The Most Successful “Micro Transit” Pilots Are Performing Like Decent Dial-a-Ride Services

Micro transit is like dial-a-ride service but with an app. Photo: AEMoreira042281/Wikimedia Commons
Micro transit is like dial-a-ride service but with an app. Photo: AEMoreira042281/Wikimedia Commons

Last week Streetsblog ran a story cutting through the hype over “micro transit,” and we got some pushback from a couple of transit agencies experimenting with micro transit services. The two agencies provided data from their micro transit pilots, and it’s worth sharing — not because the stats upend the contention that micro transit is inherently limited, but because they reinforce it.

The thrust of the piece was that micro transit — app-based services that pool van trips on the fly — is a sleeker version of tried-and-true dial-a-ride transit, not an innovation that’s going to disrupt fixed-route bus service, as it’s often portrayed by micro transit start-ups.

In response, Sacramento Regional Transit and CAP Metro in Austin contacted us and said the story unfairly maligned micro transit. They sent in some data about the performance of their micro transit pilots, claiming success. But the numbers tell the same story as Streetsblog’s post last week: Micro transit may improve dial-a-ride service, but it’s not up to the task of replacing your local bus route.

Streetsblog originally reported that Sacramento Regional Transit’s micro transit pilot was serving fewer than three passengers per service hour as of April. The dial-a-ride program it replaced served 2.25. So as of the spring, there was not much discernible improvement.

Nevertheless, in April SacRT General Manager Henry Li bragged to Metro Magazine about “doubling ridership” in the first month. (The service did double ridership — from 30 trips per day to 68 — but it also doubled the number of vehicles, from two to four [PDF].) Even though the productivity of the service was similar to the in-house service it replaced, Metro wrote that its “resounding success” was the reason it was awarded $12 million from the Sacramento Transportation Authority to expand micro transit.

Since then, SacRT’s micro transit has performed better, averaging 3.24 rides per service hour during May and June. If sustained over a whole year, that’s a 45 percent increase in efficiency over the in-house service, but still well within the typical range for dial-a-ride transit, which maxes out at around six trips per hour. (By comparison, even the least productive bus routes get 10 or 15 trips per service hour.)

Meanwhile, in Austin, Cap Metro reports that its micro transit pilot averaged 3.04 riders per service hour over a full year, topping out at 3.65 in the best month.

The pilot served 20,000 trips over the year, or fewer than 55 per day. Like Sacramento’s, it’s a niche service that fills a need in low-density suburban areas.

The Cap Metro spent $500,000 on its micro transit pilot, which used vans the agency already owned. There was no fare, so the entire $28 cost per trip was subsidized. All funding came from the agency’s “demand response budget” dedicated to this type of low-ridership service.

It’s fair to say that these micro transit pilots — the best I could identify — were successful as substitutes for dial-a-ride transit. But they do not offer much support for the idea that micro transit is a game-changing innovation.

  • Als

    Somebody please check my math. 12 million dollars from Sac. transit. Give anyone a $15 voucher to use a taxi or Uber / Lyft to the nearest bus route. That’s 800,000 rides. No overhead, no benefits, no fleet or pension expenses.

    What am I missing here?

  • downtown_jon

    It sounds like the issue isn’t so much with micro transit as it is with the irrational hyping of micro transit. If it performs only slightly better than dial-a-ride, that’s probably because it is essentially the same operating model. Along similar lines, it took me a long time to understand why Uber and Lyft were embraced so much more strongly than traditional taxis, when all they really are are taxis with a different hailing system. But they make more information available to the user, like arrival time – information we all know transit users crave.

    In any event, the micro transit over-hype shouldn’t be used to make micro transit sound worse than it actually is. I’m not sure that touting the success of doubling ridership is as disingenuous as this article makes it sound just because it was achieved by doubling the number of vehicles, especially if the cost per rider went down, or if the ride was quicker or more convenient or more reliable.

    Unless we, or until we, re-orient our priorities and start giving public transit its funding due, so many suburban transit systems will continue to struggle with how to manage extremely expensive low-density fixed-route service. It’s no wonder that people in these areas are clamoring for a ‘high-tech’ silver bullet solution.

  • Ken Cova

    “ it took me a long time to understand why Uber and Lyft were embraced so much more strongly than traditional taxis, when all they really are are taxis with a different hailing system. But they make more information available to the user, like arrival time – information we all know transit users crave.”

    Although the info itself is very helpful, it’s the expediency of the arrival of the car that really sets Uber and Lyft apart. That’s what can make it as convenient as using your own car.

  • Robert e

    cost per ride? – will we do in P.T. and then not afford what is left

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