Several recent articles — and in this space specifically — have been devoted to discussing strategies to combat the vexing challenge of declining bus and rail ridership. While many of those ideas are fairly conventional, even basically good business practices at their core, microtransit is indeed novel, and for reasons I describe below, could be a paradigm shift.
Demand-response is not new
Demand-response services are not new, of course. Jitney services, which route dynamically based on passengers’ needs, have been around for literally centuries, back to horse-and-coach days. Taxi scrip and minibus services that subsidize rides of beneficiaries of specialized social programs have been around for decades in such countries as the U.S., the UK, and France. Computerized dispatching systems for taxis, limos, and transit have become increasingly sophisticated, so that today’s services can be routed based on immediate need, rather than reservations.
Ride-hailing services integrate all of these concepts and technologies into something truly new, and the result has been a disruption of these legacy industries. Some public transportation agencies have partnered with these companies, particularly for first/last mile connections to rapid transit.
Microtransit, in a logical next step, takes pages from the ride-sharing playbook, but is publicly operated and/or tightly regulated, using vehicles owned by transit agencies and agency-employed drivers, compliant with federal transit regulations. Although like other transit modes, microtransit services could also be contracted out, but only if they are fully compliant with all transit regulations and guidelines. Microtransit, thus, is designed to be a new transit mode, and — potentially — better designed to carry both single and multiple passengers on dynamic routes. It could also be more easily integrated with other transit modes.
Is microtransit a game changer?
This is the traditional time of year that we in media all look back at the previous year in review and give the New Year’s trends and predictions that bear watching. Though I am not yet predicting that microtransit is the new hot thing that will change public transportation as we know it, the experiments now underway will go viral and become a game changer if the early adopters of the concept rack up successes in the next few years.