By Lindy Norris, Vice President, Marketing & Policy, TRC
We used to accept waiting; it was simply part of life.
But, that’s before we knew life could be on-demand.
Sometime just before 2000, the sharing economy erupted. Since then, we’ve learned that meals, mobility, accommodation, vehicles, and virtually everything else can be accessed almost instantly.
Through the rapid advancement of the sharing economy and the explosion of on-demand services and e-commerce, we’ve learned we don’t have to wait. Naturally, this impatience now applies to how we move, and more specifically, public transit.
Fair or not: if transit isn’t fast, reliable, and convenient, many riders choose alternate options. But for some, options aren’t (affordable) options at all.
In that case, how do we bridge expectation and reality to deliver efficient, convenient, and flexible public transit for all?
The Federal Transit Administration (“FTA”) defines microtransit – often used interchangeably with “on-demand” and “micromobility” though each have their own definitive nuances – as “...multi-passenger transportation services that serve passengers using dynamically generated routes” with vehicles ranging “...from large SUVs to vans to shuttle buses providing a transit-like service but on a smaller, more flexible scale."
Why does it work? Because it’s cheaper to operate, more efficient and convenient for riders, kinder to the environment, and faster to build, scale, and deploy for public and private operators (compared to establishing fixed route transit with heavy-duty vehicles). Deloitte said it best when explaining that micromobility can better connect people with public transit, reduce reliance on private cars, and make the most of existing space by “right-sizing” the vehicle, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (or “GHGs”).
What’s even more encouraging? In McKinsey & Company’s most recent quarterly report on The Future of Mobility, 30% of respondents to its annual survey on autonomous driving, electrification, connectivity, and shared mobility (“ACES”) plan to increase their use of micromobility or shared mobility over the next decade.
Interest in shared mobility is reaching a fever pitch on both sides of the pond. I recently attended the American Public Transportation Association’s (“APTA”) annual Mobility Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What was remarkable was that both breakout sessions touching on the subject of microtransit were packed – as in standing room only. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t an indicator of market interest and momentum for microtransit unlike we’ve ever seen before.
It’s akin to the state of zero-emission bus (“ZEB”) adoption about five years ago. Nearly everyone was interested, but wasn’t sure how to deploy at scale. And so, we saw the market slowly tread toward adoption through pilots, feasibility studies, and smaller procurements as we collectively figured out what it would look like on a grander scale. Today, ZEB deployments are commonplace and are quickly approaching scale – an exciting progression from where we started.
In most areas, city growth and development is burgeoning, leaving transit agencies and urban planners to figure out how best to keep up without escalating fixed cost and infrastructure build. And in many cases, extending fixed route transit networks isn’t the most obvious, sustainable, or economically feasible answer… especially when ridership is “peaky” at best and agencies don’t have unlimited capital and operational funding.
By the data, our communities are begging for better ways to move:
Urbanization is particularly pronounced in North America, where 82% of the population lived in urban areas in 2018 – making it the most urbanized region in the world. And, population growth is proliferating globally, with more people drawn to cities and more cities approaching “mega city” status. In fact, the United Nations estimates that by 2050, approximately 2.5 billion more people will live in cities.
Fixed route-only transit networks (and costly permanent infrastructure) are not going to meet the needs of growing cities and suburban sprawl.
Now more than ever, we need more flexible and responsive transportation – not just for efficient movement of people in urban areas – but rural, too. Here’s why.
Transportation & Infrastructure Must Scale – Quickly
In 1960, approximately 70% of the United States (“U.S.”) population lived in an urban area. By 2020, that number rose to nearly 83%, and by 2050 it is projected to reach 89%. Globally, the United Nations projects that by 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centers.
Our cities are getting bigger, in turn requiring more creative, efficient, and sustainable city services and infrastructure to serve and move people.
“Add a lane, add a lane, add a lane” isn’t working effectively anymore. And, where there isn’t room to continually expand mega-interstate highways, adding more vehicles – transit or not – continues to increase the load of traffic congestion and GHGs. Neither are sustainable for many reasons, the most obvious being cost, available space, too-long timelines needed for planning and construction, and the less obvious including the fact that adding lanes still is not going to reach everyone that needs transit.
We need mobility options that:
1) reach everyone who needs it, meaning equity and accessibility are leading (and not lagging) factors in transit,
2) can be deployed in the immediate future (not 5-15 years from now), and
3) are within financial reach for operators, agencies, and riders.
This is where flexible transit comes in.
Doing The Right Thing Is Expensive
Since early 2023, North American transit leaders have stressed the looming “fiscal cliff”, with agencies scrambling for solutions.
Not an easy task – especially when agencies must continue to meet mandated climate goals and GHG reductions through zero-emission deployments.
For example, in 2022, global urbanization rates were 57% and many developed countries within that statistic shared ambitious goals to reach net zero or significantly reduced GHGs (ex. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom) – namely in public transit.
Consider then, that the price per zero-emission bus can be anywhere between $1 – 2.5 million USD (thanks inflation), depending on exact propulsion, length, and components specified by the end customer. That means doing the right thing comes with incremental cost, not only through vehicle price premiums, but also through additional supporting infrastructure and related costs.
What we’ve heard is that a great deal of creativity must be exercised in meeting the needs of communities (with accessible, affordable, and efficient transit) while contributing to sustainable, livable, connected communities.
The Skilled Labor Shortage Still Exists
Now consider that serving a new urban area, or perhaps an existing underserved area, doesn’t necessarily require multiple fixed route heavy-duty transit buses. Instead, could you meet the ridership needs with a few lower occupancy vehicles, like vans?
Next, consider that you could widen your hiring pool to entry-level drivers without Commercial Driver’s Licenses (or “CDLs”) to help operate these vehicles. Meaning: could the strains on your existing workforce and labor shortages become a little easier to manage?
Our Climate Cannot Wait
Human activity has undeniably furthered global warming, namely through increased GHGs.
Transportation is a major GHG contributor that needs to be mitigated and reversed, if any country has a hope of reaching its climate targets, and maintaining a livable environment for generations to come.
Flexible, responsive transit can be one (of many) solutions. Here’s why.
In 2022, The White House called mobility-on-demand as one of 37 net zero game changers, explaining that on-demand-transit can reduce costs, increase energy efficiency, and address a variety of other transit problems which limit equity and access.
In its “U.S. Innovation to meet 205 Climate Goals”, The White House stressed the efficiency of buses and shuttle buses in terms of energy consumed per passenger mile of service, and that improving access to public transit encourages mode switching from single passenger vehicles. It also asserts that advancements are needed in routing on-demand vehicles, and that highly efficient algorithms need to be implemented to improve the cost, utility, and efficiency of on-demand transit.
The United Nations says… “Shifting from cars to public transportation can reduce up to 2.2 tons of carbon emissions annually per individual. If you do need to travel by car, carpooling can result in up to 1.0 tons of carbon emissions reduced.”
Communities Need Equitable Access
45% of Americans have no access to public transit.
An article by The Atlantic from 2015 examined the impact lack of transit access has on quality of life, and underscored that lack of mobility makes it harder for those living in poverty to access jobs, quality groceries, and good schools. The article further cites a Harvard study that found geographic mobility was indeed linked to economic mobility.
Put differently, without access to public transit, it is nearly impossible for those experiencing poverty to improve their quality of life.
The U.S. Federal Transit Administration (“FTA”) is well aware and has been focusing efforts on improving accessibility and equity in transit for all people. Late in 2022, the FTA/DOT officially adopted the 2023-2026 Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM) Strategic Plan, which prioritizes expanding safe access to transit, providing affordable mobility options, and sets a framework for collaboration among CCAM grantees at all levels and across jurisdictions.
The CCAM mission includes collaborating “to improve transportation access for all people” and its core values include Equity, Accessibility, Access, Mobility, Affordability, Reliability, Safety.
At The Routing Company, we like to think we meaningfully contribute to and/or advance each of these values through what we do, namely, our focus on the enhancement and strengthening of existing transit networks… instead of competing with them.
So, what does this all mean?
Simply put: as the fiscal cliff looms, agencies must do more with less. Flexibility is the answer.
There’s a reason terms like “on-demand”, “demand-responsive”, “microtransit”, and “micromobility” have surged to the forefront of transportation vernacular in recent years.
It’s because shared, responsive mobility works.
It is more affordable to deploy and operate, it can more efficiently reach underserved areas (whether rural, low income, or other) thus increasing accessibility and improving equity, it is inclusive of riders spanning all mobility needs (so, can include paratransit commingling) and finally, it reduces emission output by increasing passenger occupancy per vehicle (while in some cases replacing single occupancy vehicle trips).
Our world shifted from waiting for convenience to demanding it. Convenience matters, and if we do not evolve transit to become more flexible and responsive, existing gaps in equity and accessibility will widen.
If travel time is the single strongest factor in a household’s odds of escaping poverty, we must explore all possible options to reduce it.
We need transit to attract and serve all riders, which means the convenience of demand-responsive mobility options must be present in every community – regardless of a rider’s location, abilities, income level, or demographics.