Beyond the Bus: ‘Microtransit’ Helps Cities Expand Transportation Services - Governing

For several years, private companies have tried to fill the last-mile gap in public transit systems by offering on-demand, shared rides. Many of these "microtransit" services -- something between ride sharing and traditional transit -- have foundered.

Now, several public transit agencies have started to explore whether they could offer microtransit options themselves.

The clearest example comes from Los Angeles County, where LA Metro, one of the nation’s largest transportation agencies, announced in October that it would take bids from companies on how to deliver microtransit.

The microtransit vehicles won’t be like standard buses going down fixed routes. Instead, smaller vehicles will travel routes -- and destinations -- that change depending on road conditions and passenger requests. The trips would last about 20 minutes and be constrained to certain areas.

“We believe that Metro has an obligation to test new services to give more people more options other than driving and to better connect people to local bus and rail networks. Keep in mind, too, that advancements in technology -- enabled by smartphones and cell coverage -- have allowed new mobility services to emerge that meet customers’ needs in ways not previously possible,” the agency explained on their website.

Other localities are exploring similar options. Detroit wants to launch a service to help people studying for health-care careers to get to their training centers. It’s also looking to add late-night service to get people to and from its main bus routes. In suburban Pittsburgh, a small transit agency is hiring vans to transfer people from the end of bus routes from downtown to their retail workplaces. Las Vegas; Dayton, Ohio; and several California communities are also incorporating microtransit into their transit planning.

One reason microtransit is so attractive is that it allows cities to innovate quickly, says Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation. Detroit wants to experiment with different types of vehicles, different payment methods and different dispatching systems. Often, transit systems conduct one pilot program a year, but de la Vergne says that’s not fast enough. "We heard from the mayor that he wants to solve this problem quicker,” de la Vergne says. “So the quicker we can iterate, the better.”

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