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MicroTransit: Is this the Future of Public Transportation?
From covering the Dijon Mustard crises in France to the supply chain in China to coffee in Ethiopia, many of my newsletter posts may give you the impression that I’m only interested in global issues, but I’m just a small-town boy, livin’ in a global world.
“SEPTA wants to eliminate some local bus routes that run infrequently, for faster service on major lines… SEPTA also wants to do away with bus routes in ten suburban communities and replace them with a whole new mode of public transit. Microtransit would be mobile, on-demand services that riders can request by phone call or a new SEPTA app — which is still in the works.”
You may be shocked to learn that:
“The plan has received pushback in places that are losing some local routes, like Philadelphia’s Manayunk area, and in Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County.”
Side note: I live in Lower Merion Township.
I’d like to focus on the notion of MicroTransit, mentioned in the article above. Is it the future of public transportation?
But before we answer that, what does MicroTransit even mean? According to the American Public Transportation Association:
“Transit agencies are implementing microtransit solutions that improve the rider’s experience by operating small-scale, on-demand public transit services that that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as flexible routes and on-demand scheduling.”
This isn’t new (I’ll soon mention my history with it), but it’s somewhat interesting that just this week, Israel decided to shut down two services that offer MicroTransit solutions:
“The Ministry of Transport is planning on canceling the Bubble shuttle service in Tel Aviv provided by Dan and Via, as well as Egged’s TikTak bubble service in Jerusalem. The services are set to be discontinued at the end of the year… The reason for the termination of the shuttles is the low number of people using the service, which is heavily subsidized.”
One of the firms mentioned in the article above, that operate many of these microtransit solutions in Israel, and around the world (e.g., NJ, Alabama, Switzerland) either as the software solution powering these or by providing the actual buses/cars, is Via.
(Full disclosure: I collaborate with Via as part of my gig economy research).
The decision to shut down these services in Israel is somewhat surprising since the original idea of Via came from Israel’s “Sherut” taxi.
A Sherut is essentially a mini-van taxi run by a licensed taxi operator. It can mimic a regular bus line, but it can also offer its own routes where there is no bus line:
“Sheruts will stop anywhere along their route so if you are not starting from a bus station, flag it down with your hand. The driver will stop if he has space, and if not, will normally indicate this by waving his hand.”
They look like this:
My personal experience is absolutely great. When I was a graduate student at the Technion, I already lived in Tel Aviv (Givataim, to be precise, for my Israeli readers), and took the train to Haifa multiple times a week. The station where the train stopped in Haifa was new, with limited transportation to the Technion.
Soon after the beginning of the academic year, these Sherut taxis started waiting for the train’s arrival, and once filled, drove straight to the Technion —extremely efficient! There was no planning at the city level (or any level for that matter), but was an emergent order —like the invisible hand. The price was very reasonable (essentially the price of a bus ride), and it worked really well, until Israel’s main bus company finally caught on and scheduled a bus on the same route.
Via is trying to immitate a Sherut, but through technology. Rather than have the taxi driver (or operator) figure out where people need to go, passengers use an app to signal where they are and where they’re headed. Note that it’s not necessary to share the exact same origin or same destination, as long as there’s a real-time route between locations where multiple people join and multiple people are dropped off, the service should work.
The original Sherut worked well, and Via was supposed to be an improvement of that, so why did it fail? To answer that, we first need to understand the main tradeoff these systems face.
What’s the Tradeoff?
Most public transportation netwroks are based on the notion of batching, which has many negative implications:
Say, a bus runs every 15 minutes. If you miss it, you have to wait for the next one. Of course, you can arrange your day around the bus schedule, but you still have to make an effort to make it work, and since there’s clearly some uncertainty on the time it takes to travel between two points due to traffic and a different number of people joining at every stop, you may end up being late for your meeting or work. So you need a buffer, which adds more time.
Further, you most likely don’t live on a bus route, so you have to get to the station, which takes time and is not always convenient. Stations are static and don’t change location as the population changes.
So essentially, the bus system batches people based on their geography and their time preferences.
In case you’re wondering, I’m a huge fan of trains, but not so much of buses. I can’t read or work on a bus without feeling nauseated (TMI), and trains have the advantage of using their own network. Busses, unfortunately, get stuck in traffic (unless there are special lanes) along with everyone else.
So what’s the main advantage of batching? Economies of scale. Prices can be low, since the same cost is spread among many people, and lowering the price also allows the public transit system to offer the service to a population that can’t afford a car, Uber, or taxi, as well as a population that can’t drive (i.e., youngsters, the elderly, or people that suffer from a disability that prevents them from driving or obtaining a license).
In the case of micro-transit, it’s basically an on-demand service. You still have to wait, but usually much less when compared to a bus. The routes are dynamic, based on where there’s demand. Admittedly, it’s not as convenient as a point-to-point single person solution (such as an UberX or taxi), but it’s fairly similar and usually cheaper.
When I describe Via to my students, I usually say that it’s like an Uber, but one that won’t pick you up from exactly where you are or drop you off exactly where you want to go…it’s basically an Israeli Uber (those familiar with Israel will get the joke).
Via still uses some type of batching (or pooling), so you may have to walk a few blocks to the pickup point or a couple of blocks from the drop-off point, but it’s faster and more convenient than a bus, and at a reasonable price range.
From a municipality point of view: there’s no need for planning a bus route and reoptimizing it. The service will reoptimize itself. There will be more “minivans” when needed, and fewer when not. Both timing and location will arise as an “emergent order.”
Inc Magazine listed Via as one of 17 Ventures That Embody the U.N.'s 17 Sustainability Goals:
“Via is global, too-doling out 115 million rides to date through partnerships in more than 600 cities throughout the world, including Sydney, Zurich, and Dubai, along with Seattle, Sacramento, Jersey City, and Austin. In each of those communities, it's changing people's way of life… Case in point: Before Via's 2019 launch in Birmingham, Alabama, only 10 percent of the city's jobs were accessible by public transportation, according to Via co-founder and CEO Daniel Ramot. Now that number is 90 percent.”
So what’s the main disadvantage? It’s really on demand. If the demand of people that are willing to pay is not there, there’s no solution for those who can’t afford it. So if the bus system is good enough or the on-demand, single-person options are not too expensive, micro-transit services don’t have a marketshare. Also, if there is a correlation between low income and low mobility (older population, people with disabilities), then it won’t work.
Furthermore, these solutions can increase congestion during rush hour when compared to bigger but less frequent buses.
Why did it Fail in Israel?
According to a local article:
“The reason for the termination of the shuttles is the low number of people using the service, which is heavily subsidized. The ministry spent around NIS 18 million (approximately $5.3 million) a year on the service in Tel Aviv and a further NIS 18 million on the services in Jerusalem and Haifa.”
“Ridership on LA Metro’s much-heralded microtransit partnership with VIA has been dismal, maxing out at 1,675 rides per week. LA Metro is spending $14.50 per VIA trip, which is twice what it spends on the average bus trip. Ridership on microtransit in Sacramento peaked at a measly six trips per revenue hour compared to the 10-15 trips per hour the transit industry considers to be a “low-performing” bus route.”
Even with subsidies, the overall demand was low.
Cities that have good public transportation (Tel Aviv) or a population accustomed to not using public transportation (LA) will not see this as an improvement. People don’t like change, and most of our lives are arranged around the solutions we already have. But if there’s no current public transit solution (as was the case in Alabama), a micro-transit service is definitely an improvement.
But this shows us that while we sometimes think technology can offer solutions for various problems, human behavior is much harder to predict or change.
I think that if we were to design public transportation from scratch, big buses with fixed routes and schedules aren’t the right solution when they’re the sole solution. On the other hand, running an entire city on taxis and private cars is not a viable solution, and taking an existing system and changing it to a more flexible one is also extremely difficult.
But as usual, maybe the solution is not “either/or”:
“In areas with irregular street networks, hilly topography, and other traits that make fixed-route service difficult to operate, microtransit may make sense as a means to provide coverage service. In Seattle, King County Metro has contracted with Via to extend some coverage to areas with scant bus service.”
So maybe we need a system of multiple options: cost-efficient transportation (buses and trains), flexible transportation (micro transit), and hyper-flexible, expensive, single-person transportation (taxis and Ubers). But just like with supply chains, the tendency is the hope that one solution can do everything. But long-time readers of this newsletter know … no optimal solutions, just tradeoffs.
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