Think of them as a cross between a city bus and an Uber. They are on-demand, app-based passenger shuttles, and they are beginning to pop up across the U.S. as cities work to expand mobility options.
These microtransit vehicles are often cheaper than hailing a personal car, and unlike other forms of mass transit, they aren't constrained by timetables and fixed routes. Passengers summon shuttles using an app. Some of the minibuses operate door to door; others pick up and drop off passengers at "virtual stops" near their desired location. They also operate on college campuses.
Among the companies powering these shuttle services are New York-based Via Transportation Inc. and Durham, N.C.,-based Transloc Inc., a subsidiary of Ford Smart Mobility.
Via announced on Monday that it had created the nation's largest on-demand microtransit system, expanding the SmaRT Ride service in Sacramento, Calif., to 42 vehicles. Via operates the service in partnership with the Sacramento Regional Transit District.
This month, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority announced that it had won a grant of nearly $460,000 to pilot an on-demand microtransit service through Via in Westborough, Mass. Via has also worked with transit authorities in Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin and Arlington, Texas, and in 2017 formed a joint venture with Daimler called ViaVan to operate on-demand ride-sharing services in Europe.
In many cases, transit agencies are using their micromobility shuttles to ferry passengers to and from public transportation hubs. In June, for instance, Tri Delta Transit in eastern Contra Costa County, near San Francisco, launched the Tri MyRide shuttle, which operates near two Bay Area Rapid Transit stations.
Similarly, in East St. Louis, Ill., the St. Clair County Transit District's SCCTD Flyer helps customers get to and from four MetroLink light-rail stations and 11 Metrobus routes. The Tri Delta and St. Clair County shuttles are among several across the country that run on Transloc's app.
Advocates see these types of services as a potential lifeline for mass transit agencies whose ridership numbers have declined as customers opt to call Uber or Lyft rather than stand at a bus stop.
Others say the solution isn't so simple.
"With its flexible routing, microtransit can seem like the solution to longstanding first-mile/last-mile challenges. But microtransit has inherent limitations," says a report by New York-based think tank TransitCenter.
It says providing door-to-door service is inefficient, making microtransit more generally expensive than fixed-route buses. It also says such projects draw away funds that could be better used to improve pedestrian access to bus stations and stops.
— Leslie J. Allen