Four steps for creating a successful on-demand microtransit service

June 6, 2023
On-demand transit carries the potential to support ridership on fixed-route systems, bridge mobility gaps and address first and last mile challenges.

Microtransit, or on-demand transit, has quickly transitioned from being an innovative mode to being common. There is clear evidence microtransit can provide a valuable option to those previously unserved or underserved by transit. For example, it can fill in mobility gaps in “transit deserts.” With the right design, microtransit can also support ridership on established fixed-route transit services and effectively address first/last mile challenges.

Although microtransit has proven valuable in many communities, it should not be employed as a one-size-fits-all mobility solution. There are four factors that can make or break its success:

  • Purpose
  • Location
  • Timing
  • Design

Defining the service purpose

Defining the service purpose is the most important step. When decision-makers learn about microtransit, some instantly see the benefits and decide they want it in their communities. However, before pursuing microtransit, agencies must carefully consider the following:

  • Who is it intended to serve? What are their needs and where do they need to go? What is their ability to use new technologies?
  • When applicable, how will the service relate to and support other transit and mobility services currently available?
  • Is it intended to offer a similar level of service to a fixed route, or is it a premium service?

All these elements should be defined before any zones on a map are drawn. The last question is especially important. If a community with many low-income households is served by a once-an-hour bus route, but a higher-income community is served by a microtransit service that offers 10-minute wait times, this could introduce an inequity that did not previously exist.

Identifying where microtransit makes the most sense

It is evident microtransit is a great fit in communities where there is a clear need for service among the population, but where the built environment is not suitable for fixed-route transit in terms of design and density (e.g., poor sidewalk access and quality, moderate-low density of people and jobs). Identifying these factors is a critical first step in planning where to operate the service.

A common challenge is identifying where to offer service in a way that is equitable and uses resources efficiently. In cases where several areas or neighborhoods are requesting new service, it becomes especially important to be transparent about the factors that inform these decisions. Some agencies, like CapMetro in Austin, Texas, have developed service design guidelines and standards that must be met for the service to be offered. In other cases, when willingness to fund the service varies between neighboring jurisdictions, agencies might design the service primarily to serve residents in the funding jurisdiction while allowing an out-of-zone destination(s) across the border to ensure critical access and connections can be achieved.

Microtransit is not a panacea. It doesn’t make sense in dense urban areas where it would compete with fixed routes or in very rural areas, where the cost to transport riders at the exact time of their choice is not financially sustainable.

Identifying when microtransit makes the most sense

Understanding when to implement microtransit is just as important as where to implement it. Microtransit can be a good option for late-night, lower-demand periods. At these times, it may be hard to justify providing fixed-route service, but second or third shift workers still need to get to and from work. For example, an on-demand pilot service in the Richmond, Va., area is available between existing bus stops from 5 to 6 a.m. and 11 2 a.m., when fixed-route service isn’t operating. This microtransit service meets riders’ needs while helping the transit agency to use resources efficiently.

Ensuring thoughtful service design

Successful microtransit requires thoughtful design. Microtransit is only successful when it addresses its purpose. If a service is intended to solve the first mile/last mile challenge, it may not be as necessary to design the zone to include key destinations like grocery stores and medical providers.

Technology and Mobility as a Service offerings are increasing the ability to ensure microtransit plays an effective and intentional role in the larger mobility network as well. For instance, microtransit apps can direct customers to other transit or mobility services if a requested trip can be taken by another available mode.

Right-sized zones are also key to success. Many agencies that serve large zones have found themselves overwhelmed by higher-than-anticipated demand and have struggled to meet it. In the planning process, it can be tempting to create large zones, as discussions with stakeholders may include requests to extend zone boundaries to include more destinations. For this reason, CapMetro’s guidelines recommend that urban zones be no larger than three square miles in size, and suburban zones be no larger than six square miles. Of course, there are challenging policy decisions involved in deciding whether to prioritize low wait times or coverage and access to a larger number of people and destinations.

Looking ahead

Now that microtransit has been established as a common transit mode, many agencies are looking at new capabilities and best practices in its technology and design. Many are also looking at whether and how to integrate their paratransit and microtransit services. In some regions, multiple demand response providers operate in overlapping geographies, indicating potential opportunities to realize efficiencies, although there are a variety of both technological and political reasons why this can be difficult. Recent research for the Transit Cooperative Research Program has uncovered a variety of innovative practices regarding continuous dynamic optimization and service delivery models that incorporate multiple providers to meet the demand for service.

At its core, microtransit has the potential to fill mobility gaps in a variety of contexts, but to be truly successful, planners and agencies must thoughtfully approach its design and implementation. Through its emerging successes and lessons learned, the state of microtransit is constantly evolving.


Alanna McKeeman, AICP, is vice president and senior project manager for Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, Inc.


About the Author

Alanna McKeeman | Vice President & Senior Project Manager, Foursquare ITP

Alanna McKeeman, AICP, is a planner with experience across a variety of topic areas in the transportation industry. Her primary focus is planning that creates more convenient and efficient transportation options for all residents in a community. At Foursquare ITP, Alanna serves as project manager for the Atlanta Region Transit-Link Authority (ATL) Annual Report and Audit, which provides a comprehensive picture of transit performance in the Atlanta region. She has also led development of financial plans and fare studies, including an evaluation of the ridership and cost impacts of different fare change scenarios to make transit more affordable for low-income residents in the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Alanna has led demand response service and financial planning tasks for eight transit service providers in Michigan and Minnesota, and has had leading roles in public and stakeholder engagement for: moveDC, the District of Columbia’s statewide long-range transportation plan; the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project; and the Maryland 355 Bus Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis. Prior to joining Foursquare ITP, Alanna served as a lead author on several national publications regarding performance-based transportation planning. Alanna is also a WTS-DC Board Member and chairs its Scholarship and Fundraising Committee.