When thinking of public transit, people often think of traditional fixed-route services, such as buses, light rail, and subways that pick riders up at a fixed stop according to a predetermined schedule. But how do we provide service to people in less dense and less walkable communities—or to any location at less busy times of day—that cannot sustain productive fixed-route service?

Microtransit is a type of on-demand mobility service that can be dispatched directly by riders using a smartphone application, similar to Uber or Lyft. (Not to be confused with “micromobility,” which refers to modes such as bikeshare and electric scooters.) Is this a recent innovation or an old idea with a new twist? To learn more about microtransit, we talked to Foursquare ITP project managers Boris Palchik, Sandy Brennan, Alanna McKeeman, and Shana Johnson, who have analyzed microtransit suitability and planned microtransit service for a range of communities.

A technology-driven demand-response service

Traditional demand-response services, such as Dial-A-Ride and paratransit, involve a rider calling an operator and scheduling a ride, typically at least 24 or 48 hours in advance. Microtransit is a demand-response service with the addition of a mobile app that allows for real-time ride requests, optimizes the route, allows the rider to track the driver’s location, and enables payment. Microtransit uses the same technology and interface that have made rideshare companies, like Uber and Lyft, so successful. To be a truly equitable service, however, most microtransit ride requests can also be made by phone for those without access to a smartphone. Microtransit differs from rideshare in that it is shared use, more closely affiliated with a public transportation service, and often uses more specialized vehicles, such as vans or shuttle buses.

Microtransit can be deployed through two different models, based on what a transit agency or local jurisdiction already has on hand:

  • Turnkey: A jurisdiction or agency contracts with a third-party operator to provide all the elements of service, including vehicles, drivers, and technology.
  • Software as a Service: Agencies or jurisdictions purchase the software to use on existing vehicles in their fleet with their own employees as drivers. This is often used by agencies that already operate a demand-response service and only need to integrate the technology.

A versatile solution that can fill service gaps

Key factors for a successful fixed-route service include demand, density, connectivity of the roadway network, and pedestrian infrastructure such as sidewalks and crosswalks. When communities don’t have these attributes, they may not be able to sustain fixed-route service.

Microtransit can supplement fixed-route service by acting as a first/last mile solution, replacing fixed-route service generally or specifically in time frames with less demand such as late night or on weekends, or simply serve locations without the attributes required for productive fixed-route service. A first/last mile service takes people to or from transit stations to connect them with fixed-route services, making the existing public transit accessible to more members of the community. A microtransit service can also provide service during late night or on weekends to expand transit coverage at times when demand for service is lower. In communities with both microtransit and fixed-route service, the application can use geofencing to direct the rider to the most efficient route. For example, if a rider requests a microtransit ride on a major corridor, the app can instead give them directions to the nearest bus stop. In addition to supplementing fixed-route service, agencies can provide microtransit service in communities that have not previously had fixed-route service or areas where fixed-route service is not efficient. These areas are typically on the outskirts of a metropolitan area, suburban locations, or more rural locations with pockets of multifamily housing or more density.

Microtransit is not intended or designed to replace fixed-route service in areas where there is sufficient demand. Microtransit productivity ranges from four to five passengers per hour to potentially nine or ten in an environment where passengers can be easily grouped together, but the service will not achieve 50 or 100 passengers per hour that agencies can achieve on higher capacity services. Additionally, to a much greater degree than fixed-route service, the cost to the agency increases as more customers use the service. Running a pilot program is a great way to gauge demand to determine if microtransit is suitable, or, if an agency sees high demand for the service, if implementing fixed-route service makes more sense.

A flexible, data-driven service

City of Norwalk, CT microtransit smartphone app. Photo from The Hamlet Hub.

Because everything is processed through a smartphone application, microtransit is inherently data-rich. This not only allows the agency and operators to be flexible, but it also allows agencies and communities, even those without many resources, to monitor the success of the service. Riders set up a profile to use the application, which also allows agencies to easily charge different fares for different zones or prioritize a rider with a disability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the technology allowed agencies to contact trace in a way that proved more difficult with fixed-route services.

Due to the flexibility of microtransit, as well as unknowns related to level of demand, it can be advantageous to start service as a pilot. The technology enables agencies to provide more or less service depending on demand identified during the pilot. In communities that do not have any transit service, microtransit can be a useful planning tool to gauge demand.

Costs and fares

Pilots can also help an agency determine how much it will cost to deploy microtransit. The costs depend on the model, with the use of drivers who have more experience and earn higher wages being associated with a higher cost, as well as higher quality of service. Fare structure also depends on how an agency is offering microtransit. If it is offering a service that could potentially compete with fixed-route service, agencies should generally charge a higher fare to incentivize riders to take the service that is more efficient. However, if microtransit is replacing fixed-route service that served low-income riders, an agency would want to seriously consider keeping fares the same as the fixed-route system.

An equitable system, if deployed correctly

Equity is a huge factor in transportation planning, and public transit strives to have an equitable distribution of service throughout a given community or region. It is important when launching microtransit service, either as a pilot or a more permanent solution, to understand who in the community will benefit from microtransit. For example, when Uber and Lyft first launched, they almost exclusively operated in higher-income neighborhoods in higher-income cities. As new microtransit service models are deployed that are very technology-heavy, agencies must equally improve and allocate resources elsewhere, or equally allocate microtransit to communities that need it. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that agencies spend their money in a way that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requires transit agencies to analyze the Title VI impacts of their service but does not yet have guidelines on how to measure the equitable distribution of microtransit. The agency is currently looking at ways to update Title VI to understand how to include microtransit. In the meantime, at Foursquare ITP, we have developed a methodology to conduct a service equity analysis under various conditions when a microtransit service may be deployed.

In areas with fixed-route transit service, agencies supplement it with paratransit, a demand-response service for riders with disabilities. Many paratransit drivers go through specialized training for working with persons with disabilities. Microtransit operating with wheelchair-accessible vehicles may meet the requirements of many paratransit riders because it can be door-to-door or curb-to-curb and does not require riders to physically access a bus stop. If agencies are operating a Software as a Service model, they can install microtransit technology in their existing paratransit vehicles to integrate the accessible vehicles into their microtransit fleet. Agencies operating a turnkey service with wheelchair-accessible vehicles should consider providing specialized operator training. Agencies that offer a more traditional paratransit service that have begun offering microtransit have seen paratransit-eligible riders electing to use microtransit service because of the flexibility of spontaneous trip-making.

The use of a smartphone application rather than a telephone operator offers the potential for microtransit to be more equitably accessible than traditional demand-response services. The technology allows all users to navigate the app, even if the rider speaks a different language, cannot physically communicate or is visually impaired. Most microtransit services also offers a call-in option for people without smartphones. However, the digital divide provides a challenge for ensuring the service is equitable. Lower-income households and individuals who have smartphones may not have enough data per month to use the application frequently. Building partnerships with community organizations, such as a partnership to create a Wi-Fi network across a neighborhood, can make microtransit more accessible to everyone.

A piloted and implemented mode of transit

There are many jurisdictions currently piloting and implementing microtransit service. At Foursquare ITP, we have integrated microtransit service into our service planning work.

Muskegon, Michigan
A Go2 microtransit vehicle. Photo from MATS.

We conducted a Route Study and Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) for Muskegon Area Transit System (MATS). The transit system had not changed in many years, the service was no longer meeting the needs of many in the community, and the operating cost of the service was no longer sustainable. Our COA determined that fixed-route service should not be applied everywhere that it was, and microtransit would be a better fit in some areas. We kept fixed-route service in the core of the study area and recommended microtransit service for the outer areas. In September 2020, MATS launched the redesigned fixed-route transit network we designed. In June 2021, MATS launched Go2, an app-based microtransit system.

Baltimore, Maryland

We assisted the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) in developing the service concept and ridership estimates for a microtransit pilot, developed a microtransit suitability analysis for determining additional places of high microtransit suitability throughout their core bus service network, and developed an approach for addressing equity in microtransit. The new pilot service would replace part of an existing bus route in an area that has a high transit potential for late-night transit, serving the Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), the BWI business district, and the Maryland Live! casino. We determined potential ridership zones and hours of service based on current ridership trends. We also conducted an analysis to determine additional places of high suitability, which identified six zones for further analysis. In addition to the suitability analysis, we determined how microtransit fits into their Title VI program and developed an approach to integrating microtransit into MTA’s major service change polices. Launch of the service is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Washington, DC

Foursquare ITP is currently applying our methodology for defining neighborhoods suitable for microtransit for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in the Washington, DC region. We are leading the design of the pilot program, which involves screening and identifying potential microtransit zones, scoring and prioritizing areas in the region that are most suitable for microtransit, and ultimately selecting three zones to move forward with. For each zone, our team will develop a tailored service plan. We used equity measures in both the identification and prioritization of zones, including the socioeconomic characteristics of those living and traveling to the zone, and the digital divide and low-tech alternatives to ride requests.

Industry Research

In addition to our transit planning work, we have led research studies that compile best practices on the implementation of microtransit around the country. The National Center for Applied Transit Technology (N-CATT) Promising Practices Guide, published in October 2020, is a compilation of promising practices in transit technology among rural, small-urban, and tribal public transportation systems. In February 2021, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) published Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Report 221: Redesigning Transit Networks for the New Mobility Future, our report on how transit agencies have integrated new mobility, such as microtransit, into their transit networks in response to changes in travel demand and behavior, technology, and urban development. Through our research for both projects, we have seen that microtransit can be successful in many different environments.

While microtransit should not replace high-capacity fixed-route transit, we are excited about having one more tool in our toolbox that allows us to effectively expand service coverage and make transit more efficient for the agency and useful for the rider. We are looking forward to exploring how we can continue to use microtransit to help communities!

In addition to Muskegon, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, Foursquare ITP has helped or is helping to plan microtransit service in other communities across the country, including Jacksonville, FL; Little Rock, AR; Hampton Roads, VA; Atlanta, GA; Minnesota Valley, MN; Richmond, VA; Salt Lake City, UT; and Bloomington, IN. We have developed microtransit suitability and ridership estimation models that we continue to refine. For more information about how we can help with your microtransit planning needs, please contact Alanna McKeeman at amckeeman@foursquareitp.com.