Uber isn’t here to kill mass transit but it could make mass transit better
In the smartphone age, we expect to be able to summon anything we need — from a ride to a sandwich — with the touch of a button. While this may be daunting for transit agencies trying to keep up with consumer demand, integrating new ride sharing (or microtransit) technology into mass transit systems can improve service, save money, and bridge the gap to increased transit use.
Here’s how ride-sharing services like Uber have the potential to improve the mass transit experience – not replace it.
Microtransit can meet the growing demand for accessible transit and fill gaps in service
The demand for accessible transit has increased 150% over the past five years and is projected to continue growing at 8% per year. It’s estimated that by 2030 one in five U.S. citizens will be 65 and older.
These trends are placing new demands on transit agencies to address outdated paratransit and demand-management models, many of which are inefficient.
Some agencies, such as Innisfil Transit in Ontario, Canada, are experimenting with integrating private microtransit into their service options by using rideshares as contractors. Integrating private rideshare services provides flexibility, increases efficiency, and can do so at a relatively low cost.
This type of integration doesn’t just have the potential to provide better accessible transit, but it can solve the first and last mile conundrum all agencies face. By getting better at helping people connect to the system, transit becomes more viable for more people, builds ridership, and opens the door for future transit expansion.
Technology is a cost-effective solution that needs to be part of the decision-making process
The right technology can positively impact transit services, as well as the ways in which riders use transit services.
However, many transit agencies are under the impression that incorporating new technology into their existing operations will be either cumbersome or cost-prohibitive. That doesn’t have to be the case. The key is to select the appropriate solution scale to match the needs of the agency.
On-Demand and Dynamic Scheduling Software Packages have the power to better integrate microtransit into existing services. A growing number of platforms include Via, TransLoc, RouteMatch, and Spare, as well as customizable solutions from firms like Softbit Tech.
Trip Planner applications such as Google Maps or the Transit App can help transit users get where they want to go. While many transit agencies currently employ some variation of this system, they typically do not account for the all-important first-and-last mile. By making it easier for riders to understand how they can incorporate public transit into their travel plans, agencies can expand their role into that of a mobility manager, helping more people get from A to B using a variety of modes (transit, active transportation, car-share, ride-share, bike-share, etc.)
Using Research to Advance Microtransit
Historically, there’s been a disconnect between university research and the policies and practices introduced by transit agencies. The research might be promising, but the links haven’t always been made to practical implementation.
Several studies in the works are trying to change that. By getting the transit industry involved from the beginning of a grant or research project, universities are trying to make their findings more useful, applicable, and potentially adopted by more agencies.
Carnegie Mellon University, for example, is partnering with the University at Buffalo to advance transportation access for people with disabilities by studying gaps in transit service and first-and-last-mile challenges. The research includes interviews with agencies and riders and will examine the potential for shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs). The researchers hope to ascertain the benefits and challenges of the technology, in anticipation of transit agencies adopting SAVs in the future. By creating and evaluating real designs, the research will facilitate knowledge transfer from research to commercialization through committed partnerships with SAV manufacturers.
This kind of empirical knowledge will be invaluable to transit agencies trying to assess microtransit options, how they work, and how to integrate them into the wider transit system.
Sasha Pejcic is the Transit Advisory Lead with Stantec, a global engineering design firm that designs with community in mind.