Pre-pandemic, public transit was being increasingly cannibalized by on-demand ride-hailing services, resulting in reduced transit ridership, higher traffic congestion and more pollution. But the pandemic overhauled the transportation system, including transit, and ride-hailing models did not thrive during the COVID-19 upheaval. The latest Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) perspective, Microtransit: A Good Idea Just Got Even Better, posits that public transit agencies can better adapt to post-pandemic transit needs with some of the flexibility previously offered by ride-hailing.
Perspective authors Joshua Schank and Emma Huang were the architects of two on-demand microtransit systems for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), including a pilot—in collaboration with Via—that offered shared, on-demand rides to and from three of LA Metro’s busiest stations and an on-demand microtransit rideshare. Other cities, including Seattle, have launched similar programs offering “public transit that comes to you.”
Microtransit is a demand-responsive shared transit method that utilizes small-scale vehicles like minibuses or shuttles, to deliver transportation to the public. Often, microtransit offers riders an on-demand option that is more flexible than appointment-like paratransit and designated fixed routes. This perspective argues that microtransit may be more useful than ever because:
- Microtransit is flexible: the pandemic has shifted traditional work and commuting patterns, and, because it does not adhere to fixed routes, microtransit has the advantage of being more flexible to workers’ schedules.
- Microtransit excels at improving customer experience for existing transit riders: by providing guaranteed wait times and more point-to-point service, as well as the opportunity to track the arriving vehicle in real time, microtransit can create a more welcoming and efficient experience for many riders.
- Microtransit can step into the void: as ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft revert back to higher-end services to adjust to inflation and business model adjustments, microtransit can fill the void left by these services and more traditional commuting by remaining flexible, affordable, and accessible.
“The pandemic has also brought into sharp focus the fact that Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) are not financially sustainable businesses,” explain the perspective’s authors. “While Uber and Lyft used to present themselves as the future of transportation, taking on everything from reinventing the bus to eliminating drivers, the pandemic has brought them back down to earth. Now it appears likely that the technology and improvements they have brought to transportation will live on in some form, but they are unlikely to continue to be affordable to the masses.”
The shift toward remote work triggered by COVID-19 has created new travel patterns that require greater flexibility—which microtransit is well-equipped to provide. In addition, the last few years have increasingly exposed substantial inequities in mobility, which microtransit can help to mitigate. In a time of significant upheaval and change, microtransit shows remarkable potential in fulfilling community transportation needs for safety, affordability, accessibility and flexibility.