, scooters, and bike lanes should be instead. Because TNCs require drivers to circle for hours looking for fares, they are stacking our streets with surplus vehicles, burning fuel and adding massively to a city’s VMT load ( a study commissioned by Uber itself revealed how much traffic rideshare apps actually add to the road–at max, they account for 14% of city VMTs!). These additional vehicle miles traveled add air pollution, and also wear down our roadways through use. 

As private companies, Uber and Lyft don’t pay for the infrastructure they use or the space they take up. Their shareholders do not pay to maintain our roads, or contribute in any equivalent fashion to the impacts they have; instead, they leech off of the resources cities put into their road network (through transportation user fees, capital projects, and incoming land development). As private companies, Uber and Lyft also take advantage of depressed labor prices and a gig economy–they don’t allow their drivers to unionize and overwork and overburden them while providing no benefits–no health insurance, no childcare, no car maintenance support, nada. 

Perhaps the biggest issue, and one that’s unseen right now, is how fragile these private networks are in terms of their long term ability to provide service–the party is not going to last.  If Uber and Lyft seem efficient now, that’s largely a function of the accessibility of the tech and the price point for rides. When Uber and Lyft inevitably go under because they can’t actually create a shareholder profit (they are currently still operating through massive infusions of capital from speculative tech investors such as Softbank) cities will have to take over their riders This is ironic given that Uber and Lyft are partially responsible for our current nation-wide decline in public transit use.  

Lawmakers and transportation policy folks, after seeing the writing on the wall and fighting many a pitched battle with these TNCs (over data collection, over safety, over use of autonomous vehicles, over driver registration, over fees, over over over…) have decided to take matters into their own hands. If they know the rideshare bubble will burst and they don’t want those users to simply return to the road in passenger vehicles, they will have to start capturing some share of those entity’s current ridership now, taking advantage of what is actually desirable about these services (the user experience portion a large part of that) and jettisoning the worst parts, while making that new system work better with existing transit. Enter, micro-transit, which, according to this transportation blogger, has the potential to replace these services, as well as 20% of single passenger vehicle trips–which would be huge. 

The takeover of private entities whose niche service has become indispensable to public life is not a new move, and you could even argue it’s the typical natural evolution of good tech.  Private water companies have become municipal public ones, with fixed rates and reliable service; it is only natural that app-based traffic demand management, whether through parking apps, bike rental apps, or car pickup apps, should become a part of the municipal toolkit. While the private sector is reasonably good at innovating new things (specifically in low-risk situations where failure won’t result in disaster) the public sector is ethically and morally obligated to spend more time thinking about how to make these innovations accessible to all, and to ensure that they actually work well without doing harm. (Now if only we could do it with internet providers). 

People of varying capacities need transportation choice in addition to reliable transportation. 

One of the most depressing things about a lot of the micro-transit articles I’ve been reading is that they often seem to be written by people who do not depend on transit, and therefore can view the addition of a transportation choice as something very minor, or something besides the point. The transportation planner’s gods’ eye view on the whole system can sound judgmental, critical, and unforgiving. Is micro-transit too car-dependent? Will micro-transit steal riders away from fixed lines? Who ARE these micro-transit riders? What makes them tick!? If you have to ask this, if this is a real question to you, I really feel like you are a person with a private vehicle, who already has ample choice and flexibility and has never experienced its absence.  

The thing about micro-transit is that it is already filling important gaps, and the quiet revolution of micro-transit has been what a game-changer it is for otherly-abled and disabled adults in the realm of paratransit. Here, the dividends have been real and notable. In Newton, MA, the city created a micro-transit program that caters specifically to senior citizens (the 60 and over crowd). In Atlanta, the The Exceptional Foundation, which helps support young adults who have developmental delays, became advocates for the region’s micro-mobility service, especially the voice-to-text option, which facilitated group trips, grocery store expeditions and work commuting. In Austin, micro-transit services were launched as an extension of paratransit from the get go; users were offered the option to use an older dial a ride service, but could also get the same benefits as part of this new service. Prior to micro-transit and car share apps, Para transportation services had dedicated dispatchers that struggled with an arcane scheduling system. While some folks still prefer Dial a Ride, they now have the option to be served publicly and efficiently.  They have a choice they didn’t have before.

It’s worth mentioning that campuses for adults with special needs as well as nursing homes have typically had their own forms of micro-transit for a long time (My fathers retirement gig was driving a van for an old folks home, allowing the slightly more able bodied to grocery shop, go to the park, and attend other scheduled trips). And in truth, most large institutions with transit dependent populations, even those that are typically able-bodied, also have their own services (I am now fondly remembering the UT shuttle, which was supposed to be for students only, but whose drivers never checked ID and, with a wink and a nod, provided robust service to the entire East Riverside community, regardless of student status). My point here is this–these networks of small carpool and shared transit users already existed, before Uber and Lyft. That they can be better integrated into the overall transit system is great, and that this also means that disabled people and non disabled people will ride together on the same service? EVEN BETTER. 

In short,  I love the focus on accessibility that these Micro-transit programs are taking. They are a good example of how services and improvements for disabled people (such as the use of ADA ramps and curb cuts in sidewalk design) benefit everyone universally. Cities that pioneer these services are saying to the elderly and otherly-abled: you deserve a dedicated mobility service at your fingertips that is affordable, accessible, and part of the overall transportation network.  

The World is ending, but you should still get excited about that minibus 

When I say I support Micro-transit, I’m not saying I support flexible routing services over fixed line, or that I support the end of trains, or that I support the app-ification of all paths of human need and desire. What’s exciting to me, when I look out the window into my previously under-served-by-transit neighborhood and see Fort Worth’s Trinity Metro run mobility service (which ultimately is simply a row of black minivan parked at the end of the street) is that I feel like I can see the city making an attempt to reach people where they are.

Special thanks to contributing scholar Jamie DeAngelo for the production of this work.

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