Small vehicle-based microtransit has traditionally been a last-resort form of mobility. In the U.S., publicly-managed “dial-a-ride” van systems serve handicapped people who are physically unable to use fixed-route transit, as well as some able-bodied exurban and rural populations who lack access to other transportation options. Worldwide, private operators provide loosely-regulated service in places where public entities do not fund adequate bus and rail networks.
While countless people without alternatives depend on microtransit every day, fixed-route public transportation is considered preferable for a reason. People using dial-a-ride systems typically pay higher fares than fixed-route riders, but have to book rides hours to days in advance and can face trips of unpredictable length. Meanwhile, private microtransit operators around the world are known to neglect rider safety and align their routes in a manner that puts their financial interests ahead of the public’s mobility needs.
In spite of these issues, the advent of smartphone apps that allow people to hail rides with the press of a button has led to increased interest in microtransit in the U.S. But thus far, app-based shared transportation options have struggled to live up to the hype.
Uber and Lyft’s shared-ride offerings – the most ubiquitous of these options – have resulted in worse traffic congestion, blocked bike lanes, and reduced revenue for public transit agencies. App-based microtransit systems using larger vans, including both publicly-managed pilot services and privately-funded ventures, have also arisen, but their per-hour ridership typically falls well short of even the lowest-performing fixed bus routes. Two major private operators – Bridj and Chariot – already have gone belly-up.
Despite these initial setbacks, however, many planners and entrepreneurs still see substantial potential in technology-based microtransit. Their goal: to implement it in a way that fills present-day service gaps and gives people more ways of getting around while also enhancing fixed-route transit.
Montgomery County, Md. hopes to demonstrate how microtransit can succeed. The county recently launched Ride On Flex, an app-based, demand-response van service managed by the county’s Department of Transportation (MCDOT) that operates using dispatch algorithms and other technology provided by ride-hailing company Via. Flex is one of three publicly-funded microtransit services recently launched on the East Coast that Via is involved in (one of the other two such pilot programs serves parts of nearby Washington, DC), and just one of numerous recent and ongoing projects intended to make Montgomery County an easier place to get around.
Ride On and Via officials have stated that Flex is intended to complement existing fixed-route bus service, emphasizing a people-first, spatially-efficient focus. However, Via has also expressed hope that the county will eventually cut some coverage-oriented fixed bus routes, freeing up funding that could be used to expand the company’s van service. Though Ride On officials have said this won’t happen until they ensure current fixed-route riders can easily access Flex, it’s clear that the county is still figuring out how to best tailor microtransit to residents’ needs.
Flex serves only a small area, but is playing a part in both local and regional trips
As a resident of Rockville, Md., where one of Flex’s pilot zones is located, I used the service on its first day of operation. Although I experienced some initial confusion about where to wait (as Flex is a corner-to-corner service, most riders are picked up and dropped off a block or two from their origins and destinations), the van expeditiously arrived and took me to a restaurant about a mile from my home.
I had few destinations to choose from, however, as Flex’s coverage and hours of operation are currently limited. The vans serve a 1.8 square mile zone around Rockville’s Metrorail station during the middle of the day, as well as a 5.6 square mile zone around the Glenmont and Wheaton stations, situated farther to the east, during commute hours.
Within Flex’s two initial zones, Ride On and Via expect people to use the vans for a variety of trips, including stand-alone local errands and outings like mine, as well as access to fixed-route transit hubs from which riders can continue on to destinations throughout the region.
“We want to reclaim our cities from tyranny of the single passenger vehicle,” said Via Chief Strategy Officer Zack Wasserman. “ pollute, they’re dangerous, they congest our streets, they make the built environment less livable.”
MCDOT officials plan to look at how the two zones’ service hours and extent affect travel patterns and system performance, and may make changes based on what they find. For example, if Flex’s Rockville zone is expanded, my wife and I would likely use the service more regularly, for trips to destinations such as a nearby community college and her favorite yoga studio. Though we sometimes walk or bike to these locations, such an expansion would substantially reduce our Lyft usage.
“We will continue to monitor both customer usage and feedback,” MCDOT director Al Roshdieh said. “We are open to making adjustments in the zone boundaries as needed to make the service more attractive to residents.”
However, due to fixed routes’ greater capacity and efficiency, Ride On does not expect Flex to provide long, one-seat trips across the county, even after any future expansion.
Can technology-based transportation accommodate everyone?
Existing app-based transportation systems often neglect society’s most vulnerable. While providers of traditional public transit are required to accommodate people with a physical disability, no bank account, or no smartphone, most ride-hailing vehicles remain inaccessible to those users. In addition, despite substantial subsidies from both private and public sources, it’s typically much more expensive for people to hail an app-based ride – shared or solo – than to ride fixed-route transit.
In launching Flex, Ride On and Via hope to address these issues. People can ride the vans for a flat $2 fare, payable using either cash or the DC region’s stored-value SmarTrip card, and can transfer for free to and from fixed bus routes – including WMATA Metrobus routes – for two hours after they first board. While all passengers must currently use a smartphone app to request rides, Ride On is considering adding a call center as part of potential future Flex expansion.
Flex’s wheelchair-accessible vans also may benefit county residents who currently use Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit.
WMATA’s MetroAccess, the existing regional paratransit system serving Montgomery County, requires an average per-trip subsidy of $70 to provide. Due to a driver shortage, traffic congestion, and other challenges, those subsidies haven’t translated into high-quality service, as people trying to get to and from work, medical appointments, and other vital life needs face the prospect of circuitous, hours-long journeys. Furthermore, though MetroAccess optimizes routing using a computer algorithm as app-based shared ride-hailing services do, riders are required to book their trips a day in advance, reducing flexibility.
Because Flex allows riders to book on-demand trips, the system has the potential to provide handicapped people more freedom. While all passengers ride in the same vans, Flex’s algorithm ensures wheelchair users are routed door-to-door, rather than just to a nearby corner as able-bodied riders are. Any future call center would fully serve disabled riders, MCDOT’s Roshdieh added.
Microtransit’s financial picture remains murky
Analyses by Jarrett Walker and other industry leaders show that van services like Flex often require greater per-rider operating subsidies than larger fixed-route buses do. For example, when Oakland, Ca.-area AC Transit replaced a relatively lightly used fixed route with microtransit, transit ridership on the corridor the route served fell 20 percent overall, and from seven to three passenger boardings per vehicle service hour. Some other microtransit programs have proven even less productive, with less than one boarding per service hour.
While Ride On officials have stated that Flex’s primary purpose is to supplement fixed-route service, rather than replace it as AC Transit’s program did, Via’s Wasserman has expressed interest in doing the latter.
“Retiring underperforming fixed route buses… free up resources that can be invested in expanding microtransit service,” he said, though he also mentioned the possibility that any cost savings stemming from such cuts could be used to increase fixed-route service on higher-demand corridors.
When asked about his thoughts on the concerns Walker and others have raised, Wasserman cited a Seattle-area pilot microtransit program his company provides that is outperforming initial ridership targets. The program, designed to provide first- and last-mile connectivity to major transit hubs in King County, has achieved a load factor of 70 percent, higher than the county fixed-route bus system’s 57 percent load factor. However, while hundreds of thousands of people ride fixed-route transit in King County every weekday, Via’s microtransit service there carries just 800 daily riders, making the two transportation modes difficult to compare.
MCDOT also is open to the possibility of eventually replacing some of Ride On’s fixed-route bus service with microtransit. Roshdieh cited the capital costs of large buses, which are six to ten times as expensive to purchase as Flex vans and also more costly to maintain, as a reason such service changes could save the agency money on low-demand routes.
Roshdieh assured that his agency will analyze impacts to current riders prior to making any service changes.
“We’re not going to eliminate a route without making sure those who are dependent on that route are taken care of,” he said.
Many questions, but perhaps a bright future
App-based microtransit has plenty of backing, from both politicians and the business community, but thus far there are no real success stories for the mode’s boosters to cite. In Montgomery County, any ridership increases resulting from expansion of Flex would generate revenue and political support that could catalyze further system-wide improvements, but a ridership decline akin to that AC Transit’s microtransit service experienced would risk triggering the opposite effect.
Given this uncertainty, Flex’s performance over the coming months will substantially influence further development of microtransit in the county.
“There are more . . . questions than I have answers,” Roshdieh said. “I hope that within six months we will have enough data . . . that we can say, what’s the best way to operate in the future.”
However, if Flex serves as an effective complement to fixed-route transit in the county, reducing vehicle miles traveled and making the air cleaner, it could serve as the microtransit model the industry has long sought.