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Micro-transit, so-called “Uber for buses,” provides human-driven shared, app-based, on-demand rides within cities using multi-passenger vehicles. These services have great promise for urban commuters and residents, and for public transit operators that are losing passengers due to the lack of a convenient way to get to and from stations. In addition to providing a convenient, lower cost ride to homes and offices, public operators can use micro-transit to reach new service areas at a fraction of the cost of infrastructure-intensive alternatives.


With micro-transit, travelers book a ride by entering their location and destination, and they are pooled with other travelers going in the same direction. The busses are guided to the most efficient route based on traffic. An alternative is a fixed route that circulates travelers to neighborhoods on a high frequency to minimize wait times. Three ways to deliver micro-transit services have emerged.



Private Options

Some micro-transit programs are served by private companies much like ridesharing services. The company operates its own fleet, provides the software infrastructure and user and driver apps to connect travelers with vehicles. The challenge here is that the service is operating independently of public transit and has a separate booking and payment system, is not always synched to public transit schedules, and can’t adjust to changes in schedules or demand. A few of these services have already tried and failed, going out of business. Failures have been attributed to higher costs for travelers, trying to compete with public transit, and not meeting safety requirements.



Public-Private Partnership

An alternative that is more likely to succeed is a public-private partnership, where a third-party micro-transit service operates a fleet in cooperation with public transit and may even be branded as such. The advantage for public transit operators is the ability to add new services with lower upfront costs, and to hand these services over to experts at all aspects of service planning, deployment, marketing, and management. The vehicles go where travelers need them rather than competing with existing lines, and the travelers can view, book, and pay for complete journeys with a single app.



Examples in the Works

In Los Angeles LA Metro, the third largest transit agency in the United States, made news recently by putting a micro-transit service feasibility study out to bid to compare companies offering two models of service — letting third-party TNC-like businesses deliver services or contracting with a private provider. “I think each of them brings some different qualities to the table,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for LA Metro, told Government Technology.

“Some of them have more experience, directly, providing this type of service. Some of them have more experience providing service in coordination with public transit agencies. Some of them have more experience in planning this type of service. Some of them have more experience in working directly on their own to provide this type of service.”



Autonomous Future

Today, micro-transit services use drivers, but autonomous shuttles could provide a similar service in the future. In Europe, some cities are already experimenting with autonomous shuttle services. PostBus, the largest bus company in Switzerland, ran a pilot program in the city of Sion that transported people in autonomous shuttles on fixed routes on city streets. The system was deployed in just a few months, and was so successful that it was expanded to connect with the city’s main train station. PostBus plans to roll out the service in more cities in the future.

The European Union has announced a plan to test autonomous shuttles in multiple cities to reach underserved areas. The €22M four-year project, called Autonomous Vehicles to Evolve to a New Urban Experience (AVENUE) will be led by the University of Geneva and features 16 partners including academic institutions, public transport operators, autonomous vehicle manufacturers, major technology R&D companies and specialized start-ups. The AVENUE program will start in Geneva and move on to Luxembourg, Lyon, and Copenhagen.



Backend Challenges

For micro-transit to deliver on its potential to improve public transit, it will need to be synchronized with existing public transit operations. Operators will need to be able to configure, view and manage services in coordination with existing bus and rail services. They will also need to integrate with back-office systems for ticketing, payment and accounting, and with mobile tools for passengers and drivers. Coordinating schedules requires integration with timetables. With autonomous vehicles, the service provider also needs to be able to communicate with onboard vehicle technology.



The Sum of Their Parts

The coordination and integration of micro-transit services with public transport has the potential to make both better — making public transit modes better able to reach new service areas and to get travelers from station-to-door and door-to-station with the app-based convenience consumers have come to expect. Micro-transit companies will be more successful as well, by complementing rather than competing with public transit.



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