Microtransit Costs too Much Per Passenger

So much hype over transportation disruption right now that sometimes it is hard to see the road with all the bikes and scooters laying around or even to understand if a disruption is viable and efficient. Microtransit, similar to ridesharing but supposedly cheaper, is one such disruption that use to be known as Dial-a-Ride. In its disrupted form, microtransit is a way to catch a shared ride in a van or a minibus via phone app and algorithm in your location and not at a regular stop such as how you would catch a city bus. Cities like it because it seemingly could be a more cost-effective way to provide service instead of rigid transit routes.

Experts and the media everywhere have proclaimed microtransit as the answer for cities losing transit riders. In theory that all sounds great but in reality, microtransit does not really work without subsidies and it appears even then to be quite expensive per passenger ride.

For example, an early experiment in Kansas City was a complete flop and even though the local transit agency spent $1.5 million to administer the service, drivers only made 1,480 trips with a subsidy of $1,000 per ride. The service was only offered as a one-way commuter-based service…only available during rush hour and generally in one direction. A core group used it but since the service offered no flexibility, it turned off potential users.

Another example of failure to launch. In California, the Santa Clara Transportation Authority or VTA (San Jose area) started its microtransit odyssey in 2015 and projected that it would have 15 boardings per hour. Reality: .04 per hour. Apparently the core ridership of the VTA microtransit service consisted of just 20 people. Unbelievable but true, the service did not reach a nearby light rail stop…how does that help anyone?

Same problem in the East Bay area of California. AC Transit contracted with DemandTrans to provide low-density suburban areas with a flex ride experience where riders could book trips on demand to be picked up at certain bus stops. The AC Transit even replaced some fixed bus routes with this service. Only averaged three passengers per hour which was less than half of the route it replaced.

AC Transit planner John Urgo said, “There’s no getting around the fact that on-demand transit carries fewer passengers per hour than even a low ridership fixed route. This makes it hard to justify as a replacement service, especially on a route-for-route basis.”

Same issue in Sacramento. The Sacramento Regional Transit Authority or SacRT use to have a service called Dial-a-Ride which served about two people per hour…the new microtransit service is about the same. In May, the Sacramento Transportation Authority awarded SacRT a $12 million grant to expand this inefficient and expensive microtransit service.

At least 24 cities are expected to push microtransit this year, but why?

Research from the Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC) found that transit disruption should not be the clarion call. Instead, cities should build upon and bolster public transit offerings by building on existing systems and not reinvent the wheel so to speak.

A January 2018 ENO Transportation Institute report titled UPRouted noted:

“On-demand, dynamic route technology options provide a new value proposition for public transportation customers, but it is critical to remember that this technology cannot solve all of public transportation’s challenges.”

Microtransit tests are even going on in California suburbia and rural areas to find out if this shared ridesharing experience is viable in this kind of geographic setting. If it does not work in urban cores, how could it possibly work in the boonies, which ideally is a place it should work since public transportation is spotty or non-existent?

As transit systems like subways, lite rail and buses grow antiquated, should cities try nimbler solutions such as microtransit?

There has been some talk of using microtransit for the first mile/last mile problem with public transportation. With the advent of Electric and Autonomous shuttles, and geofencing or making the service available only in a defined geographic location, microtransit might eventually be financially viable, especially if it is subsidized.

Fifteen miles southeast of Denver, Centennial (population 109,000) has 44,000 commuters leaving and 53,000 commuters entering the city every work day. One of its light rail stations, Dry Creek, had no fixed-route bus service and commuters could use the Dry Creek Call-n-Ride. In 2016, Centennial was the first city to do a first mile/last mile pilot project.

In 2015, the Call-n-Ride served a total of 14,336 riders with an average boarding of 3.9 passengers per service hour. Each ride was subsidized about $18.50 per one-way trip and served a three to four square mile service area. Beginning in August 2016, the city entered into a six-month Public Private Partnership with Lyft to equally fund (total $400,000) GO Centennial, a first mile/last mile microtransit project. The pilot aimed to do two things. First, connect riders directly to the light-rail network with regular, on-time service to count on and perhaps get excited about. Second, make the trip-planning tools simple, intuitive and use on demand. The city also wanted to increase first mile/line mile ridership by 50 percent.

At the conclusion of the project, ridership at the Dry Creek light rail station increased 11.6 percent but the amount of passengers utilizing the Lyft microtransit was only 4.6 percent with total costs (user fees and subsidies) per ride at $21.14. Of course, this pilot received a great deal of interest from other communities and media coverage of the pilot itself, but not so much about the results.

Another city is now trying. The Central Florida city of Altamonte Springs (population 42,000) has partnered with Uber after the Florida Transit Authority did not fund the city’s Flex Bus project. The city created a geo-fenced area of about 9.4 square miles and app users can receive subsidized rides just by entering a promo code. Utilizing UberPool ridesharing service, the City Manager Frank Martz says the costs are lower than the Flex Bus he had wanted to implement. He adds, “The coin of the realm is the rider. Transit will only be successful if it’s convenient.”

Microtransit also has to be something that all the cool kids are doing especially when you have at your fingertips an Uber, a Lyft or even your very own car.

Just because something is disrupted does not mean it is sustainable.

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