The Story of “Micro Transit” Is Consistent, Dismal Failure

The Chariot vans running around Brooklyn streets are mostly empty. Photo:  Ford
The Chariot vans running around Brooklyn streets are mostly empty. Photo: Ford

To hear the start-up world tell it, “micro transit” is the next big urban transportation breakthrough. But out in the real world, the results haven’t lived up to the hype.

“Micro transit” refers to services that function like UberPool or LyftLine but with large vans or minibuses instead of sedans and SUVs, using mobile apps and algorithms to match passengers making similar trips in a single vehicle. The pitch to public agencies is that micro transit can be a more cost-effective way to provide service in some travel markets than fixed-route buses.

Years after micro transit started grabbing attention — CityLab reported on the crowded start-up scene back in 2015 — we’re still waiting for the first significant success story. Despite a string of failures, a growing number of transit agencies are contracting with firms like Via and Transloc to give micro transit a try, and the press coverage remains credulous, almost fawning.

Four agencies in California recently embarked on micro transit pilots. Transloc, now a subsidiary of Ford, called 2017 a “banner year” and projected a 600 percent increase in “live pilots” in 2018. Nationwide, at least 24 transit agencies are expected to initiate micro transit contracts this year, according to the Washington Post, which said micro transit “might be an answer” for transit agencies losing riders.

Micro transit may have a place in city transportation systems, but experience so far suggests that it’s a very small niche, like an app-enabled version of dial-a-ride service. The PR for micro transit is outrunning empirical experience. It is clearly not the large-scale substitute for bus service that much media coverage makes it out to be.

An early experiment with the now-bankrupt Bridj in Kansas City was a complete flop. Riders made only 1,480 trips during the course of the one-year pilot, even though each passenger got their first 10 rides for free. Only a third of riders kept using the service after the free rides expired. The local transit agency, KCATA, spent $1.5 million to administer the service, for a jaw-dropping subsidy of more than $1,000 per ride.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, serving San Jose and its suburbs, began a micro transit experiment in 2015. Again, the results were woeful. The Eno Center on Transportation reports that it generated only 0.4 boardings per hour that a vehicle was in service, a tiny fraction of the 15-boardings-per-hour threshold that VTA requires to keep running bus routes. The core ridership of the micro transit service consisted of just 20 people, according to EnoTrans.

Maybe what happened in Kansas City and Santa Clara was a learning experience and not indicative of broader limitations with micro transit. The start-ups in the industry are certainly banking on transit agencies seeing it that way. They are aggressively pursuing contracts for pilots, especially with agencies near Silicon Valley.

Recently, AC Transit, serving the East Bay, contracted with DemandTrans to provide low-density suburban areas with “flex rides” that allow people to book trips on demand from pick-up locations at certain bus stops. The micro transit service replaced some fixed route service, using DemandTrans software to match people and vehicles. So how’d it perform? Not too well.

The flex rides served just three passengers per hour, reported AC Transit planner John Urgo in a post for TransitCenter, “less than half of the fixed route it replaced”:

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.

Greg Rogers, formerly a policy analyst at EnoTrans, recently put out a call on Twitter for any examples of successful micro transit experiments, saying that “so far microtransit pilots have experienced mixed results — and in some cases, absolute failures.” Nobody who responded could point to an unmitigated success.

But Transloc replied that it had improved “riders per hour” for the Sacramento Regional Transit. Sacramento and Transloc have been loudly touting the “success” of this micro transit pilot.

Transloc CEO Doug Kaufman told Mobility Lab, “SacRT’s success in deploying innovative, on-demand microtransit is a proof-point for the huge potential impact of microtransit across the nation, particularly for riders.” But the numbers don’t bear that out.

Sacramento Regional Transit had been operating an on-demand service where riders called in advance and were picked up at their home in the low-density suburb of Citrus Heights. These types of point-to-point services are inherently less efficient than fixed-route transit and should be that much easier for micro transit firms to outperform.

Prior to TransLoc’s involvement, Sacramento’s “Dial-a-Ride” served around two people per hour, according to SacRT’s Forward Network Plan [PDF]. The report, released in April, notes that “early results of SacRT’s ‘microtransit’ pilot” — the one with Transloc — “suggest that it will not exceed 3 boardings per hour.” About the same.

In other words, as of April, there was no evidence that TransLoc was significantly outperforming the dial-a-ride service it replaced. (Streetsblog requested up-to-date numbers from SacRT and did not receive a response.) Nevertheless, in May the Sacramento Transportation Authority awarded SacRT a $12 million grant to expand the service.

Diverting resources to micro transit that could be devoted to fixed-route bus service may accelerate the downward trend in transit ridership in American cities, a scenario that TransitCenter and transit analyst Jarrett Walker have been warning about.

As Walker writes, “micro transit” does little besides package dial-a-ride-type services in an app. The interface may be convenient, but it can’t overcome the geometric efficiency of fixed-route service. To pretend otherwise will make transit service less equitable.

“On average, microtransit seems to trigger an upward redistribution of the benefits of public subsidy,” Walker writes. “This is a Very Bad Thing for the public sector.”

Correction: This post originally stated that Sacramento’s traditional dial-a-ride service received six boardings per hour. The correct figure is 2.25 riders per hour. (Six is the upper limit on dial-a-ride services in general.) The post has been amended to reflect the correct ridership rate. 

79 thoughts on The Story of “Micro Transit” Is Consistent, Dismal Failure

  1. I believe you’re familiar with Brooklyn, where black cars and dollar vans have operated for years without apps. How have they persisted?

  2. I don’t think many people are familiar with the Micro Transit options in the available locations. Human beings are creatures of habit and quite often do not want to try something different or new. Many folks would rather continue to rely on the transit systems that they complain about on a frequent basis for one reason or another. Micro Transit is still relatively new and the companies do offer lower ride fares for passengers in comparison to some other local travel commute options. We all have opinions. This blog seems to be her opinion and that’s fine. One’s honest opinion should be based on a personal perspective and more than just one experience in order to support a narrative or a bias agenda in general.

  3. @disqus_dlP91vGbzC:disqus is probably going on New York City numbers. A more realistic assessment for a big city transit operation is probably in the high $20 to $30/hr range, going by onet. That’s if you accept subway/streetcar operators as analogous in pay to bus drivers in those cities.

    (“Rail operator” seems to be regarded as a more prestigious job, so they get paid a bit more. Though bus driver is probably a harder and more dangerous job.)

    More generally, it’s less than that, but onet seems to conflate urban transit bus drivers of all types with private bus operators, which may be skewing the numbers downward.

  4. Simplifying what others said, most of the cost of running a bus is labor, so the savings from shrinking the vehicle is modest. If ridership is high, aggressively enlarging the vehicle size (either going with articulated buses or rail) is desirable.

  5. Ah another vapourware solution … “autonomous vehicles” – & a passing amention of something which does work, but only because … it’s a CONVENTIONAL bus route, with known loadings ( “Employee shuttles from SF to Silicon Valley.” )
    Keep on selling the Snake Oil

  6. Not quite
    It’s “easy” – for certain values of easy, to designa rail-borne automated transit, driverless service – London’s DLR is a case in point.
    Retrofitting an existing service can be done (Paris) BUT it’s amazingly complicated, long-winded & expensive.
    IIRC, the French have decided not to do any more.

  7. All hail the fascist future, where workers have no rights.
    Oh, wait, you’re in the USA, aren’t you, so you’re already there ….

  8. I believe you have ahd this exact problem ( refusal to spend money) in both erm … NJ & NY if I’ve got the state acronyms corect?

  9. My car was built in 1996, I bouth it in 2003, If I’m allowed to keep it (emission regs) I expect it to last me at least until 2036 (when I’m 90 )
    Stop talking fascist auto-utopia

  10. MUCH too parocial an answer
    Ther are lots of places, with lots of people that are not the USSA

    So “freedom from congestion is cobblers – isn’t it?

  12. Yes, thought so, you really are a fascist.
    Bet you are against single-payer healthcare, too ….

  13. What’s the contradiction? Most buses did not run fix route service with stops every 150 yards. The normal bus route was ran 4 or 5 stops in a neighborhood, then direct to a destination. It was more like American freeway flier routes, except they would pick up in actual population centers rather than desolate park-n-rides & would use boulevards since they didn’t have extensive urban highways. Most routes were quick – 20 minutes or less. After the nationalization, it became the normal soul crushing 7 mile/1.5 hour slogs.

  14. Err, no
    I was thinking of here, where, in built-up areas, most bus routes are about 5 – 10 miles long with stops (not compulsory ) every 20-300 yards.

  15. Most of the current designs in the US is based directly or indirectly on legacy streetcar networks. The design would be successful if it was 1918 and we were running streetcars. I.e. quick acceleration, relatively fast boarding, no weaving in & out of traffic, and, for that matter, not much for other traffic. Before traffic, we could run these routes to the second, with all types of timed transfers, even cross platform – literally step off on trolley and directly on to the next. (aside, scheduling all those most have been the glory days for algebra geeks…) But since we’re running buses today and have loads of traffic, the fact that every market driven system – from megabus, to South American bus systems, to tavern shuttles in my own Milwaukee – are all running limited stop/direct service, is pretty good evidence that’s the optimized model for buses.

    If I was designing a bus network today, my foundation would be 8 bus routes running direct service between the centers of the 16 largest neighborhoods via one stop at Cathedral Square (heart of the city’s downtown). I would try to time the routes so they “pulse” (i.e. all buses arrive at the same time), then everyone could walk across the square to catch their next bus. Riders would either stay on the bus, have an immediate cross- square transfer, or would have to wait for the next pulse, which would come every 5-7.5 minutes.

  16. Which tiny “city” are you addressing – with only 8 bus routes?
    Milwaukee of which I have zero knowledge I may add?
    Or somewhere else.

    And no, actually – if there’s enough traffic for limited-stop services then these should be light rail of some form or suburban rail.
    With buses filling in the gaps, & linking other nodes.

    For examples of cities with a suitable mix, look at the 3 biggies in Europe, which all have this mix: Berlin, London, Paris (alphabetical order I may add … )

  17. I’m actually for single-payer health care as it will reduce the amount spent on health care overall while also improving outcomes.

    What I meant by catering to the least common denominator is allowing people to do things they’re not really capable of doing even when it negatively affects everyone. Mass motoring is a perfect example of this. Upwards of 75% of the population is incapable of safely driving a motor vehicle, regardless of the level of training, because they lack the intelligence, reflexes, spatial ability, or proper attitude. Non-existent licensing standards mean even many of the remaining 25% who might otherwise be able to drive can’t because they failed to receive proper training. The end result of this is upwards of one million pointless deaths worldwide, plus who knows how many injuries. Now all this might be OK if only the least capable individuals who contribute to society the least were killed in traffic incidents. It would be a form of Darwinism. Unfortunately, traffic incidents don’t discriminate. Hence my push to get control of motor vehicles out of human hands sooner rather than later.

    Obviously there are other areas where catering to the least common denominator has negative effects. For example, people having children who lack the means to support them. This will eventually dilute the gene pool. However, we get into all sorts of issues if we were to try to regulate who has children and who doesn’t. However, there are lots of other facets of society where we can and should uphold standards of some sort if you want to partake in something. The lowering of standards we’ve seen over the last 50 years has given rise to incompetence in all facets of life.

  18. Yep, Milwaukee. It’s a relatively dense city – a little denser than Portland & Denver, a little less than Seattle. Compared to the rest of the US, there’s a very thin venear of traditional post-WW2 suburbia. Basically, it’s 15-20 minutes from city hall to deep in the farms. There’s no traffic so dedicated infrastructure isn’t really necessary. Buses can run on time with timed transfers through areas of high population & job density. So basically, it’s nothing like transit in any coastal city.

    Right now, we have 20 trunk routes that run on a grid at ~15 minute intervals. There’s 30 other routes that are low frequency or peak only service. In my radically redesigned network, I’d have the 8 routes that all meet at downtown, that would create 16 radials out of downtown. There would be 4 high frequency circumferential legs, each running for a 4 stop vector of radials – it doesn’t need to be more than that, because one would just transfer at the pulse location downtown. So basically there would be 12 higher frequency routes, instead of the 20, but to get even more frequency, I turning them much faster than the slow 1 hour slogs, so there would be every 5-7.5 minute frequency using the same transit resources. The other 30 routes would mostly be made into neighborhood circulators. They would do a short 15 minute neighborhood loop with two intersections on the high frequency radials.

  19. At approx. half-a-million population ( I just looked it up ) you should have LOTS more bus routes than that ….
    Some express & some stage carriage & then replace the express ones with trams along the busiest axes …..

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