This topic has been presented by Foursquare ITP staff several times, including:

  • Makeover Montgomery 3: Balancing Change in America’s Suburbs in May 2016,
  • American Planning Association Virginia Chapter in July 2016.
  • At Rail~Volution in October 2016, in the context of how flexible transit can help meet the needs of suburban areas.

Technology is changing the way we travel, and the coming decades are likely to be an era of rapid innovation and transformation in transportation. It makes our jobs as transportation planners both exciting and challenging. But sometimes it’s important to step back, look at where we’re going as a society, and where we’ve been, and consider the opportunities and potential pitfalls along the road ahead.

This is especially true for transit agencies as they grapple with the rise of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber, Lyft, and Bridj. What are these companies? Why do people seem to like their services so much? How are their services different from what transit agencies currently offer? Are they friend or foe? How will they change public transportation as we know it? Will they reduce demand for traditional public transportation, or will they usher in a new era of car-free living which only serves to bolster the use of transit?

Here at Foursquare ITP, we recently took a crack at answering some of these questions, in the hope of providing some perspective on the future of flexible bus transit. There is still a lot of uncertainty around these issues, and more research is definitely needed. But at a time when new partnerships between transit agencies and TNCs are announced seemingly every week, it is worth stepping back and thinking about what the future might hold and how we, as transportation planners and practitioners , can prepare for it.

We encourage you to check out the full white paper here, but for those of you short on time, we included some highlights below:

Flexible transit has been on the rise, and for good reason.

  • Transit agencies have employed flexible service models for decades in rural, small town, and exurban communities. These include demand response services and deviated fixed-route bus service that have alignments with designated stops, but will deviate off the route within a flex zone in order to pick up passengers who have reserved a ride in advance. However, increasingly we’re seeing flexible transit being implemented by transit agencies on the suburban fringe of major metropolitan areas. These agencies oftentimes operate large networks with multiple modes and high overall ridership. They are starting to realize that flexible service can help them more efficiently provide service to relatively low- density residential neighborhoods, connecting them to the region’s more robust fixed transit network.

Nothing new under the sun.

  • TNCs are not that different from what’s come before. Uber and Lyft are essentially taxis; Bridj is like the flexible bus routes operated by an increasing number of transit agencies across the county and not dissimilar from historic jitney services; UberPool and Lyft Line are simply dynamic carpooling services. Like everything else in transportation history, it’s the technology.
  • The key difference between TNCs and our current transportation options is the technology. It’s a small change, but a significant one. The technology makes our travel more convenient, more efficient, and sometimes cheaper. These are the very factors that riders consider when making travel decisions, so small changes have large impacts.

Seeing opportunity in partnerships and the changing transportation environment.

  • Partnering with TNCs allows transit agencies to have access to this technology that, for the time being, they are largely unable to develop on their own. This access can allow agencies to provide service to a greater number of riders at less cost.
  • There has been quite a bit of speculation as to whether TNCs compete with or complement transit agencies. We think the answer is far from clear, but this much is clear: the transformative power of TNCs is their ability to enable people to live a car-free or car-lite lifestyle. And whatever allows people to get around without owning a car is more friend than foe to transit agencies in the long term.
  • As our cities have grown and become more expensive in recent years, low-income households, the very people that rely on public transit the most, have been increasingly pushed into low density, suburban communities. These areas are difficult and expensive to provide with high quality, fixed transit. Figuring out how to make flexible transit work will be key in the years to come.

…But pitfalls abound.

  • As a society, we’ve made the choice that transportation is a public right which everyone deserves access to. Laws including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American with Disabilities Act are important safeguards to ensure that everyone has the access to transportation needed to reach affordable housing, jobs, health care, and other basic necessities.
  • As of now, transit agencies and TNCs are not operating on the same playing field. TNCs are not subject to the same level of regulation with which our publicly-funded transit agencies must comply. Perhaps this is appropriate, but public agencies embracing TNCs must do so in a way that honors the safeguards which ensure transportation access for low-income persons, the disabled, seniors, minorities, and limited English proficient populations.

Publicly funded and operated bus service isn’t going anywhere.

  • For all the media attention lavished on the emerging crop of TNCs, the public bus as we know it is not about to disappear any time soon. Why? Because transporting large amounts of people in high-capacity vehicles is, and always will be, the most efficient way to move people around, especially in dense urban corridors.

This blog post further explores Peter Hadley and Lora Byala’s presentation on “Flexible Transit in the Suburbs” at Makeover Montgomery 3. Amidst post-conference #FlexTransit buzz, Foursquare ITP published a white paper authored by Peter and Lora entitled, “Flexible Transit | Traditional and Emerging Models | Opportunities and Pitfalls for Transit Providers.”

Dallas Area Rapid Transit flex bus by Mbrstooge at English Wikipedia
Lyft vehicle in San Francisco by Sergio Ruiz at Flickr
Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority Flex by Richard Masoner at Flickr