In the United States, public transportation agencies are experimenting with on-demand, shared, and dynamic models to augment traditional fixed-route bus and train services. These services—referred to as microtransit— are enabled by technology similar to the mobile smartphone applications pioneered by privately operated transportation network companies. As interest in this technology grows, it is critical for public transportation agencies and departments of transportation to understand the benefits and challenges of incorporating components of these innovations into publicly funded services.

The experiences of several public transportation providers reveal important lessons to be applied to the future public operation of flexible route, on-demand microtransit.

First, agencies seeking to test microtransit or dynamic, on-demand options need to prioritize customers’ needs ahead of the novelty of new technology and think critically about how to design, develop, and implement a pilot that puts the customer first.

Second, agencies should utilize a contracting mechanism that empowers those most familiar with the pilot to make quick decisions outside of the standard processes, in order to be able to fail fast and iterate quickly.

Third, the success or failure of the application should be determined based on performance metrics that go beyond ridership changes and farebox recovery, such as improved mobility, increased safety, and enhanced customer experience.

Fourth, agencies should establish their goals up-front and work with potential technology vendors to design a microtransit project within those parameters.

Finally, agencies should invest in robust marketing and outreach in order to ensure that all current and potential customers understand how to use the service.

There is an opportunity for traditional public transit agencies to leverage the potential of flexible route, on-demand microtransit. However, it is critical to keep in mind that technology cannot solve all of public transportation’s challenges. Regardless of the technology available, the customer should remain in the forefront when considering service adjustments and new service models. Agencies should be intentional and deliberate in identifying the problem they are looking to solve or the question they seek to answer when testing microtransit.

Defining Microtransit 

The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) defines microtransit as “a privately owned and operated shared transportation system that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as flexible routes and on-demand scheduling. The vehicles generally include vans and buses.”

Microtransit can be operated on a fixed or flexible route, and by a preset schedule or on-demand schedule. There are several potential configurations as illustrated below. This paper focuses exclusively on flexible route/on demand schedule microtransit, the bottom right quadrant.

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Microtransit: How cities are, and aren’t, adapting transit technology