by James A. Bacon
The smartphone-engendered revolution in urban mobility may have a new name: microtransit. At one end of the transportation is our old friend, the automobile. At the other, we have trains and buses, collectively labeled mass transit. But there is an emerging in-between option, which Lisa Nisenson, writing in the Strong Towns blog, dubs micr0-transit.
Eric Jaffe, a senior associated editor at CityLab, picked up the term in an article last week headlined “How the microtransit movement is changing urban mobility.”
This, of course, is the same phenomenon that I’ve been blogging about on Bacon’s Rebellion for years. As soon as Uber demonstrated that (a) it was possible to connect riders with vehicles through smartphones and (b) algorithms could optimize the number and locations of vehicles in the fleet to accommodate consumer demand for Uber’s car rides, it was only a matter of time before competitors figured out how to do the same thing.
Following Uber’s lead, there have been literally dozens of start-up enterprises — Bridj, which has started service in the Washington region, is the one I featured recently on the blog — that provide flexible new transportation services. To quote Jaffe:
Commuter buses like Leap Transit or Chariot in San Francisco or Bridj in Boston (and now Washington). Dynamic vanpools like Via in New York. Carpool start-ups like Carma. True cab-share options like UberPool (now claiming millions of trips) or LyftLine (now with fixed-point pick-ups). Company and housing shuttles like the Google bus belong in the mix, too.
What you might not appreciate is just how crowded this microtransit space has become. The start-up platform Angel List’s “public transportation” page, currently with 177 projects, seems to grow daily. Its general “transportation” page lists more than 1,000 ventures, and some services like Uber that insist on being labeled “technology.” Plenty of local entrepreneurs don’t bother with the list at all (like a new Omaha bar shuttle). One company, TransLoc, is even building an entire flex-transit platform to help public agencies to join the fray.
Jaffe describes three ways in which microtransit might be a good thing for the world. These fleets of networked cars, vans, minibuses and other vehicles might lure people out of the single-occupancy vehicles. They might identify and serve new niches markets of under-served populations. And they might function as feeders to existing mass transit enterprises, bolstering passenger volume and revenue.
Alternatively, suggests Jaffe, microtransit might not be so good. It might compete with mass transit, “poaching” bus and rail riders in dense transit corridors, requiring more public funding to keep the mass-transit enterprises afloat. While microtransit undoubtedly would take automobiles off the road, microtransit vehicles would be running non-stop — conceivably generating more Vehicle Miles Traveled. Finally, microtransit might “drift into the sort of exclusivity that violates public transit’s equity mission.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Anyone interested in the future of transportation should read Jaffe’s piece. It provides a cogent summary of key issues surrounding microtransit. However, I beg to differ on a couple of key points.
First, an omission from Jaffe’s list: We may not know whether microtransit will result in more or fewer Vehicle Miles Driven, but the phenomenon almost certainly will require fewer cars to deliver the same amount of miles traveled. Fewer idle cars sitting in parking lots means less space — potentially thousands of acres less — for the storage of cars will be required. Anything that allows the nation to recycle parking lots into economically valuable property will stimulate urban economies across the country.
Second, I don’t worry about a move to “exclusivity.” The momentum is in exactly the opposite direction. Uber started out providing a luxury ride service, competing with limousines as much as taxicabs. The company has moved decisively toward the mass market. And if Uber doesn’t make the jump to less affluent riders, others will. In business revolutions like this, start-ups almost always target the most lucrative market slices first — they go for the biggest, fattest profits they can get while they can get it. As long as there are low barriers to entry, as in the case of microtransit, the upscale markets quickly get saturated and businesses migrate to under-served market segments.
My prediction: It is only a matter of years before microtransit begins providing vastly superior transportation services to the poor, as measured by cost of service and flexibility of routes, than they are getting from many municipal bus companies. Public mass transit will bleed customers and face an existential threat. Many will not survive. But the riding public will be better off.